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In the maze of disaster management

Ayon Tarafdar
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Bal Krishna
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Ravi Gupta
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When passengers boarded the Delhi bound Rajdhani Express at Howrah in the evening of September 9, 2002, India they had no idea of the impending nightmare the night had in store. At around 10 PM, while crossing a bridge near a station Rafiganj in Bihar, the train derailed and several coaches fell into the river. The accident had over 100 causalities and many injured. For many it was a blow to life, to dreams, to hopes, to emotions… Thereafter there was a saga of dead and the agony of those who did not die. With the split of a second, people got new identities – orphans, widows, handicapped persons, and many more. The ritual started. Disaster became an issue of urgency. Enquiry was set up. Relief was rushed in and politicians engaged in exchanging allegations and abuses. And just after a few days, not many remember the accident. Life is fast and memories are short, unless somebody close to one was a victim. Who cares? Who bothers? And who has time?

When disaster hits, it generally hits at the time when there is least preparedness. In India, this continues surprisingly, inspite of frequent reminders from nature (refer box in pg 28). Why it is so? Perhaps at inception, we need to revisit the whole concept of disasters and calamities and comprehend its link to vulnerability.

A question of vulnerability
While it is impossible to totally stop sudden accidents or avert calamities of natural origin, measures to reduce their impact can definitely form a sensible approach to reduce vulnerability. An understanding of the stark distinction between the concepts of a ‘calamity’ and a ‘disaster’ is the first step towards a coherent approach of disaster reduction or the use of GIS in this field. A calamity is a sudden natural occurrence of relatively high intensity that disrupts normal eco-systems to a considerable degree. A disaster is a calamity or an event of manmade cause, that leads to sudden disruption of normalcy within society within a short span of time, causing damage to life and property to such an extent that regular mechanisms available become inadequate to restore normalcy (Alexander, 1993). Hence a disaster can be addressed or averted if the ‘impact of calamities’ are reduced.

Vulnerability of a society is a key concept, which if addressed can have positive effects on disaster reduction. Misunderstanding of the vulnerability levels or its condoning exaggerates the damage. The vulnerability of societies to disasters in India or in any developing nation is ascertained by a number of factors inherent in the characteristics of the place. Three key factors that directly ascertain the disaster-vulnerability of a society are as follows;

  • Population density is the first key factor. It is understandable that an uninhabited area experiences no loss in case of a calamity. Population of an area actually gives an estimate of the risk of damage. Population of India has crossed 1 billion and a large number of people densely inhabit various disaster prone areas enhancing risk in the first place. Increased utilization of resources, rampant unplanned development and faulty environmental management practices such as deforestation, shifting cultivation and others add to vulnerability.
  • Lack of a system in the form of a proper ‘disaster management framework’ is the second factor behind increased vulnerability. The need for focussed and relevant research, a management system and a proper institutional set-up that is accountable for disaster reduction and management is necessary to ensure reduction of disaster impact (Carter, 1992). Its absence thus adds to the risk of increased damage.
  • The last key factor is awareness. Lack of awareness about disaster preparedness in any community forms a prime reason behind undesirable forms of development and living style that can increase the risk of damage. Disaster awareness starting from grassroots (households) and moving up to the highest power structures (politicians) needs to be internalised in the daily livelihood patterns and development efforts.

At this point a relevant question that surfaces is – how to translate the above concepts into implementable strategies.

A Paradigm Shift
It is not that people are unaware of the importance of preparedness. There has been a conscious shift from cure to prevention, i.e., towards preparedness than focussing only on rescue and relief. Disaster Management today has assumed more holistic dimensions since it is now considered that issues related to disasters should be properly in-built in development and planning process. The world conference at Yokohama in May 1994 first helped realize that the focus has to be towards sustainability and managing disasters as a long-term strategy. The present thrust defined by the National Centre for Disaster Management (NCDM) of India in its High Power Committee (HPC) Report and also the National Disaster Response Plan (NDRP) give a new impetus towards prevention, mitigation and preparedness. The core principles of mitigation and prevention, which are the real need of the day, as summarized by the HPC Report, (Govt. of India,2001) are :

  • Risk assessment is a requirement for adopting adequate and successful disaster reduction policies.
  • Disaster prevention and preparedness are of primary importance in reducing the need for disaster relief.
  • Disaster prevention and preparedness should be considered an integral part of the developmental and planning policies at national, regional, bilateral, multilateral and international stage.
  • The international community accepts the need to share necessary technology to prevent, reduce and mitigate disasters, which should be made freely and done in a timely manner as an integral part of technical cooperation.

The loopholes?
A number of lessons emerge from various studies and assessments of the numerous disaster occurrences in India. The key lesson felt by many researchers, organizations and the government is the need for a gradual shift of focus from the ‘immediate measures’ to the ‘long-term efforts’ of disaster management. The focus in India in general has been upon aspects of rescue, relief and rehabilitation. The annual floods in many parts of the nation followed by annual rescue and relief measures are a vivid example of lack of long-term measures. The need for restructuring and streamlining the process of disaster management is two-fold. Firstly, there has to be a proper system to the present search, rescue and relief management for any post disaster situation. For this, accountability, transparency and clear definition of responsibilities are to be framed at different levels of governance. Secondly, the need for long term strategies inclined towards mitigation and prevention are to be developed and implemented.

The aspects of rehabilitation and restoration work also are an area of in-depth research and strategy formulation. Sensitive approaches addressing the change of immediate lifestyle, which happens as a disaster strikes, and in the rehabilitation process, are keys to the success of any preparedness measure. In reality, when people interact with economic and social changes, they redefine their notions of well-being. These involve improving their quality of life and expanding opportunities for education and livelihood. It is a more subtle adjustment, a change with continuity, which can be appreciated only through a close involvement with the affected communities.

