Disaster management: then and now
THE RECENT tsunami which hit parts of India was a disaster which no one who wrote the manuals of disaster management would ever have dreamt of. In its character, range, magnitude of the damage inflicted, compactness of time in which such damage was wrought, the insidious manner in which it struck, and the number of human lives lost, it bears no comparison with any disaster that the country has seen in living memory. It is also unique in the challenges it has thrown up in the area of relief management.
Major fires, road accidents, floods, cyclones, and droughts are the types of disasters that have confronted field officers. Each of them carries its own tale of human suffering and trauma, but these challenges have been met with success and courage.
The basic ingredients of relief and rehabilitation have not changed over time. Provision of cash for sustenance, immediate treatment of the injured, disposal of the dead including assistance for funeral expenses, rebuilding of homes and livelihoods have all remained priorities for the administration.
A fact that has remained constant is that all disaster management programmes have to be implemented at the district level under the guidance, coordination, leadership and responsibility of the district administration, for the simple reason that for long years, the district has been a unit of administration that common people recognise, understand and look up to, particularly in times of distress.
Role of Collector
The British, through their association with rural India and as part of their strategy to provide a human face to their colonial administration, evolved the concept of `ma-baap' under which the District Collector became the fountainhead of all authority within his territory and consequently emerged as the `great protector and provider.'
One needs to look into past practices and present initiatives, taken in a constantly evolving technological, political and social milieu, to understand the extent of change that has taken place.
Till about the mid 70s, most districts were of large dimensions in which one could travel nearly 100 km in any direction and still be within jurisdiction. Communication within the district was generally through manually operated trunk telephones, and beyond, through the wireless network of the police, which was being put in place in a phased manner. Availability of vehicles was confined only to the senior levels.
On the political side, the Congress party was the dominant force and regional parties were emerging slowly. Respect for district administration and its credibility were very strong. Political interference was minimal and selective. Instruments of civil society, NGOs and activism had not acquired the muscle that they now have. Above all corruption at the political and administrative levels was the exception.
In such an environment, management of disasters, of course not of tsunami proportions, provision of relief and rehabilitation were carried out promptly, effectively and in a non-discriminatory manner under the direction and supervision of the Collector. Funds were mostly provided by the government on the basis of norms specified in codes or manuals and additional resources raised from local contributions in kind. Officials were given space to think clearly and initiative to act with determination to provide speedy relief despite physical constraints. And recipient groups had faith in the objectivity of the district administration.
Today, the size of most districts has shrunk drastically. District officials have immensely better infrastructure now, in terms of mobile phones, email, STD facilities, fleet of vehicles, better medical aid, etc. Alongside, there has been a perceptible increase in levels of public awareness, political interference, NGO activity, activism and media penetration. The decline of the Congress paved the way for the presence of strong regional political parties, leading to fractured mandates and horse trading to retain power.
Disaster management and provision of relief is an area that political parties perceive as being useful for deriving political mileage. The temptation is all the more today because flow of funds from donors is of mind-boggling proportions. It is no surprise therefore that political hacks, supported by their bosses, interfere at the local level to determine the manner in which aid should be disbursed.
A consequence of this is mud-slinging between parties, often accusing the district administration of favouritism or non-performance, thus deflecting staff from their main duties. A noticeable trend is the demand that funds be delivered in cash, for obvious reasons, rather than the request for completion of the rehabilitation package by bona fide agencies. With the multiplicity of political parties and no single party having a decisive mandate, the pressures on the district administration are awesome, and can only get worse unless leadership at the top reins in the lower formations to allow the district administration to function objectively.
A disturbing phenomenon these days is the increasing number of non-official bodies/agencies entering the field of rehabilitation, each one seeking to carve out space for itself. Their bona fides should be verified, credibility established and numbers limited to ensure effective monitoring, implementation, and that the affected are not taken for a ride.
No amount of improvement in infrastructure or gadgetry can alleviate the trauma if extraneous considerations are allowed to enter the disbursal of relief and implementation of the rehabilitation package. The approach of the district administration should be inclusive, taking on board all bona fide players. It is the duty of higher leadership to ensure this. A district administration that is a pawn in the hands of local political forces will only add to the misery of people, already traumatised.
The clear stream of reason should not lose its way in the dreary desert sand of politics.
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