Where is the national disaster management authority?

India’s disaster management capacity continues to be appallingly inadequate despite the numerous calamities—natural and man-made—that the republic has experienced since 1947. The apparent apathy is astounding given that 60 percent of the country is prone to earthquakes (the North East and Himalayan states face the highest risk), 12 percent of the land is prone to flooding and about 75 percent of the coastline is susceptible to cyclones and tsunamis. Moreover, given the security situation in India’s neighbourhood, there is also the risk of nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) disasters.

In the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that claimed about 18,000 Indian lives, the government passed the National Disaster Management Act (DM Act) in 2005. The Act considers a holistic approach to addressing disasters, moving away from practices of the past, which focused primarily on response and relief, to one that covers “prevention, mitigation, capacity-building, preparedness, assessment and rehabilitation,” in addition to its traditional scope.

The DM Act established the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) as the apex body to plan, coordinate and implement disaster management at the central level and develop guidelines for state authorities. Given the multi-disciplinary scope of disaster management, nodal ministries and departments were appointed for specific disasters. The Ministry of Home Affairs, for example, was designated the nodal agency for all natural disasters (with the exception of drought, which is within the purview of the Ministry of Agriculture), while the Department of Atomic Energy was assigned responsibility for nuclear accidents and leakages.

National disaster management is a complex subject, which relies on the strength and maturity of existing local and national institutions of governance. While the NDMA has made progress in establishing overall structure for disaster management, several gaps continue exist in India’s disaster-preparedness that require focus.

Although the DM Act was passed in 2005, it took the Cabinet four years to finally approve the National Policy on Disaster Management (NPDM). The NDMA’s role was envisaged to include formulation of calamity-specific guidelines through partnership with necessary stakeholders. However, while some guidelines (such as management of earthquakes, floods and cyclones) have been formulated by the NDMA, many others (including tsunamis, drought, nuclear accidents and urban flooding) are yet to be developed and circulated to the states and ministries.

The test of any policy ultimately lies in its execution. While the NDMA may have made headway in developing an over-arching framework and best practices for disaster management, the success or failure of the system depends heavily on “last-mile” institutions, which are often under-resourced, incapable and insufficient for the task. To this end, institutional capacity building must become a critical area of focus for the NDMA. The country’s fire and emergency services remain woefully inadequate and incapable of dealing with large-scale accidents. The state of local law enforcement services, which are first responders to most incidents, suffers from years of neglect in the absence of police reforms. Last mile institutions are in an unsatisfactory state in urban centres. They are significantly worse off in poorer and less developed parts of the country, which are, unfortunately, most prone to disasters. Indeed, the poor response of fire and emergency services and the ensuing blame-game between civil defence and relief & rehabilitation departments in West Bengal, in the aftermath of Cyclone Aila and the Stephen Court fires in March 2010 that resulted in over 100 deaths, underscores the importance of capacity building in disaster management.

Now, civil defence forces are a critical component of any national disaster management framework. Despite the DM Act coming into force in 2005, the role of civil defence in disaster management was only explicitly defined in 2009, by an amendment to the Civil Defence Act, 1968. Even so, India’s civil defence force infrastructure is decrepit, with constraints in budget, training and resources. India’s civil defence organisations are ill-equipped to respond to NBC incidents; indeed, even the four National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) battalions specially designated to respond to NBC incidents face a paucity of equipment and expertise.

Developing credible civil defence forces goes hand-in-hand with a pubic aware of their importance. With the currently low level of public awareness, attempts to provide for such a programme nationwide could lead to indifference or misuse of equipment. This is particularly worrisome given the nature of threats India faces—as terrorists can carry out reconnaissance, monitor movements or infiltrate sensitive installations, unbeknown to the public or the government (as evidenced in the David Headley case). Awareness of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) threats in India and mitigation techniques is limited to a small number of experts and institutions like the armed forces. The NDMA (and state disaster management authorities) must work to increase public awareness, not least by engaging non-governmental organisations.

As per the recommendations of the Ninth Finance Commission, Calamity Relief Funds (CRFs) were established for the states for immediate relief to victims of certain natural disasters. In addition, the Eleventh Finance Commission recommended the establishment of the National Calamity Contingency Fund (NCCF) towards relief efforts that went beyond the coping capabilities of the states. There are budgetary and administrative efficiencies to be had by merging the various funds with those provided for by the NDMA framework (national, state and district Disaster Relief Funds – DRFs), for immediate relief and rehabilitation.

Historically, the government has thought of disasters through the prism of calamities or Acts of God. The enactment of the DM Act has effectively expanded the scope of the term “disaster” to also include man-made incidents. However, the NDMA is silent on the applicability of the NDRF for immediate relief and rehabilitation to victims of man-made disasters. In fact, the NDMA is yet to develop a comprehensive list of all disasters, natural and man-made, for which the NDRF fund may be applied to. This ambiguous definition of applicability leaves relief and rehabilitation funding for critical threats India faces open to interpretation.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of India’s disaster management system will be judged by the response of all institutions—from advisory bodies, to last mile services, central and state—during and after a disaster. In order to develop a capable and mature disaster management system, the government must strengthen autonomous institutions like the NDMA, and provide sufficient funding and resources for last mile and civil defence forces. India must demand a much higher level of performance than what the NDMA has hitherto demonstrated.