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The human hand in nature’s fury

Several natural disasters occur in India every year such as floods in Chennai, Mumbai and Bengaluru; Latur and Bhuj earthquakes to recent Kerala floods to the latest cyclone Gaja, causing fatalities and destruction in varying degrees in every nook and corner of India.

J Harsha |

Natural disasters bleed India more than terrorism. Unbelievable? Just compare the 180 fatalities in 2013 due to terror with the Uttarakhand flood disaster of 2013 that caused 800 fatalities and marooned 700 villages. Similarly, compare 191 fatalities due to terror in Jammu and Kashmir with the flood disaster of the state that caused 300 fatalities affecting over 5000 villages.

Several natural disasters occur in India every year such as floods in Chennai, Mumbai and Bengaluru; Latur and Bhuj earthquakes to recent Kerala floods to the latest cyclone Gaja, causing fatalities and destruction in varying degrees in every nook and corner of India; but not every disaster is as sensational as a terror attack that catches the attention of the entire nation.

Both natural disasters and terrorism are uncertain events. Yet, the lack of preparedness to overcome natural disasters will never catch the attention of the nation, whereas the security lapses of a terror attack storm the headlines.

It has become a pattern in India that the issue of accountability to lapses in disaster management, whether the disaster occurred in the past or an anticipated disaster in the future, remains missing or gets blindsided in any public discourse on disaster management.

The consequences due to these lapses on the country are profound.

Consider a hypothetical case of a high-intensity earthquake striking Delhi, leading to colossal loss of lives and destruction of property.

Before an earthquake can strike Delhi, three facts are widely known: 1) That Delhi is home to about 12 million people with areas with highest population density in the country; 2) Delhi is situated close to the earthquake-prone zone or close to the geologically active Himalayan fault and 3) an earthquake is the disaster-in-waiting for Delhi.

In such a scenario who should be held responsible for the all the death and destruction that an earthquake can cause to Delhi?

Since independence, successive governments at union, state and local levels have created agencies and organisations, with all requisite scientific infrastructure and technical know-how at the expense of public money, precisely to save lives, reduce hazards and lower the vulnerability to such natural disasters as earthquakes, landslides, droughts, cyclones and floods.

For example, building codes that mandate design of buildings/structures have been formulated under the supervision of government agencies like Bureau of Indian Standards precisely to reduce the risk from earthquakes and lower the vulnerability of men and material exposed to the risk of earthquakes.

And agencies such as public works departments have been created by governments at union, state and local levels to enforce the building codes and raise the level of awareness amongst vulnerable citizens.

But what if the agencies fail to enforce building codes, never undertake any safety drills and fail to create awareness amongst the people to save themselves in the event an earthquake strikes?

Shivraj Singh Tomar, a landlord and a father of two children in possession of four-storey building in the messy Munirka village, one of the most congested areas of New Delhi, is neither aware of any building codes formulated by government agencies nor is he aware of the proximity of New Delhi to the faults and fractures of the Himalayan belt.

All Tomar and thousands like him in Delhi are interested in is making easy money through lucrative real estate business, with little or no knowledge of the earthquake zone or the risks associated with such a natural disaster.

In contrast, when the disaster strikes, it has become a familiar pattern or business-as-usual scenario for government agencies to blame nature for all the mess in disaster management. This is because vested interests are sure that nature cannot walk into the witness box for narrating its version of the story and expose the lapses and lacunae in the disaster management of these agencies.

No inquiry or no investigation by any independent body is visible. Agencies responsible for protecting people’s lives and their property successfully hide behind a common man’s ignorance, thus facilitating accused agencies to assume the position of jury and magnificently conduct a trial on nature. The accused then conveniently exonerate themselves from all the accusations and responsibility, culminating in declaration of nature as the guilty party.

Simply put, “Heads” don’t roll in India no matter what type of disaster strikes involving fatalities, death and destruction – a criminal neglect. Therefore, India’s bane being lack of accountability causes it to bleed more from a natural disaster than any terror attack.

Now compare the case of anticipated disaster of Delhi with the most recent case of floods that caused widespread devastation in Kerala in the month of August this year. Data shows there was indeed extreme rainfall in a short spell of time.

And that’s what water resource agencies at the union and state levels have been using as a convenient excuse. These agencies never reveal that they are mandated to lower the flood hazard, lower the risk from floods and lessen the vulnerability to such extreme rainfall events.

In contrast, the laymen barely understand that those very agencies in India’s union, state and local governments, who throw the onus on rain gods, were created to anticipate such extreme rainfall events. The vested interests in these agencies therefore thrive on the ignorance of laymen.

Even the stakeholders from diverse disciplines barely know the fact that public money has been spent for decades by governments so as to equip their concerned agencies with state-of-the-art technology, scientific infrastructure and technical know-how in the form of sophisticated weather models, satellite remote sensing technology, telemetry and related capacity building.

In respect of Kerala floods, there were no flood forecasting stations installed at all the dams across Kerala, no inflow and outflow forecast was issued for dams and rivers in the downstream areas of Kerala on the fateful day when extreme rainfall struck. The use of rule curves of dams was never explained to the public and therefore it continues to remain murky.

Despite 72 years of independence, Kerala wasn’t even on the flood forecasting map of India in spite of it being located in one of the highest rainfall regions in the country.

So, was there any risk management in Kerala before the onset of flood events, despite all the generousness of spending public money by the governments? And similarly, is there any risk management in place to protect Delhi from future earthquakes?

In respect of Delhi, the level of enforcement of building codes in Delhi, the level of safety drills conducted so far against earthquakes and the level of awareness created even before a disaster continues to remain dark and murky.

So, Delhi is a case of a colossal disaster-in-waiting precisely due to absence of agencies entrusted with lowering the risk and vulnerability due to earthquakes.

Concluding, India’s lack of accountability is a flaw deeply entrenched in its governance. The nation doesn’t hold any investigation or inquiry for identifying the lapses and identify the culpability of the agencies in disaster management.

No independent inquiries other than by those who are parties to the disaster management are conducted and therefore the truth about the real causes of the disaster, the role and culpability of nature, the culpability of agencies and organizations entrusted with disaster management and the extent of loss of lives, livelihood, and the economic impact are never revealed.

The facts and truth continue to remain blindsided from public review forever.

As a consequence, the lessons for future disaster management are never learnt. With the business-as-usual scenarios, the nation bleeds with more episodes of horrendous death and destruction caused by natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, droughts, cyclones, landslides, etc.

The net result is that India incurs heavy losses to its economy due to natural disasters precisely due to the concerted and distorted propaganda by vested interests projecting nature as the culprit while preserving the status quo of disaster mismanagement. This deception, however, has to end.

And this deception will end only when the lapses in disaster management are treated on par with lapses that lead to a terror attack. When that happens, Indian public and the society will find itself less vulnerable, in possession of greater resilience against natural disasters and therefore less reason to fear and point fingers at nature.

The writer is Director, Central Water Commission, Government of India. The views expressed are his own.