The tragedy in Uttarakhand is one of the worst, if not the worst, natural disaster seen in devbhoomi, the ‘land of the gods’. Estimates of the lives lost in the landslides and flooding number in the tens of thousands. Thousands remain missing and it is clear that many bodies will perhaps never be found. The cause is well-known-the greed of builders in collusion with a handful of corrupt politicians resulted in unchecked proliferation of hotels and buildings in environmentally fragile zones. In India’s disaster management framework, the Indian Metrological Department (IMD) is the nodal agency for gathering information from the concerned agencies and issuing disaster–related early warnings. Though the IMD had warned the Uttarakhand government of the likely heavy rainfall in the region 48 hours in advance, the state did not heed it. This was a tragedy waiting to happen.
Shocking as the tragedy was, even more shocking was the role of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), the apex body constituted by the government of India to deal with all kinds of disasters, whether natural or man-made. Headed by the prime minister, NDMA was created under the Disaster Management Act of 2005 to draft policies and guidelines on disaster management, approve and coordinate the implementation of plans for disaster preparedness and management at the Central, state and ministerial levels. It has utterly failed in its task at all levels which should send alarm bells ringing, but nothing of the sort has happened. It has only 10 battalions, that is, around 10,000 personnel, who are sent to sites of natural or man-made calamities. However, in the case of flood-hit Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, the NDMA was more busy trying to save HP Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, and ignoring the general public. It was the Army and not the NDMA that was primarily carrying out rescue operations in Uttarakhand.
In a report released in March this year, the CAG had raised serious questions about the functioning of the NDMA. The report stated, “The performance of NDMA in terms of project implementation had been abysmal. So far, no major project taken by NDMA had seen completion. It was noticed that NDMA selected projects without proper ground work and as a result either the projects were abandoned midway or were incomplete after a considerable period”. According to the CAG, the fact that the NDMA does not meet has affected its disaster preparedness at all levels. The agency’s executive committee has not met since May 2008. The CAG report also states that even after six years of the Disaster Management Act being passed, the NDMA has not worked out a proper ‘national plan’ for disaster management. The report bemoaned the fact that there was no transparency in ensuring that funds sanctioned to states as a ‘disaster response fund’ reached their intended target. As much as Rs.33,580 crore had been sanctioned by the Centre for various states between 2010-11 and 2014-15 but the states failed to give an account of the way the funds were utilized to the Union home ministry. ASSOCHAM was also highly critical of the way the NDMA handled (read mishandled) the Uttarakhand disaster. It said comprehensive guidelines by NDMA issued in June 2008 are gathering dust with most of the state governments failing to implement the same. The irony is that since the formation of NDMA, at least 40 major natural disasters, including floods and landslides, have struck states like Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Uttarakhand, killing thousands of people.
Headquartered in the posh Safdarjung Enclave area of New Delhi, NDMA includes an elite board of nine members enjoying the perks and status of a Minister of State, with a vice-chairman at the helm, who holds the rank of a cabinet minister. Most of the members are retired bureaucrats and police officers. Apart from their fat salaries, the members get a set of perks, including bungalows in Lutyens’ Delhi, chauffeur-driven vehicles, domestic staff, allowances for electricity, etc. Its budget allocation for 2013- 14 was pegged at Rs 835 crore, and this has steadily increased over the previous years.
Despite enjoying top billing, NDMA’s performance has been abysmal. This can be gauged from the fact that projects like earthquakes, flood and landslide risk mitigation are in cold storage despite being approved in 2007. Due to improper planning, either the projects are abandoned midway or are lying incomplete. In its defense, Shri Shashidhar Reddy, NDMA vice-chairman, says they have been conducting mock drills on various disaster situations and giving recommendations to states. He claimed that many of their recommendations are not being taken seriously and states are not acting on them. For instance an important NDMA guideline related to forecasting and warning systems of flash floods using Doppler radars by IMD. It seems these radars were not installed by September 2009, as was mandated in the guidelines. Shri Reddy is the son of the Andhra Congress leader Marri Channa Reddy and it seems he has been awarded this plum posting just to keep the Andhra leaders happy. He is entitled to a personal staff of six officials, including one OSD. He was made the vice chairman in December 2010. Reddy does not have any experience in handling crises related to natural disasters. His primary claim to fame is that he was a contender for the post of Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister when Kiran Reddy was selected for the job. He was made a member of the NDMA when the Home Ministry was headed by Shivraj Patil.
Belatedly, NDMA has now asked the IMD and the Central Water Commission to evolve an advanced weather monitoring and alarm system to monitor excessive rain that could lead to flooding. “We are looking into an advanced weather analysing system that would help us get precise forecasts, with details of place, time and intensity (of rain). Instead of forecasting, we will need nowcasting or a real-time monitoring system which gives specific information from a particular location,” Shri Reddy said.
It is time the NDMA, India’s apex disaster management body, began displaying sincerity toward the tasks assigned to it, or the likes of the Uttarakhand tragedy will likely become a leitmotif in its anarchic functioning for the times to come.
What NDMA is supposed to do:
p Lay down policies on disaster management
p Follow guidelines set by the government of India on mitigating the effects of natural disasters
p Recommend provision of funds for the purpose of mitigation
p Formulate guidelines, for the functioning of the National Institute of Disaster Management
What NDMA did not do:
p It failed to draft policies and guidelines to deal with disasters
p It did not implement the projects it undertook
p It chose to overlook the fact that disaster management funds did not reach its intended targets
p It abandoned or left incomplete projects related to earthquates and landslide risk mitigation