Ideas and Action for a Better India
Whilst the horrific images of the disaster at Japan flash all over the media and even as we heave a sigh of relief that tsunami warnings have not been issued to India, one cannot but wonder what would happen if a similar disaster were to occur here. Even for a nation where earthquakes are a recurring phenomenon and thus has engendered a culture of vigilance at all levels, this was a disaster that (quite literally) ‘shook’ it’s very foundation. The disaster in Japan is a ghastly reminder of the catastrophic Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 that claimed thousands of Indian lives and caused extensive damage to the coastal regions. The disturbing images from Japan beamed directly into our homes provokes memories of the victims of the 2004 tsunami but the important question remains – Has India learnt its lesson? Are we prepared?
Recent years have seen a spate of natural disasters that have beleaguered both wealthy and poorer nations, often resulting in humanitarian crises of colossal proportions. These incidents have been a rude awakening to the international bodies to shift their attention from the traditional reactionary approach to disasters to a more proactive precautionary approach with an emphasis on pre-disaster preparedness and mitigation.
The last decade saw several international attempts at forging a consensus on the best ways by which to build up a systemic process to mitigate disaster damage. In 2000 the member states of the United Nations adopted the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) aiming to guide and coordinate the efforts of a wide range of partners to achieve substantive reduction in disaster losses and build resilient nations and communities as an essential condition for sustainable development. Echoing a similar ambition, 168 nations across the globe including India participated in the World Conference on Disaster Reduction in 2005 at Kobe, Japan. Here, they adopted the Hyogo Framework for Action: Building Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters 2005-2015. The recent 2010-2011 World Disaster Reduction Campaign: “Making Cities Resilient” is another effort in the same direction. Every year, the second Wednesday of October is observed as the International Day for Disaster reduction. India, internationally and regionally, has been an active member in most initiatives in enhancing disaster resilience.
The Japan double disaster is testimony to the fact that a reliable early warning system, state-of-the-art infrastructure and a strong political commitment can go a long way in saving lives during a disaster. Thanks to its position on the Ring of Fire, which is an arc of seismic activity that encircles the Pacific basin, Japan has a long history with calamity and this has molded it into one of the best prepared nations in the world. A major legacy of events like the Kanto earthquake of 1923 and the more recent Kobe earthquake of 1995, other than the monumental loss of lives and property, was their role as catalysts for the state to take rigorous measures to ensure the protection of citizens from the adverse impacts of a disaster. Following these major disasters, the Japanese government made heavy investments on both structural and non-structural measures to counter disasters. Japan also strongly promoted research on the most advanced technologies for resilient construction and also encouraged retrofitting of already existing vulnerable structures. Japan today boasts of the most advanced early warning system in the world. Furthermore, protective infrastructure like seawalls, tsunami warning signs, marked escape routes, sturdy emergency shelters and so on strengthen the preparedness and resilience of the country. Legislative measures have been enforced such as the revision of the building codes in 2000 and the recent passage of a law in 2007 which ensures strict enforcement of building codes and mandatory ‘quake-proofing’ measures such as embedded hydraulic shock absorbers, extra steel bracing, and base isolation pads. These have enabled even high-rise buildings in Japan to counter major earthquakes, allowing the skyscrapers to dramatically sway as seen on March 11th, but with very few collapses even in the face of an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale. In contrast, the Gujarat earthquake (2001) of a much lower magnitude (6.9) caused enormous damage to life and property. In addition to this, non structural measures such as regular earthquake and tsunami drills and a deep rooted culture of preparedness among the citizens in Japan augments the nation’s capacity to tackle disasters. September 1st, being the anniversary of the Kanto earthquake, is observed every year as National Disaster Prevention Day.
If one were to draw comparisons between Japan’s disaster preparedness and that of India, the results may be quite unsettling. While Japan’s history of experience with past disasters may be attributed to its high level of preparedness, India too has had its share of calamities. The recent disasters like the Orissa cyclone of 1999, the Gujarat earthquake in 2001, the 2004 tsunami and the Kashmir Earthquake of 2005, incited India to recognise the urgent need for proactive and effective disaster management systems in the country, following which dramatic institutional changes were made in the system. The passage of the National Disaster Management Act in 2005, along with the establishment of the National Disaster Management Authority and the ensuing State Disaster Management Authorities were steps made to amalgamate disaster management into state functioning.
The National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM) in Delhi and a network of State institutes/centers/ cells in Administrative Training Institutes (ATIs) constitute the training and research arm of the institutional architecture in the country. Through these institutional arrangements, it is mandatory for every state and district to have a disaster management plan and yet, only 17 states have functioning SDMAs. While the previous disasters have stimulated the nation’s attention on disaster management, it is a cause of great worry that many of the proposed measures towards preparedness are lagging behind with respect to implementation, operational capacities and adequate resources or suffering due to lack of political will/commitment and an attitude of defiance by the public. Disturbingly, this is pertinent at all levels of implementation from the national down to the local/district levels.
Even as Japan struggles to estimate the losses due to this catastrophe, one cannot imagine the consequences that a similar disaster can have on the coastal city of Mumbai with a population density of more than 20,000 persons per square kilometer as compared to approximately 337 persons per square kilometer in Japan.
Mumbai, located on the west coast of India is prone to multiple natural and man-made disasters. In the past decades Mumbai has suffered severe setbacks socially, economically and politically due to them, the floods in July 2005 being a case in point. One of the biggest disasters to have brought the city of Mumbai to a standstill, the floods caused a total loss amounting to crores of rupees and affected millions.
