Sunday, May 17, 2015

Nepal Shook, Sikkim Panicked



For a people who live in zone-4 of the earthquake hazard zoning map of the country - with zone-5 being areas prone to the most seismicity - the Sikkimese continue to show embarrassing gullibility, worrisome skittishness and a disturbing lack of even basic awareness when it comes to earthquakes.
This condition afflicts the entire cross-section of the society – from the lay people to those expected to be better informed to even those responsible for disaster preparedness. How disastrously under-prepared Sikkim is, was revealed in the near-hysteria that the 12 May earthquake [epicentered in Eastern Nepal] and its aftershocks triggered here. The 12 May temblor was weaker than the Big One of 25 April, but caused comparatively more alarm, obviously because alarmist news-sharing had consistently been blanking out reasoned awareness and information.
On the afternoon of 13 May, the Chief Secretary convened a video-conference with the four District Collectors to take stock of the situation and the impact of the earthquake. An official press communiqué informs that the DCs confirmed that the quake caused no harm to people or livestock in Sikkim. Some damage was reported to some private and government buildings, with a school at Temi and the District Hospital at Mangan having suffered significant damage. A typically cryptic official press release also informs of “the problem of Dofung village under Yuksom Sub-Division” for which the Chief Secretary has sought a report. At the meeting, the Relief Commissioner also instructed the District Collectors to ensure that the Emergency Operating Centres remain functional round the clock and ensure availability of sufficient funds with the SDMs to take care of immediate relief measures.
This meeting was held a day after the 12 May quake. The immediate reaction to the quake was not as calm and officious. People rushing out of buildings is expected, but because not enough appear to have been briefed properly on what to do next, several decided to stay away and skip office. Those who had been brought up to speed about their expected response in the wake of an earthquake or a natural disaster, conducted themselves well. Sikkim Police, which manages the disaster control room, promptly started taking updates and desptached advisories to its SPs in the districts.
The situation on the ground was however a disorganized mess with palpable confusion and panic.
The earthquake of 12 May did not cause too much damage, but the response to it flags a concern demanding immediate attention. Panic spread because disaster management has still not been identified as an area requiring constant and focused attention. If disaster management had received constant and focused attention, as the CAG Report of the year 2014 had recommended, every agency and all groups of people would have known what to do and would have hence not allowed panic to take over.
Instead, what happened on 12 May when the earthquake struck was that government offices emptied out, and not everyone returned to work. Schools, mostly government and a few private, shut down and many sent children away without bothering to inform the parents. In some other instances, parents rushed to schools demanding that classes be called off and took their children away. Nervous groups gathered outside homes and along the roads, infecting still more with anxiety. Noticeably missing from the public spaces were civil defence volunteers or disaster management officials trying to offer better counsel or dispelling unfounded fears.
There were thankfully some exceptions. Some schools were quick to inform parents that the children were safe and did not upset their routines. Some schools escorted toddlers out in disciplined lines to open spaces like MG Marg, presenting a stark contrast of calm children even as the elders tried to outdo each other in wearing scared faces.
But these, as mentioned, were exceptions. By and large, there was quick abandoning of duties and irresponsible decision-making. Shutting down schools midway through the day was extremely ill-advised because in most cases, especially in the case of government schools which took this route, children were sent away without their parents even being informed. This was a minor quake, but if such irresponsible school heads send children away unattended in the wake of a bigger earthquake, they will be marching their wards off into a dangerous environment of aftershocks and possible stampedes by hysterical mobs. Even a basic school-level disaster preparedness plan would have told school managements of how declaring a holiday is not the recommended course of action.
Many government servants who did not return to their offices after running out with the first shake were probably away escorting their children home. They probably rushed to schools because they did not trust the managements to take care of their children. Some teachers must have wanted schools shut so that they could go and fetch their own children back. If even a basic disaster management plan had been worked out and shared, everyone would have known their respective responsibilities and would have trusted others to deliver on their tasks as well. Instead, many of those who abandoned their offices on 12 May don’t even consider themselves having done anything wrong. One of the Departments, it is learnt, contemplated show-causing employees who played truant after the earthquake on Wednesday.
The fact that confusion and misinformation prevailed is borne out by the fact that the District Collector-East had to take to social-media at around 5 PM with an appeal for the public to keep calm and not panic. “The District Administration is fully prepared & is on alert again. This is once again to repeat that No Scientific technique is yet developed which can predict any earthquake, the need is only to stay alert & know basic techniques of survival in such situation. Media groups & Facebook activists are advised not to spread any rumours over internet,” the DC posted on his office’s Facebook page.
Meanwhile, the showcause idea being contemplated by one of the departments was reportedly abandoned because not only would it have affected too many employees, but also because no clear guidelines had been issued on what to do in such situations.
