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Policy Perspective

N. K. Jain
Director, Joint Assistance Centre
G.17/3, DLF City Phase – I, Gurgaon, Haryana – 122002
Email: [email protected]

Science and technology must play a key role in formulating the national disaster management policy of a country.

Despite a decade of dedicated efforts, the number and costs of natural disasters continue to rise, given the increasing vulnerability of our societies to natural hazards.” – Kofi Annan (July 5, 1999), Secretary General, UN. The U. N. Secretary General while highlighting the increasing vulnerability of society, frequency and cost of natural disasters also reminded the audiuence that “disaster prevention is a moral imperative, no less important than reducing the risks of war.” The August 99 in Turkey and Oct 99 Super Cyclone in Orissa are a stark reminder of the fact that disasters can cause crumbling impact on economy and take a huge toll of human lives.

The U. N. General Assembly while proclaiming the decade of 1990s as IDNDR had enumerated specific goals as under:

  • To improve the capacity of each country to mitigate the effects of natural disasters, paying special attention to assisting developing developing countries;
  • To devise appropriate strategies for applying existing scientific and technical knowledge;
  • To foster scientific and engineering endeavours aimed at closing critical gaps in disaster mitigation knowledge;
  • To disseminate technical information regarding hazards assessment, prediction, and mitigation; and
  • To develop and evaluate programmes of technical assistance, technology transfer, demonstration projects, and education and training.

Governments were called upon to adopt specific policy measures to achieve disaster mitigation and created a Scientific and Technical Committee to develop and assess the programmes.It included NGOs, social scientists and even bureaucrats besides purely scientists and technologists members listed.

In 1995, according to a paper “DST’s Initiatives for Natural Disasters Mitigation” several steps taken jointly by academic and research institutions and administrative departments concerned with science and technology were listed. Thus, a Himalayan Seismicity project, study of the Latur earthquake, development of international cooperation resulted in opening new vistas for upgrading national capability to cope with disasters. The DST paper also outlined the information dissemination aspect and listed projects of posters and videos after the 1993 Latur earthquake. Studies in the field of landslides and cyclones including development of scientific and mathematical models monitoring and warning were also listed. However, it is in the field of dissemination of the information that there is no concrete evidence of results on the ground.

Towards the end of the decade, the IDNDR Secretariat organised the Final Programme Forum, July 5 to 9, 1999 in Geneva, a summary report was released on August 18, 1999 and it said “Underlining the importance of the application of science and technology to mitigate the impact of natural disasters, Prof. G.O.P. Obasi, Director General, WMO stated that a strategy for the reduction of natural disasters should take into account the need to critically assess the current state of the science and technology used in natural disaster reduction and prevention, identifying improvements made during the decade and, most importantly, making suggestions for future operational and research programmes to ensure continued progress.”

The Final Programme Forum July ’99 reviewed the current state of science and technology in support of natural disaster reduction, highlighted recent improvements, emphasised the need for additional research and capacity-building and considered ways to improve the international focus for continued science and technology in support of natural disaster reduction in the 21st century.

Above submissions make it very clear that there is realisation at international level about the role of science and technology and the need for disseminating information to the communities at risk. This is also evident in the initiatives in the field of science and technology in India and the example of information dissemination project following Latur earthquake.Yet it is this latter field that needs much more attention and concerted actions particularly at the policy levels.

A distinct national capability exists that can help build a culture of prevention in relation to disasters.It is now time that this ‘capability’ is converted into ‘nation’s capability.’ Here are some suggestions for a clear policy decision at the political level to be fully understood and endorsed by the scientists and technologists at apex level.

National Policy
While disasters and other emergencies need certain concerted actions which would be identical, yet there is a need to have integrated coordinated control and supervision at the national and state levels.At the moment there are host of agencies dealing with disasters e.g. The Ministry of Agriculture for natural, the Ministry of Environment and Forest for chemical and industrial , the Ministry of Home Affairs for civil strife and ethenic conflict situation Departments of Fire, Civil Defence, Home Guards health etc. also deal with disasters. An existing mechanism with different implementing structures exists and these are brought into play in the event of catastrophe often uncoordinated. There is hardly any effort in building up people’s capability. With the Panchayati Raj institutions getting a constitutional status, the urgency of local level efforts being strengthened is further underlined. If, therefore a Ministry for Disaster Mitigation or a Department or a Commission is created, some sort of sacrifice of authority on the part of various existing departments will be called for. There is perhaps also, as part of this policy, need for totally revamping or redesigning relief administration mechanism drawing lessons from the just concluded IDNDR.

Learning from disasters
India has suffered a large number of disasters and the quantum of direct relief exceeds Rs.10,000 crores. In the case of Latur, the World Bank aid was to the extent of Rs.1043 crores. Orissa Super cyclone of 1999 has caused mind boggling loses. A glance at newspaper clippings of last two decades would show repetitive nature of lessons not learnt. It is imperative, therefore, that institutional memory is built up and a policy decision is taken to create studies under the title “Learning from Disasters”.

