What Covid-19 Teaches India About Disaster Management

India’s disaster management framework is perilously inadequate, despite lessons from repeated epidemics and other natural calamities. 


Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the 21-day lockdown on 22 March 2020 to contain the spread of COVID-19, reports of stranded migrant workers have flooded in. Several disturbing pictures of homeless migrants, walking for miles to get home have filtered the news. Particularly, pictures from Anand Vihar Bus Terminal, teeming with thousands of workers. During his speech on the night of 22 March, Modi mentioned that there were plans in place to keep essential services open, but the details of these plans were left undisclosed. Details were provided online later, through advisories, though the situation seems to differ from state to state. 

As state borders were closed, and busses and trains stopped, cities like Delhi witnessed what the Wall Street Journal has called an exodus of migrant workers. Left without work, wages or shelter by the lockdown, these workers have been forced to walk hundreds of kilometres to reach their native villages. Others have travelled in crowded buses to reach their hometowns. 

Owing to the hunger and hardship that the measures to counter the COVID-19 pandemic have created, the situation should rightly have been treated as a disaster. Government estimates suggest that over 300,000 workers have had to ignore the lockdown order in an attempt to get themselves home. On 29 March, the central government ordered quarantine camps to be opened for these migrants. However, whether or not these camps will prevent the spread of the epidemic remains to be seen. 

In the meantime, doctors and health experts have expressed concerns about the capabilities of the healthcare system in India, and are worried that a surge in the number of cases could overwhelm an already burdened system. 

An epidemic does not fall within the purview of the disaster management sector though, in terms of scale and suffering, it should. An article published in the Economic and Political Weekly by T Jacob John looked at the history of epidemics in India, and concluded that the government would be better prepared to deal with epidemics if it had a public health department, modelled like the departments in Sri Lanka or Thailand. Instead, the Indian government’s approach to epidemics has been rather ad hoc, mustering up resources and centres, only to dismantle them once the danger has passed. 

This manner of response is similar to the government response to other kinds of natural disasters, for which the government has put plans in place, such as cyclones and earthquakes. Despite these plans, institutional mechanisms fail to adequately address human suffering in times of distress. Why does this happen? This reading list looks at the few instances of calamities in the past to answer this question. 

A Flawed Act

The Disaster Management Act was passed in 2005, and was intricately detailed in terms of a plan from the centre to the district. However, as Archana Sarma and Subhradipta Sarkar wrote, despite the level of detail, the act failed on a fundamental level. It failed to classify properly what constitutes a disaster, which is why the current pandemic is not under the purview of the disaster management authority. Second, it failed to locate disaster-prone zones and make special provisions for these areas. Finally, even though the act provided a detailed action plan right from the central government to the district and local levels to draw, implement and execute a disaster management plan, it did not streamline the responsibilities of each level. Furthermore, it failed to involve local communities in management practices. 

No disaster can be ever dealt with effectively only through administrative set-up, alienating the community as a whole. But unfortunately, the act entirely ignores this very important aspect. The act is going to be implemented entirely through the government system.

Not Efficient Enough

Added to inadequate disaster management plans is the question of efficiency when disaster actually strikes. As J B D'Souza wrote, “The response that greets every successive disaster is typical.” Writing after the floods in Mumbai in 2005, D’Souza argued that while the government continued to set up more redundant “bodies” and “authorities,” efficiency has always been lost, owing partly to a lack of administrative will and partly because of inadequately trained, or experienced officers. He also argued for the involvement of the local community, which he thought was essential to respond to a disaster. Community participation, he wrote, ought to have been encouraged by the government, rather than resisted, as it was in some localities in Mumbai in 2005. 

Actually, the immediate aftermath of a disaster is perhaps the worst time to devise structural changes in the management of a city. If your home is burgled, you will equip it with more secure doors and locks; you will not pull it down and build another one, one that might leak and let the rain in. Even ministers and legislators of high quality – do we have any? – need to consult the citizenry, and specially persons skilled in urban management, before they meddle with existing structures. Instead, they tend to rush into the creation of new agencies of doubtful utility.

The Gender Question

Disaster management plans should include gender-budgeting provisions, as Meenakshi Thorat pointed out in her article. She argued that the government should take into account the different gender roles and responsibilities that are socially attributed to men and women when making policies and designing disaster recovery programmes. Research in the development sector has shown that disaster impacts, men and women, differently, given their gendered roles and responsibilities, because of which their needs are different. Gender-budgeting for disasters can, therefore, ensure that in the aftermath of a disaster, the resources that women need in particular can be made available to them. 

The immediate impact of a disaster is summed up in terms of the damage to the property and human lives. The more crucial and sensitive issues are addressed while dealing with the people in various stages of the project cycle of disaster management. Yet the myth prevails that a disaster affects everyone equally and similarly. It is essential to understand that a linkage exists with the post-disaster effect and the pre-disaster socio-cultural scenario of the affected place. Women are the worst affected in disasters along with the children, accounting for nearly 75% of displaced persons. Further, since women are the nurturers in a family and as they continue the same role after a disaster, they are the real victims. Yet there is little sensitivity among the humanitarian aid agencies including the government to assign a separate budget for women. This is important since women are the caretakers of the old, infirm, infants and themselves.

A Comparative Study

Mihir R Bhatt wrote an article in 2012, where he compared India’s approach to disaster management with China’s.  Bhatt wrote, “In India, disaster response preparedness still means rebuilding what has been destroyed. In China, disaster response is an opportunity not only to rebuild but also to develop the affected areas and communities.” He argued that the Chinese government collaborated with the United Nations Development Programme to build a culture of safety and resilience that involved the local communities, including special provisions for women. 

On the other hand, India has constructed a patchy conceptual framework for DRR with even less application. For example, it has produced detailed and wide-ranging guidelines for management of earthquakes, floods and cyclones. However, specific guidelines for tsunamis, droughts, nuclear accidents and urban flooding have yet to be fully developed and circulated among relative states and ministries. A good next step for more effective disaster management would be to develop these guidelines and raise the level of information exchange and coordination across agencies. In this regard, China has exhibited strong coordination between government and the UN agencies to achieve positive outcomes. Conversely, the Government of India and its disaster autho­rity have often been unable to build and strengthen preparedness from the national to the state and thence to the local level. 


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