The floods in Jammu and Kashmir are unprecedented. At least 175 people have already died, and thousands displaced. More analysis will have to be conducted on how these unusual floods happened. But what is certain is that they have already demonstrated the failings of the government’s disaster preparedness, and of its response system to calamities. Those affected have had to undergo the ordeal for days before being rescued and evacuated. The optimism generated about improved calamity-management skills after the superb handling of the very severe cyclone Phailin in Odisha has proved short-lived; that perhaps was due to careful preparation, and may have been an isolated incident. Neither the management of last year’s landslide-driven deluge in Uttarakhand nor the current floods suggests that the Centre has learnt many lessons from past disasters. The flood-forecasting system managed by the Central Water Commission (CWC) failed once again; no prior alert came from the CWC in the case of the Uttarakhand catastrophe either. This continuing failure is in spite of the fact that the India Meteorological Department’s ability to predict rainfall has markedly and noticeably improved. In this case, too, the department reportedly predicted heavy to very heavy showers in Jammu and Kashmir days in advance. Shockingly, the state’s rivers are not even part of the CWC’s river-monitoring radar, which keeps track of water levels in all other major rivers of the country.
The question, therefore, is whether the National Disaster Management Authority, or the NDMA, serves any purpose at all. The agency was set up after the 2004 tsunami, to shoulder the major responsibility in rescue and relief operations. But its response time is usually long. In most cases, the burden of evacuating people from affected areas and supplying them with relief material falls on India’s armed forces. Voluntary organisations and local people also play a significant role in this task. This time round, even the internet-based social media has been active in information dissemination. It isn’t as if the NDMA has access to helicopters, to boats, or even to trucks independent of the armed forces. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been quick to tour the flood-affected region, should now display similar alacrity in reviewing the functioning of the NDMA – which he, as prime minister, technically heads. The Comptroller and Auditor General, in a recent report, called the NDMA “ineffective in most of [its] core areas”; Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee described it as a “mere spectator”. The NDMA has not even prepared any national disaster-management plan, a basic necessity; nor has it set up any reliable communication system independent of existing networks, which get disrupted by disasters. Such systems have been put in place in the tsunami-prone coastal belt and have proved effective in conveying warning signals to locals after earthquakes in and around Indian seas.
There appears to be an absence of a credible and efficient mechanism for both post-calamity relief and rehabilitation, and also for predicting likely contingencies and taking advance damage-mitigation action. It seems the NDMA’s scope is too large for the agency. The government, therefore, should consider shutting it down. Instead, the uniformed services – which do all the heavy lifting anyway – should be officially designated as in operational control of disaster relief. Predicting the nature of possible calamities and coming up with mitigation plans in consultation with the armed forces should be the business of another, smaller agency, one not headed by the prime minister.