An hour before tsunami struck the coast of Thailand on 26 December 2004, the Moken tribe, commonly known as sea-gypsies by the western tourists, rushed from the shore inland, warning people to vacate the shoreline because a tsunami was about to strike. The local enforcement authority, realizing the traditional ability of the tribe to read the sea accurately, swung into action and vacated over 11 kilometres of the coastline thereby saving over 50,000 lives on a modest estimate.

The incident prompted UNESCO to launch one of the most popular programmes of sustainability by appending’disaster education and reduction’ to sustainable development. The thrust was to tap and catalogue the role of traditional communities the world over in disaster prediction, reading and management. In the last decade, UNESCO’s intersectoral forum on disaster management, prompted by the Hyogo Framework for Action, 2006, have taken multipronged approaches to formalize disaster education in sync with environmental education the world over, targeting children in schools andyoung adults.

One of the specific aims was to educate the general population about the nature and context of natural disasters so as to mitigate loss of lives and property through warning and foreknowledge. While most countries have recognized the need to include disaster information and management in the curriculum for children as an appendage to environmental education, it is still a long way away before disaster management can be truly classed as an academic discipline in our country.

In the Indian context, the guiding policy document’Disaster Management in India’ crafted by the Ministry of Home Affairs, stressed the urgency of capacity building in human resource development as early as 2011, with specific reference to the school education sector. However, the recommendation to’focus on the training of teachers and faculties in disaster management, including through the Sarva Siksha Abhiyaan (SSA)’ has not yet succeeded largely due to paucity of trained manpower and also due to the lack of effort of individual state education boards and universities to include a compulsory element of disaster management in the curriculum.

The Central Board of Secondary Education had taken the initiative of including disaster management topics as frontline curriculum in the subject of social science with effect from 2003-2004 in class VIII and extended it to class IX and X in subsequent years. It was extended to class XI in 2005-2006 in the subjects of sociology and geography.

However, other than the CBSE, only two other school examination boards have included elements of disaster awareness in their curriculum, leaving out over 87 per cent of the school going population from gaining knowledge and training in dealing with disasters. Also, there has been little or no effort to document traditionally held disaster predicting and managing knowledge across communities in India.

One of the abiding indicators of a country’s commitment to its citizens is the way in which its governance treats disasters. In a country which is the second most populous in the world and where about 85 per cent of the land area is subject to natural disasters of some form, India stands at a critical juncture of this inviolable commitment to its citizens. The range of natural disasters the Indian land mass is prone to is critical.

Over 55 per cent of the land mass is prone to earthquakes, 70 per cent of the cultivable land is subject to frequent droughts, 15 per cent to floods and 10 per cent to cyclones. Of these the densest population lies in areas prone to earthquakes and cyclones, and indeed these two natural disasters are the most destructive since there is little to do in terms of preventing them. However, planning for a disaster contingency can save lives and minimize loss of property.

Another issue that concerns the proponents of disaster management education is the primacy of focus of policy planners on circulating educational awareness exclusively on dramatic disasters which carry high visibility, such as an earthquake, a cyclone or a cloudburst. Though such disasters inflict the greatest damage in a shorter span of time, silent disasters such as droughts, desertification and degradation of soil quality and exhaustion of ground water resources are more permanently damaging scourges, and ironically, do not get the consistent focus in any capacity building exercise involving children.

Intricately linked with disaster management education in the country is the lack of primacy given to candidates who have completed higher education specialization in disaster management from colleges and universities in jobs requiring planning and implementing disaster mitigation exercises. Pass-outs in disaster management curriculum in higher education institutions are often left to venture into vocations unrelated to their specialization largely because we do not have any institutional mechanism of ensuring that such specialized talents in disaster management are employed exclusively in related departments of the government.

Very often, planning and preparing for disasters are left to people who have little knowledge of the intricacies of disasters and the optimum measures which need to be taken to alleviate suffering once a disaster has struck. Indeed, managing disasters with the knowledge of information booklets is a serious injustice to the rights of the citizens to live with the least possible disruption in the aftermath of a disaster. Of the several ways in which we can best prepare for disasters is to empower our children with the knowledge necessary to act appropriately to minimize and mitigate disaster impact.

As per the latest School Education data, India has 11 million schools where nearly 34 per cent of its population studies. Schools and colleges can perform the surest platform for awareness over a large section of the population. However, a study of the curriculum of 33 school examination boards of the country and nearly 900 universities, both government and private, reveasl that only 3 school examination boards and 6 universities have rudiments of disaster management in their compulsory learning curriculum, thereby leaving out a large section of the student population without any idea about the intricacies of managing disasters.

Ironically, disaster management in schools are probably the easiest to teach since a large section of the Indian student population has either faced a natural disaster or has seen someone facing it in their lives. As such, disaster management is one of the rare school and college education area where students can be engaged without much effort from the teacher. Our approaches to disaster management education suffers from a complacency that is partly driven by the fact that government agencies are the prime movers and actors in the event of a disaster.

However, the success of government agencies in disaster mitigation depensd significantly on the awareness of the population and the ability of the population to self-help effectively. The post-Covid world shall change several perspectives which we have been nursing for long and one such change is sure to be felt in education.

It would be in the fitness of things that disaster education be made the first step of self-reliance in an education curriculum that has long neglected the scope of nature to put challenges for human survivability. Disaster education, as it stands today is merely information and data in bits and pieces. The best way forward would be to transform the stagnant subject into a vibrant exercise in the art of living in consonance with nature.

(The writer is Assistant Professor in English, Pritilata Waddedar Mahavidyalaya, Nadia, West Bengal)