Another lesson is the necessity to utilise organizations that are closely associated with the grassroots level and specialise in the delivery of technology and knowledge to the lowest rungs of a society. Non-governmental organisations, community-based organisations and other forms of civil societies are apt organizations of such nature. The emphasis of investment in research and development that promotes the case of disaster management is also a felt need. The use of geoinformatics and its applications that are relevant in this field is a necessary input.

‘Rethinking disaster management’
In the wake of various inherent disabilities of a developing economy and its susceptibility to innumerable disasters, there is a need for a pragmatic approach that embodies all the above discussions and moves towards tangible outputs. A three-pronged approach of thorough focus, research and action is suggested,

The need for a disaster management framework
This is an aspect where work has been initiated already in India. The NCDM has come out with two valuable documents, the NDRP and the HPC Reports, which sets the agenda for a structured, decentralised and systematic approach to the overall management of human and material resources during a disaster event. It is in the process of developing further details and requirements to be followed at the state and district levels. However, these reports condone the crucial aspects of how to follow up the lofty ideals laid down and see them happen all over India. It also fails to address aspects of coordination and monitoring between agencies. Hence the development of the framework already started, shall bear fruits if elaborated especially with respect to mitigation and prevention of disasters.

The need for implementation mechanisms
No research, mandate or conclusions are worth the effort unless these are realised on ground. With respect to disaster management it is all the more important since, it is a matter of loss of lives, assets and property. The need for dedicated accountable efforts that can carry forward the knowledge-base created and oversee its utilisation is fundamental.

The need for information and technology
Strategies of disaster management and reduction are very much based on information base. Relevant data and thorough updating of it in various aspects is important to activate and formulate proper plans that can tackle a disaster situation. Exercises that first identify the type of data to be gathered, then assimilate and generate it, and periodically update it, are necessary. The role of technology is also a crucial aspect, which is still to have its actual effect. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Remote Sensing are two technologies that have ample application based utility in disaster situation. (Rao, 1998)

From the above highlighted three needs, the aspect of fusing technology in the present system needs high attention and promotion, especially for India. The boom and success of Indians in IT in the last decade also corroborates the fact that, disaster management can be facilitated with information and technology, if its role is understood properly.

In South Asia, the existence and achievement of institutions that excel in spatial database generation and analysis are not few. The understanding of space technology has evolved over the years in a differential perspective. Initially it was an area of thorough research and got developed as a science. Its understanding as technology became prominent with the understanding of its varied applicability. However one has to translate and interpret space technology beyond its attire of ‘science/technology’ unto the aspect of ‘service’. Further, the analytical platform of its use, which is GIS, is often defined as ‘Geographical Information Systems or Geographical Information Science’. As ‘science or a system’ it is just a strong tool, which stores spatial and non-spatial data digitally while establishing a link between these two. Resultantly it produces an information system, which can retrieve, analyse and represent the stored data in desired ways. However when this analysis and database is translated for direct applicability in the society the understanding of GIS becomes as ‘Geographical Information Services’. Perhaps this core lack of understanding results in the under-use or non-use of its potentiality. The rich knowledge remains as a subject of ‘science’ repeatedly discussed and researched in the ‘islands of excellence’. Most of the relevant and rich database, application and research, which can be of high utility in the field of disaster management, are many a time not available with the right agencies. Are we working towards bridging this gap?

However, some critical issues remain in the aspect of space technology’s delivery in this regard. (refer box along side )

Towards disaster-resistant societies
It would be presumtuous to suggest that disasters can be totally managed by technology inputs alone. One again needs to revert to the three crucial components– ‘evolving a structure, an implementation mechanism and blending technology in the process’. All these three facets can evolve worthwhile synergy provided they are leveraged through a sincere element of participation at every step. Participation in evolving the ‘structure’ shall essentially promulgate sustainability and replicability. Local involvement is crucial in implementation and finally any technology that is based on the beneficiaries’ contribution has the best chances of acceptance. The idea behind awareness is about mass participation in activities that are being undertaken for the welfare of the society. Thus, co-operation between people’s and government organizations (related to disaster management) is a good indication of reducing disasters and building a healthier and safer nation. Space technology can have significant contribution in all the three phases, i.e. preparedness, prevention and relief of disaster management and it is not averse to tapping this potential in the Indian subcontinent. With a constellation of both INSAT and IRS series of satellites, India has already developed an operational mechanism for disaster prediction and warning, especially cyclones and droughts, and their monitoring and mitigation. However, prediction of certain events likes earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and floods is still at experimental level. Inculcating these rich databases and knowledge can definitely assist the process. The ongoing endeavours and processes in this field are definitely relevant and useful. However, there is a need to revisit and infuse pragmatism in the process to truly communicate to the masses that India may soon become disaster resistant.

It would be apt to conclude by reminding ourselves that “Everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences at one point of time” – Leo Tolstoy.


  • Alexander, D., 1993: Natural Disasters. UCl Press ltd. University College London: London.
  • Cova, T.J., 1999: ‘GIS in emergency management’ in Geographical Information Systems, management and applications. Longley, P.A.; Goodchild, M.F.; Maguire, D.J. and Rhind, D.V.
  • Carter, W N, 1992. Disaster Management: A Disaster Manager’s Handbook. Asian Development Bank: Manila.
  • Govt. of India. Ministry of Agriculture, 2001: High Power Committee on Disaster Management Report. Excel Printers: New Delhi.
  • Rao, U.R, 1996: Space Technology for Sustainable Development. Tata McGraw-Hill: New Delhi.
  • Rao, D.P, 1998: Remote sensing & GIS for sustainable development: An overview. Proceeding of international symposium ‘Resource and Environmental Monitoring:Local, regional and global’. Sept.1-4,1998: Budapest.