Learning to cope with disasters: We can certainly do better: By Prof. Anil K Gupta

When earthquake hit Gujarat on 26 January 2001and more than 20000 people died, we thought as a society we would learn to cope with disaster better.   It seems that 20000 lives were not enough of a price to pay for shaking the bureaucracy and civil society to learn to cope with disasters with greater efficiency.   Most disasters after the first 24 hours assume more or less typical characteristics in which the problems can be anticipated and response system can be put in place.   We had developed a year later a Disaster Management Information System (www.sristi.org/dmis.html).   The idea was that civil society volunteers will provide information about what kind of support they can extend (material, professional, financial, technological, infrastructural, etc.), within what range of distance from their residence, and whether they will like their details to be put on the website.   For instance, about 118 ham radio operators in Gujarat had agreed to put their information through their associations in the database.   They can be directly contacted and their services requested for the purpose.  The question is, were they contacted in the recent disaster in the south India, perhaps not.   Similarly, transporters, crane owners, hardware stockists who have concrete cutters or other devices to clear the debris, medical professionals, mobile x-ray machines, mobile clinics, etc., are well known equipments and services needed in the hour of emergency.   We know that water bodies often get affected adversely and fresh water becomes a necessity.  In some cases, the water storage structures were damaged.   When electricity was resumed, the tubewells would work but where would one store the water.  

Many times, the difference between a person buried under the debris surviving or not depended upon the method of removing debris and the time taken to remove it.   Some people survived for as many as five to six days without any support from outside.   Therefore, the chances of finding survivors even now are high. 

Why is it that the civil administration at all the levels in the government does not learn?  While talking to the Army Officers after few months of disaster in Gujarat, I had mentioned that the efficiency of the army often masked the inefficiency of the civic administration.  Even if immediate relief is provided well, in some cases, the problem of long term rehabilitation receive much less attention.   The coastal fishing communities would come under the clutches of money lenders if fishing nets, boats and other such means of livelihood were not provided at extremely soft conditions.   Any negligence of this function will mean imposing a second disaster on the people and this would be designed, deliberate and delivered with efficiency.  

What can we do now:

a.                   Disaster Management Information System must be built in every district of the country linked with each other, available on the web and also in public libraries.  We should know where are the inventories available of critical equipments, skills, resources and information and how can one access them on voluntary or payment basis. The database of various services and infrastructure in private, public and voluntary sectors should be updated regularly.   Every college should take responsibility for collecting and updating information about certain categories of services or equipments.  Simple information such as about ham radio operators can be put on the web without fail.  

b.                  Just as we have national services scheme, we must now think of national disaster management volunteers who would receive training and be empowered to organize themselves as effective teams for helping local communities around them.   No amount of state help can substitute for community based structures for self help.   Supreme Court had passed judgments and given advice for starting courses on disaster management in various educational institutions.    Have we ever monitored how many such courses exist and what quality of preparedness has been achieved?

c.                   The major tragedy will begin when the media will get interested in new issues, fight among some other politicians or corporate games.  Resources would be required for repairing and building the primary school buildings, primary health centres, livestock, clinics, tree climbing devices for palm workers, herbal and other medicines, mat making machines, and machines which can use materials from damaged trees and bio waste, old bamboo scrap, processing machine for various edible and non-edible oilseeds, etc.  A proper rehabilitation plan will have to be built for each village affected by the disaster with proper accountability structure.   The accounts of every investment must be made public and people should be able to know how much funds were mobilized by which NGO or government agency and how were they used for the purpose. 

d.                  In cases where fishing communities or island based indigenous / tribal communities have been affected very severely, long term rehabilitation plans have to be initiated.   These plans must learn from the mistakes made in earlier rehabilitation projects.

e.                   There is very important need to document the experience of the damage caused and ensuing suffering along with the coping strategies of local communities and administration.  Some novel lessons would emerge.

f.                    One of the major problems in relief is that what is needed where is often not known to the people who want to provide support.   The result is that lot of materials get wasted or misdirected.   We need to put a spreadsheet immediately on the web pointing out village wise needs, contact persons’ names and addresses so that civil society efforts can be targeted more efficiently.   We had tried to put an inventory management system in place after Gujarat earthquake with the help of our students and faculty.   The students had stacked the relief material received from all over the country in Kutchh and given assorted sheets to the Relief Commissioner.  Where we failed was to link this system with GIS so that one could track the deliveries, collect the response and also avoid pilferages.   It will be useful if some of the IT firms in Chennai would volunteer to create such a GIS so that people can update the demand and supply information and every unit of material is optimally utilized.

g.                   The psychological rehabilitation is no less important.   The children affected the by the shock and tragedy are particularly vulnerable.  The arrangements for adoption of orphan children with proper community care have to be put in place.

h.                   It is very disheartening to hear that in large number of cases of dead people, the Public Health authorities have been reportedly hesitant in maintaining proper records.   It might save the state and central governments some money from the compensation fund but it would certainly inflict damage on the social conscience of the society.   If the rehabilitation funds reach late, they are as good as not given.   Unless central government ensures delivery of compensation through community control systems within next 24 hours, the fairness in the system will become more and more difficult to achieve with every passing day.   While we still need immediate help, the long term rehabilitation must be simultaneously planned.

Large number of students in various academic institutions must learn to share the pain of those who have suffered in an extraordinary tragedy.   Without finding fault with government or other agencies, the duty of every right thinking person at this moment is to take initiative and contribute one’s mite in alleviating suffering in whichever way we can.  

I have no hesitation in saying that adequate long term learning measures were not undertaken after Gujarat earthquake.  And if these are not undertaken again, we will all have to blame ourselves for not equipping our country with better self help and more efficient information systems.   We had issued an appeal given below three years ago:

Natural disasters impart lessons at a very high cost of life and property. But if those lessons do not lead to learning and knowledge generation, then the cost seems even heavier. At the time of disaster recurrence, the failure to learn from the past hurts the most. The earthquake in Gujarat and the subsequent chaos were indicators of how crucial prior planning is in managing relief and rehabilitation during disasters. The Kutchh region required massive and immediate assistance at that time, which came but was very poorly managed. This made the need for a proper disaster mitigation plan very apparent. Learning from experience is essential in building a knowledge resource which would help in being better prepared in the future. 

SRISTI & IIMACORE have started an initiative for developing a society based “Disaster Management Information System” to be accessible to all in time of such emergencies. The system is accessible on SRISTI’s website. We call upon everyone to volunteer and participate in the initiative. You may volunteer your services and/ or resources, and share your experiences, research studies, publications etc at this website. This is an effort to pool resources towards better preparedness at the time of future disasters. www.sristi.org/dmis.html

Let us wish that such calamities never happen again. But if they do then we must be prepared.  (http://www.sristi.org/english/dmis/dmsmessage.html)

We must once again try to nudge the National Disaster Management Authority in supporting civil society initiatives to build a decentralized DMIS so that at least next time our response time is faster, quality of relief better and our preparedness much higher than what was in the last few days.