Communication Technologies
While advance communication technologies are available, yet when such systems collapse, it is the people intensive technologies like Amateur Radio Network that need to be activated. Hence there is a need for concerted action to promote this science among the school children and village community which can be funded under Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme. In the recent Super Cyclone of Orissa, it was an NGO (NIAR) that set up first communication links using HAM radios-while the nation groped in darkness for nearly 72 hours and the P.M. not being able to reach even the state C.M.

Application of GIS and other technologies
Latest tools like Geographic Information System, Geo-stationary Positioning Sattelite, Remote Sensing Technology need to be made more universally available and applied in the context of planning for disaster mitigation.Suitable data base and plans thus created, should be made available to public “as a matter of right to information.” In case of Orissa Super Cyclone, for instance, despite the NIC and Distt informationn centre NATMO, thematic attasis and district planning map series and the census(1991) data, we had nothing on hand. When Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh are ushering in the I.T. revolution and successive Map India, explositions have demonstrated huge available resources in GIS field, Why Orissa was cought unprepared. And this when we had a cyclone about a fortnight earlier impacting same state, perhaps it is the mindset, of those responsible fro relief, that needs to be changed.

Educational aspects
India has one of the oldest Earthquake Engineering Department at the University of Roorkee. Indira Gandhi National Open University have started Certificate Course in Disaster Management. Madan Mohan Malviya Engineering College Gorakhpur has Disaster Management as a subject in their Post Graduate Hill Area Development Engineering Course. The School of Planning & Architecture encourages students to take elective paper on disaster management in their housing discipline. Several medical and engineering institutions are also known to have introduced disaster management in some form for study research and training. National Centre for Disaster Management and State Faculities on Disasters have come up in last 4 Years. It is time that private and voluntary sectors are involved more consciously. Lot of specialised knowledge exists outside the formal public sector. Focussing on women and children – Key to Disaster Prevention as theme for 1995 IDNDR Day, an activity of Hazard Mapping for Disaster Preparedness was introduced for school children. As an educational activity instead of loading the school children with a further aditional item in their curriculam, there is a need to create continuing and extension education in every research and scientific project related to disasters and in professional collegesand introduce disaster related activity as Socially Useful Productive Work.

Housing shelter and health
Realising that it is “the collapsing buildings that kill” or injur more people and it is the lack of prompt medical attention that increases number of casualities and aggravates injuries, it is important that the knowledge in the areas of housing, shelter and health is transferred to the people in simple locally adaptable manner through concerted campaigns like creating a disaster awareness month on the pattern of Environmental Awareness Month and Water Resource Month. Transfer of technology was the main thrust of the IDNDR and must become the key focus area in the 21st Century. Eminent people like Late Sh. Jai Krishna and Dr. A.S. Arya have the knowledge world wide. What is needed is to build up nations capabillity through empowering communities and indeed the panchayats. If a good part of the M. P. LADS (Memebers of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme) Where Rs 2 Crore is available annually is spent on health and shelter upgrading, future losses to the nations can be minimised. Our insurance schemes need to made both user and need friendly.

Tools for Disaster Reduction
Natural Hazard Map of India; Flood Atlas of India; Vulnerability Atlas of India have been published.The first two are either low priced or complimentary but are not easily available to people or they do not know where do get these from. The Vulnerability Atlas is prohibitively priced and it is difficult to obtain.Unless such publications including Indian Standards produced by the Bureau of Indian Standards are made available readily and cheaply, these will not be used by the common man for mitigation of disasters. While enumerating the above, it is important that the example of the Scientific Technical Committee of the IDNDR including NGOs as full members is followed by involving NGOs in all such scientific technical ventures to ensure dissemination of results and information to the people. Only then concrete steps would have been taken. This author is particularly lucky in that he was associated with the “All India Seismicity and Seismotectonics of the Himalayan Region” project of the Department of Science & Technology and that JAC was nominated at the beginning of the decade on the Standing Committee on Floods and is currently member of GOI-NGO coordination Committee but more and more need to be included.

Financing Expenditure
Successive Finance Commissions decide the manner of collection of revenues and sharing the same between various States and administrations.This includes the policy on “Financing Relief.” From the margin money concept in 1970s, we have now come to Calamity Relief Fund with the defined contribution from the Centre and States.It is time, therefore, that the Eleventh Finance Commission considers seriously allocating, if not 1% of the total State Budget for disaster preparedness, prevention, environmental conservation and preventive projects, at least 1% of the disaster relief money for disaster preparedness including scientific investigation studies and dissemination of informations.

Council for Disaster Reduction Technologies
Department of Science and Technology has a National Council of Science Technology Commission and the author of the Science popularisation programme was honoured by award of prestigious Kalinga Prize. It is time the DST created another Council for Disaster Reduction Technologies and take the knowledge to the school extension programmes; and as extension element in all research and to the community at large. To be all encompassing this Council should be set up an Act of Parliament so that are no technical hinderances constitutionally as evident in the conflict on centre state jurisdiction in hte recent Orissa Super Cyclone.

In conclusion we can say that even today the observations of Dr. Frank Press that “much that is known is not universally applied in the context of disasters is equally true.