An audit on Disaster Management in Sikkim by the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India and included in the CAG Report on Social, Economic, Revenue and General Sectors for the year ended 31 March 2013, informs that Department Disaster Management Plans had still not been made [till Sept 2013 when the audit last checked for it]. It is unlikely that these plans were drawn up in the year and a half that has passed since given that departments had already successfully shirked this task for eight years. Disaster Management plans, including departmental disaster management plans, should have been drawn up in the year 2005 itself when the Disaster Management Act came into force in Sikkim.
The said CAG report marks out that “institutional mechanism for overseeing Disaster Management in the state with clear chain of command and functional responsibilities had not been firmly established”. The CAG Report in question is now a year old, but the general confusion of 12 May and the mediocrity which has been seen by and large strongly suggest that nothing has changed for the better in the interim.
Interestingly, the CAG audit of 2014 on disaster management in Sikkim was in follow-up to a similar audit of 2008 which had “observed non-implementation of vital aspects of Disaster Management in the State…” Not surprisingly, no substantial improvements were found.
It is not as if the State does not have a disaster management plan; only that it is amateurishly ineffectual. As per the CAG Report, scrutiny of the State Disaster Management Plan [SDMP] revealed “that the document was more in the nature of a report and a general guideline than a Plan for concrete action”.
The SDMP, for instance, does not contain “any” time-bound plan of action to be taken before a disaster, or during it or after a disaster! The “Plan” does not even mention specifically the authorities, organizations or individuals who will act “prior to, during and after a disaster in different roles”.
The “plan” does not determine a timeline for assessment of existing structures to identify structural deficiencies for taking up retrofitting works. Perhaps if this had been done, the “significant damages” to the North District Hospital at Mangan could have been subverted with proper retrofitting undertaken in time. Quite obviously, since no clear plan has been drawn up, there cannot be any monitoring either.
On its part, the Land Revenue and Disaster Management Department reportedly admitted to the CAG auditors that the “State Disaster Management Plan is in report form and was being reviewed and re-drafted to make it an actionable document”. If the Department could not pull off such a “review” and “re-drafting” in the immediate wake of the September 2011 earthquake, it is unlikely that it has done so in the year and a half since this commitment was made to CAG auditors. So, a State, which as per seismic data, receives at least one reasonably substantial earthquake every year, continues to be without a workable disaster management plan nearly a decade since it allowed itself a Disaster Management Act.
The lack of a coherent disaster management plan at the State level is jarring because “management” plans are required, on paper at least, to be prepared down to the gram panchayat levels. But, with proper detailing missing even in the State-level “plan”, it is no surprise that no one at any level knows their exact role in disaster management. In the absence of a proper checklist and POA, disaster management ends up relying on the individual diligence of officials.
Noticeably, none of the competent authorities, social organizations or even volunteers were on the streets after the 12 May shake to advise people not to panic or suggest the proper do’s and don’ts. If a plan had been in place, that would have been the first recommended response.
One of the problems in Sikkim, as anywhere else, is that the State’s role in disaster management continues to seen more as an agency to release ex-gratia payments and extend relief and rescue. Awareness, communication and information are paid only token attention. Prescribed procedures are seen as mere formalities and often sidestepped. Take for instance even the less than adequate State Disaster Management Policy – this document was supposed to have been laid down by the State Disaster Management Authority, but the State Government notified the Policy in August 2007; the SDMA, which was mandated to address all issues related to disaster management, was itself not created until November 2010!
As must have become apparent by now, Sikkim has all the required policies, rules and Acts to make proper disaster management possible. Now, it even has a reasonably well staffed State Disaster Management Authority under the Land Revenue and Disaster Management Department. The main objective of the Sikkim Disaster Management policy, as it should be for any such policy, is to minimize the impact of any kind of disaster. Its intent is clear, but what remains muddled is the process.
As per the current status of Disaster Management, besides SSDMA, to cope with situation like May 12 Sikkim has a State Steering Committee, Emergency First Aid Team, 1,012 Disaster Management committees under different Gram Panchayat Units, 1,546 nodal officers, government officers representing various Government Departments who are sensitized in Disaster Management, 1,304 school teachers, 2,330 gram panchayats and village members and 14 engineers trained on earthquake engineering, 109 master trainers on disaster management and Disaster Management Preparedness and Mitigation plans have been prepared, on paper, for all districts, gram panchayats, ward panchayats, urban local bodies, schools, health sector etc.
Even SDMA officials will admit that preparedness needs timely refreshers and reviewals and coordination. In the absence of coordination and proper awareness among Departments, social organizations, panchayat members, civil defence volunteers and public in general, panic situations like last Tuesday can be expected. So, while the SDMA is now equipped with high frequency radios, tower lights and other relief & rescue gadgets and equipment, what it could also use is a more efficient and faster way of communicating and coordinating communication to ease anxiety levels among poorly informed, and at times even mischievously misinformed, public.
[with additional reporting by VISHNU NEOPANEY]

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