Preparing for a disaster-resilient nation

The earthquake in the Kutch area of Gujarat in 2001 changed India’s response to disaster. A hazard risk and vulnerability atlas, the first of its kind in the country, was developed to assess the danger from earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, cyclones and droughts, besides chemical and industrial disasters. The model served as a paradigm for building a national response to variegated calamities.

Preparing for a disaster-resilient nation

Safety first: Disasters leave a trail of destruction and need Herculean efforts to rebuild.

RK Pachnanda

Former Director General, National Disaster Response Force

The supercyclonic storm Amphan recently caused widespread damage in eastern India, especially West Bengal, and the subsequent floods wreaked havoc in Assam, Bihar and Gujarat. India is vulnerable, in varying degrees, to disasters. Over 58.6% of the landmass is prone to earthquakes; over 12% of the land is prone to floods; nearly 5,700 km of the 7,516-km-long coastline is prone to cyclones and tsunamis and 68% of the cultivable area is vulnerable to droughts. The hilly areas are at risk from landslides and avalanches and the threat of chemical, biological and nuclear emergencies has increased.

Earlier, we had no real set-up to respond to disasters. While India was celebrating Republic Day in 2001, an earthquake shook the Kutch area, causing massive devastation. The tremors lasted just two minutes, but left nearly 20,000 people dead and around 1.67 lakh injured with over a million structures destroyed. The ancient city of Bhuj was flattened. This earthquake changed India’s response to the disaster. The Herculean reconstruction efforts put in by the state government, then headed by Narendra Modi, helped rebuild Gujarat. The state made disaster risk protection its priority and set up institutions like the Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority (GSDMA), the Institute of Seismological Research and the Gujarat Institute of Disaster Management. A round-the-clock network of seismic stations was set up to measure tremors, and now the threat of an earthquake can be determined in less than two minutes. The GSDMA developed the hazard risk and vulnerability atlas, the first of its kind in the country, to assess the vulnerability to natural disasters as well as chemical and industrial hazards.

In a short period, Gujarat became one of the least risk-investment destinations in the country in terms of disaster preparedness. The Gujarat model served as a paradigm for building a national response to variegated calamities. The government crafted a multi-dimensional and multi-sector approach by taking measures to strengthen the legal, financial and institutional mechanisms for disaster risk reduction and to build capacity for response, relief, reconstruction and recovery across sectors.

India was quick to adopt and align its priorities with Hyogo Framework for action that re-emphasises the need to build resilience of the community to disasters. The National Disaster Management Act was enacted in 2005 and the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) was formed. The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) was set up in 2006. This purely humanitarian force has responded promptly and professionally in saving lives and livelihood and sensitising and preparing communities through the National Capacity Building programmes. In the past five years, early warning, information management and weather forecasting systems have been evolved by the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Service which sends constant alerts and advisory services. The Indian Meteorological Department has revolutionised weather monitoring with the help of remote sensing techniques. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has evolved a comprehensive space-based disaster management system. Community-based disaster risk management programmes, for millions residing in remote and high-risk areas to tackle the onslaught of calamities, have been organised, leading to a transformational reduction in loss of life. The same trigger has been applied at the national, state and district levels. Vulnerable public buildings have been retrofitted and evacuation plans are in place with a mission to reduce the loss of property and lives. The NDMA has done yeoman’s work in coordinating enforcement and policy implementation with the states and all stakeholders.

The challenges today are geo-climatic changes, increased frequency and magnitude of disasters and new challenges in the form of urban flooding, borewell deaths, colliery collapses, forest fires, uncontrolled urban development, growing deforestation and rapid industrialisation leading to chemical and radiological accidents. India now has a sound disaster management plan, aligned to the Sendai Framework, and has built a robust disaster resilience and response architecture. In the past five years, India has set the way forward by strengthening early warning systems, proper vulnerability mapping, preparing and sensitising the communities as a force multiplier, enforcing bylaws in building safety, inclusion of disaster response, risk deduction and management in school curriculums, capacity building to rescue animals, adopting standard operating procedures (SOPs) for the differently abled and following good practices of other countries. The government responded promptly to the earthquake in Nepal in 2015, extending immediate help. The NDRF was the first international rescue force to reach Nepal.

In the Asia-Pacific region, India has taken the lead on several fronts. Conventions on disaster risk reduction and response for SAARC, BRICS, BIMSTEC, ASEAN, SCO and the south Pacific island nations have been regularly either hosted by or organised at the behest of India to institutionalise inter-country coordination, synergy for regional cooperation, sharing best practices, conducting joint exercises, policy for risk assessment, disaster-resilient infrastructure and early warning besides collaboration in research.

It was at the Asian Ministerial Conference that PM Modi unveiled the l0-point agenda on disaster risk reduction and proposed a ‘Coalition on disaster-resilient infrastructure’ among partner countries. The plan will achieve the vision, not only of a disaster-resilient nation, but also a disaster-prepared neighbourhood. Seeing the efforts made in recent years, India, the world’s second most populous country, is rapidly building a sustainable and integrated resilient structure by making disaster risk reduction part of its development planning.

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