Monday, May 4, 2015

Lesson Learnt?

Disaster drills have to be more about response than just evacuation

Just when it was appearing that Sikkim had forgotten the fright of the 18 September 2011 temblor, Nepal was hammered by a 7.8 strong earthquake on 25 April 2015, the ripples of which coursed through Sikkim as well, scary more in their duration than intensity. Lessons on Himalayan plate tectonics and the earthquakes they can trigger came rushing back, and the State, its people and its authorities were reminded that they live in a seismically active zone. Disaster preparedness is not an extravagant indulgence for the government and people here, but a dire necessity. It is thus bewildering that disaster management here is just a fund-driven, Delhi-dictated token undertaking when it should have been an instinctive and informed choice of the people supported by the government. Funds for disaster management became abundant after the Tsunami of 2004, unfortunately, this has not translated into improvements in preparedness. Disaster Management is part of a full-fledged government department now, but for it to be of any consequence in a region as natural disaster-prone as Sikkim, it has to become part of the psyche of the people here, aimed to ensure that panic, which can be the most debilitating emotion in the wake of a catastrophe, does not take over the streets.
While disaster drills have to begin with safe evacuation protocols, they cannot be allowed to end there [as is currently happening] and need to be developed more effectively for the scenario after a disaster has struck; it is after all the aftermath which is the more difficult period to manage. No amount of evacuation drills and exercises can prepare one for the moment when disaster actually strikes – that response is driven by fear and shock - but after a disaster has passed, training and drills can help people deliver the right responses. This phase, however, is not adequately addressed in disaster management plans.
The 2011 earthquake is not so distant in the past that its lessons could be forgotten, and yet, people, even though aware of what an earthquake can do, are still not building earthquake-resistant houses even though the technology exists and weak structures are still allowed to stand without retrofitting. Earthquakes cannot be predicted to any exactness, but scientists and history inform us of which areas are at risk, so planning for the aftermath should have been a refined drill by now. That has not happened in Nepal and has shown no signs of being attempted in Sikkim either. Look at Nepal, within three days of the disaster which has affected a majority of the population, people are accusing the government of not reaching aid to them, painting pictures of preying politicians looking to profit from the calamity. In most cases, these are emotional and poorly informed responses. Every victim believes his to be the worst privation and sees institutional failure in every minutes delay in being serviced with official assistance. Victims invariably know only their own suffering and in their shock, lose sight of the real scale of devastation. One saw this is Sikkim as well when cut-off Chungthang was seething with anger because the “government” did not reach them sooner, completely losing sight of the fact that government officers stationed there had been working extremely hard at reaching rescue and rehabilitation. Maybe people require visible and ostentatious signs of government intervention, and maybe such expressions need to be worked into disaster mitigation plans, at least people’s frustrations can then be kept in check. And keeping frustrations and panic in check is important because anarchy is only a step away. In Nepal, within hours of people going on TV accusing their leaders of having failed them, there were reports of people having ransacked aid trucks – not necessarily because they had run out of food, but more because they feared that they will eventually run out of provisions and the government won’t deliver.
The people are not without reason to suspect their governments because they have seen corruption, indifference and incompetence from very close quarters in their leaders and officers. In times of loss, their lack of trust gets amplified and will require much improved official responses to assuage. As in Sikkim, so in Nepal, there was no lack of aid, but there were delays, as much because of lack of proper information and information sharing, as due to the babudom not having clear orders on how to manage aid. Clear guidelines need to be in place of how relaxations need to be extended in the wake of a disaster. More importantly, clear channels of communication need to be opened to collect data and share information. Every locality needs to have a disaster cell made up of residents who come together after a disaster. They should know whom to report their requirements of aid and supplies to and all this data should be centrally managed so that aid is more effectively directed. There is never a dearth of aid, but too much time is lost because it is not regulated properly. Reliable and durable channels have to thus be institutionalised for this. The same channels can also be used to deliver proper updates so that misinformation and scare-mongering does not worsen an already fragile scenario. These are only some of the aspects that disaster management plans need to take into account, and only after planners take the real stakeholders into confidence, can a reasonably reliable plan be drawn up. Keep talking down to the people, telling them what to do instead of working out with them on what should be done, and these hierarchies will unravel the moment disaster strikes, after which confusion and panic will reign...

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