The commercial capital of the country houses the headquarters of many prominent business houses and important government offices. Mumbai is placed linearly along the Arabian Sea coast and this unique layout of the city also makes it greatly susceptible to hydrological disasters like tsunami, storm surge, cyclone, not to mention the inevitable impacts of climate change. Mumbai lies in the moderate seismic zone 3, and can experience earthquakes upto 6.5 on the Richter scale. The Latur earthquake measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale that hit Maharashtra in 1993 caused extensive damage to the state and a comparable disaster can cause multifold the devastation in a city like Mumbai with its high population density and unplanned construction. Fire and industrial accidents, floods, chemical, biological and nuclear hazards are also imminent threats to the city.
The Vulnerability of the city to hazards like the ones that occurred in Japan is further compounded due to the ‘urban disaster’ that the city is suffering itself, where unsafe construction/substandard housing, malnutrition, inadequate healthcare, illiteracy and unemployment coupled with a frequently changing political system (coalition government) are a cause for concern.
Mumbai is one of the pioneering cities to have conducted a vulnerability assessment and has in place a fine Disaster Management plan at the city and ward level. And although efforts made in this regard are important, there is no denying that there is still much to be done to make Mumbai a ‘safe and resilient’ city. And so the important question is, as Mr.Aloysius Rego, Executive Director, Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre (ADPC) Bangkok, put it, “Why is what is known not being implemented?” Whilst the Indian media tends to glamourise the resilience of the people of Mumbai who have braved past disasters, the urgent need for mainstreaming disaster resilience into the city’s development plans has not received adequate attention.
Over and above the traditional reactionary nature of the Indian government, Mumbai in particular has specific issues that hinder inclusion of resilience into its developmental plans. And while we talk of Japan’s preparedness through structural and non-structural mechanisms, we see the weakness of Mumbai in both fronts. The biggest challenge is the risk-prone conditions that people are exposed to. In a city where the population density and sheer number of structures create vulnerabilities, more than 60% of the population resides in informal settlements and many are dangerously close to bio-chemically hazardous materials/factories. The National Building Code (1994) and the Draft Regional Plan for Mumbai Metropolitan Region (1996-2011) binds builders to follow safety precautions and make constructions disaster- proof.
However, the existence of a ‘land mafia’ in Mumbai owing to the scarcity of land, the escalating demand for land and the soaring land prices makes it seem that response in an ‘unlikely’ event of a disaster is more feasible than adhering to norms for safe and resilient construction. An editorial in a national newspaper once blamed the greed of builders and their nexus to politicians for ‘the rape of the city’ as the author termed it. The recent Adarsh building scam and the gross violation of the CRZ norms, constant reclamation of land for developmental projects, destruction of natural barriers like mangroves and an indifferent attitude towards imminent risks exacerbate the city’s vulnerability. Even as several skyscrapers and million dollar mansions are steadily on the rise in the city, there is a simultaneous unchecked growth of slums and illegal structures. While on the one hand Japan enforces stringent building norms to protect its citizens from any disaster, we seem to be pushing ours further into one. But infrastructural vulnerability is only a small part of the vast predicament that the city is in.
The people’s attitude towards disaster risk is one of denial. The disaster in Japan proved that it is indeed a nation better prepared than most others as people maintained calm and followed protocol even at the time of a crisis. This is primarily due to the education imparted even at the primary school level in Japan, instructing students on risk and preparedness. In India, despite the inclusion of disaster education into the existing education system by the government in the 10th Five Year Plan, risk awareness and communication is almost absent. There is an urgent need for educating people on how to respond in the event of a disaster, as confirmed by past experience.
The recent fire (March 4th) at Garib Nagar, Bandra East bears testimony to the extent of damage that even a relatively small disaster such as a fire break-out can cause to a population that is ill equipped to handle a crisis. In contrast to a prepared nation like Japan where people are taught to always keep at hand a “quick-grab case” with basic supplies, medications, flashlight and important documents and to turn off the gas and take cover under a sturdy structure in case of an earthquake, in India the impulse is to simply run out of the building.
While in no way belittling the tragedy suffered by the Japanese, this is an opportunity for us in India and especially in Mumbai to learn a valuable lesson in coordinating action during a crisis. The need of the hour is to adopt a proactive approach to disaster management by enhancing disaster risk reduction strategies and inculcating a culture of preparedness in the population.
Mumbai has a complex system of governance and quick decision making is a challenge. The need for coordination between the multiple stakeholders with a mandate in Disaster management is a dire necessity. There is immense scope for the government authorities, the corporate houses and particularly the defense forces to work with and adopt best practices from each other. Innovative resource mobilizing strategies like Public-Private Partnerships and public forums that facilitate coordination of various stakeholders will assist in elimination of competition between the responders and avoid duplication of work ensuring effective action at the time of emergency. A strong political will and public cooperation is indispensable for the strict enforcement of building codes and assertion of structural safety. The already existing vulnerable structures in the city demand urgent attention and retrofitting must be a main concern.
Also, the establishment of effective early warning systems is critical for risk management. The identification and strengthening of emergency shelters is crucial. Decentralization of disaster management plans and Community-based preparedness plans is fundamental to enhance resilience. The attitude of indifference from the public has to be addressed and risk communication is essential. One of the most important and immediate steps that Mumbai needs is for each of its inhabitants to pledge to safeguarding the city against any disaster. After all, the preservation of the city is not the government’s business alone. ‘We the people who aspire for change must take up the responsibility of preparing the people for change’.
While millions flock to the city of dreams in hope of a better life and a
chance at living the Bollywood dream, let us contribute towards its realization by ensuring the city’s continued existence.