The Barmer district in Rajasthan is a parched dry land which is perpetually drought prone. The hardy people have learned to survive the heat and sand which rages the plains every summer. What they were not prepared for was the deluge that struck them in the third week of August, when over 577 mm of rains in three days flooded the area with unofficial estimates of deaths varying from 300 to 500. Further South, Gujarat was recovering from incessant flooding of its prime cities, a deluge of plenty for which the state was ill prepared. Surat India's diamond city was flooded for over three days, with hundreds of people stranded on roof tops without water and food. The country's premier oil and gas refineries in the state remained closed for days on end. The story was the same as we go southwards to Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh or the Central Indian states of Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Orissa. Floods have taken many lives in India this year.
The causes some say are less due to nature's fury and more due to man's follies. Water had to be released from many check dams in Gujarat to prevent a dam burst, flooding many cities including Surat. There was no anticipation and hence no plan to avert such a crisis, as a result the response was left to some junior engineers, who benchmarked their reactions purely on the local situation rather then visualizing what would happen downstream.
What the Western states of the country have been experiencing in 2006 has been common place in India's central and eastern states particularly Bihar and Assam which experience perennial flooding due to monsoons, mostly due to lax management of the waterways including rivers and canals which span the country side. Dredging of silt in canals is sanctioned every year, but the money is siphoned away leading to gradual silting and massive overflows.
Floods and monsoons in India are invariably followed by diseases bordering on epidemics. Dysentery, diarrhea, malaria and Japanese Encephalitis and now Chikungua fever have become common place during the monsoons. Even the national capital, Delhi has its yearly bout of dengue, causing many deaths.
What about other types of disasters whether it is natural or man made? In Meerut, a major city two hours drive from Delhi, approximately 100 people died due to accidental fire in an exhibition pandal which had been raised violating all norms of fire safety. The summer season is the worst for fire hazards in the country. Slums and shopping centers are badly hit with fires razing many homes and shops to the ground causing death and destruction.
Lately the country has invested considerable resources in establishing a disaster management agency, National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) with a retired Chief of the Army Staff, General N C Vij, with a penchant for organizational efficiency as its head. The Agency has got down to its task in real earnest and has raised expectations of tackling this menace at its roots. It appears well prepared to provide policy guide lines, preparatory advice and support to various states and local bodies. The problem it faces is however mitigation.
While most people view disaster management as a function of speedy relief and rehabilitation, the key to avoidance of a catastrophe is mitigation. Thus even as Japan is struck by earth quakes many times of the year, there are no casualties nor any noticeable destruction of property due to mitigatory measures taken across the board. Mitigation in India with a dysfunctional administration which is not able to implement simple building laws due to public and political pressure is difficult to achieve. Civic agencies characteristically rely on court orders to implement any unpopular action even when it is in the interests of public safety.
Under the circumstances, the people of India seem doomed to suffer the vestiges of nature's fury being converted into catastrophes on a regular basis, year after year till the people realize that a small sum of money invested in simple precautionary measures can save many lives and be a part of voluntary mitigation rather than enforced one which is not likely to succeed in India where democracy is increasingly assuming connotations of misrule by many.