Even as horrific images of the disaster that struck Japan continue to linger in our minds, one cannot but wonder what would happen if a similar disaster were to strike India.
There have been a spate of natural disasters in recent years that have beleaguered both wealthy and poorer nations, resulting in humanitarian crises of colossal proportions. These incidents have been a rude awakening to international bodies and over the last decade, several international attempts were made at forging a consensus on the best ways to build a systemic process to mitigate disaster damage. The adoption of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) 2000, the World Conference on Disaster Reduction 2005, the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015, and the recent 2010-2011 World Disaster Reduction Campaign are efforts in that direction.
The Japanese double disaster, earthquake followed by tsunami, 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. Japan has handled the disaster exceptionally well. If one were to draw comparisons between Japan and India, the results may be quite unsettling.
India has had its share of calamities in the past 10 to 15 years.
The recent disasters like the 1999 Orissa cyclone, the 2001 Gujarat earthquake, the 2004 tsunami and the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, impelled India to recognise the urgent need for proactive and effective disaster management systems in the country. The passage of the National Disaster Management Act in 2005, the establishment of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), and the ensuing State Disaster Management Authorities (SDMAs) and the National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM) in Delhi were steps in the right direction aimed at amalgamating disaster management into state functioning.
However, 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 indifference by the public.
One cannot imagine the consequences if a similar disaster were to strike Mumbai. This coastal city is prone to multiple natural and man-made disasters, the July 2005 floods being a case in point. Although Mumbai has conducted a vulnerability assessment and has a Disaster Management Plan, there is no denying that there is still much to be done to make Mumbai a ‘safe and resilient’ city.
Besides the traditional reactionary nature of the Indian government, Mumbai in particular has specific issues that hinder inclusion of resilience into its developmental plans. More than 60% of the population resides in informal settlements that are dangerously close to bio-chemically hazardous materials. The existence of a ‘land mafia’, gross violation of CRZ norms, constant reclamation of land for developmental projects, destruction of natural barriers like mangroves and existence of over 15,000 highly unsafe buildings exacerbate the city’s vulnerability.
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 for coordination between the multiple stakeholders through resource mobilisng strategies like public-private partnerships is a dire necessity.Strong political will and public cooperation is indispensable for assertion of structural safety and retrofitting of vulnerable structures.
Also, the establishment of effective early warning systems and the identification and strengthening of emergency shelters is crucial. Decentralisation of disaster management plans and disaster education to increase public awareness is fundamental to enhance resilience.
While millions flock to the City of Dreams in hope of a better life, let us contribute towards its realisation by ensuring the city’s continued existence and resilient progress.
The author is a researcher at the Observer Research Foundation
Mumbai, specialising in Disaster Management and Risk Reduction studies.