Is India ready for disaster relief ? Seems a bit hard to believe ..

India has many possible disaster areas. The tsunami was one big one, the flooding in Mumbai was another one, the big earthquake in Bhuj was another, hurricanes in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh are others, and every time we run into the following situation. Some of these are huge, and they cause an incredible problem in terms of loss of human life and loss to property, and in all these cases, we end up depending on the armed forces for providing the assistance that is required. The armed forces organize the people on the ground, they are the ones who end up distributing the relief, and eventually once the people in immediate relief are provided the relief, the armed forces finally move away from the area and let the local administration handle the mopping up. So, if there is a disaster, send in the armed forces, they put in their resources, and provide the Government with the ability to say that they handled the disaster. However, the is a lot of clarity with everyone that there are actually no plans to prevent the disaster from happening again, or plans for more effective disaster relief are not really on the ground. And this is where we are really screwed – how long can we act on the strategy that you should not criticize the Government when there is a disaster since that would mean politicizing the disaster, or that we should focus on disaster relief and not talk about why it happened. The Government apparently works on the strategy that if you are able to delay this a bit, then there is no attention on the lack of strategies or policies within a few days or weeks, and hence no problems for the Government. In fact, to take this more morbidly, the Government can claim that they were able to handle such a major disaster so efficiently.
Now consider the case about what is happening in Uttarakhand right now. The Government has claimed that they are being unfairly blamed, since the amount of rainfall was so high, that there was a cloudburst, that they are able to bring out such a large number of refugees, and most importantly, as the days go by, slowly let the projected number of dead rise (if they were to admit right in the beginning that the projected dead could be around 5,000, or more, it would have been a big shock).
The problem is exactly this – for the first few days, there seemed like total confusion all around. The floods had devastated areas that were inaccessible, dependent on roads that were built on mountain sides, and as it seemed clear, the flooding broke a number of these roads and also bridges over these roads. Already, sites such as Kedarnath and Hemkunt Sahib were already inaccessible through a proper road network, and even the road to Badrinath is not exactly a highway. These floods caused huge devastation, and setting up relief in these areas is a challenge. The armed forces seem to have done a great job, but one needs to keep in mind one fundamental issue – the army is not a specialized relief mechanism, and neither are they typically geared to work with the local administration in such times. It is accepted that any disaster relief plan would have to use all available help, and since the armed forces have the heavy lift capability such as helicopters and even the Hercules planes that are now being used to move fuel.
If there was a systematic disaster relief plan that was prepared and updated frequently, it would have access to layout plans of the points on the route, it would have plans to deal with disasters of different levels, including such high levels of flooding as seen in the current case. The same set of plans would setout nodal authorities for coordination (the lack of which was something that Shinde admitted to before the Government disowned his statement about lack of coordination). Further, the plans would have atleast ensured that problems such as lack of fuel for helicopters, quick movement by the army to set up temporary bridges to replace those that went down, earlier usage of high capacity helicopters and short landing planes such as the Hercules could be used for relief. More importantly, such plans, during the formative stages, would typically call upon local experts to contribute their experience, which could have saved lives.
What could all this have done ? It would have prevented the loss of so many lives on the route to Kedarnath, people who are apparently dying because they have not got relief for so many days, it would have prevented the Government from focusing one by one – first Kedarnath and then Badrinath, such plans would have envisaged much greater usage of the local police for ensuring that law and order was kept as much in control as possible (when there are such disorganized times, there is a high probability of people looting or otherwise doing extortion like the horror stories that we keep on hearing). And yet nothing of this sort has happened. Except for the involvement of the armed forces in the rescue efforts, nothing else seems to be happening as per plan (probably because there never was a plan).
And of course the most irritating prospect. After any such problem, you have the ineffectual Prime Minister and Sonia Gandhi doing an aerial survey. If they truly want to do something good, then instead of this piecemeal efforts, they should have had an authority in charge of disaster relief, coordinating with the local state authorities, headed by a constitutional authority who gets immediate responsibility in such localized emergency like situations. If they can truly do something like this, then and only then can we believe that the Government is serious. However, what is likely to happen ?
The Uttarakhand Government will make a lot of effort to quickly repair and restore the routes of tourism, and in a few months or a year, we will forget all this that has happened (till it happens again). In fact, in a couple of weeks, you will get Manish Tiwari or Bahuguna claiming credit for the relief that has happened inspite of the unprecedented disaster that has happened, and claiming that the Government worked fairly well in ensuring that people were rescued – already for the past 2-3 days, there has been more focus in the media on the number of people who were rescued, and this is what will happen later. However, this is not only the Congress. The BJP was the previous Government that ruled Uttarakhand, and they did nothing either for ensuring that there were systematic disaster relief plans, so one can say that if there was contribution to the scale of this disaster, the BJP also has a hand in this.

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