Monday, September 8, 2008

'Administration has to be more sensitive'

We hope to see better results in retrofitting schools, VC Menon, member, National Disaster Management Authority, tells SREELATHA MENON.

Did the floods in the Kosi river take the authorities by surprise? For no one had any clue they were coming. There were no boats for days. What authority does the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has in such a situation?We have all the powers required to face any disaster. The NDMA was formed under the National Disaster Management Act of 2005 and is headed by the prime minister. Former Army chief Gen NC Vij (retd) is the authority’s vice-chairman and all its eight members are experts in fields related to disaster management.
Why was everyone clueless about the condition of the Kosi embankment? Is the security of millions in the hands of a lone engineer in Biratnagar whose faxes no one reads in New Delhi, Patna or Kathmandu, as media reports have been revealed?The embankment is in another country which was in turmoil for some time. So that has to be taken into account.
So people kept quiet because it was diplomatic to do so?I can’t comment on that.
How does the NDMA work with other arms of the government?There is a National Crisis Management Committee, headed by the Cabinet secretary, with all Union secretaries as members. It is like a committee of secretaries and it meets daily and takes decisions. It looks at all the crises that are beyond the capacity of the state governments to handle. The executive committee of the NDMA is headed by the home secretary and the secretary of the NDMA is a member of this committee.
Why is it that in Bihar, for days together there were insufficient boats to ferry people out of danger?We have 2,600 boats there now and 11 helicopters. We are getting these from various agencies. There are 18 teams of the National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) with 733 people dealing with the rescue operations. These are people trained to deal with floods and are part of the eight battalion force of the NDRF (of roughly 10,000 men).
Was there a shortage of choppers? Can you summon private aircraft to deal with large-scale evacuation?We can take over any hospital or private establishment in such a situation. But in Bihar, the only airstrip nearby was in Purnea. It is not possible to have more choppers there. Having more boats was also not safe as we would not have been able to control the safety of the people. There are already stories of private boatmen looting people in distress. We have to be very cautious. We are dealing with 34,28,000 people in 1,914 villages. We have boats which can carry 10 people as well as those which can carry 20-30. Even operating these boats has been a challenge because they have been hitting railway tracks as water is eight feet deep all over.
What about the government in Bihar? The state has been facing floods every year. Why was it not able to mobilise sufficient supplies and rescue people for days together in districts like Araria?Look at their website and you will find that each district has the power to procure boats for floods. We are there to facilitate this. Bihar has had worse floods. In the 1987 floods, 28.6 million people were affected and in the 2004 floods, 220 million people were affected. So far 3.4 million have been affected and we have evacuated over 600,000. We are running 285 camps with 25,000 people each. Do you know what it costs to run a camp of that size? It is not easy given the fact that the entire area is under water.
Some government officials are dismissive of these efforts even now. They say Bihar has three kinds of crops: Kharif, rabi and relief. What do you say?It is true that people there are used to relief and disaster. It is a way of life in Bihar. All that can be said is that the local administration has to learn to be more sensitive.
How is it that a fortnight after the floods, industry was nowhere in the picture? Doesn’t the NDMA have any link with industry?We have a corporate task force with the CII, the Ficci, major companies as well as an NGO taskforce with 20 organisations. We have given them a list of things needed and they are supplying them. For instance, every day, one lakh steel sheets are being sent from steel factories, including that of Tata Steel, which has its own relief department. We let companies take credit for this. We are just links. NGOs like World Vision, Caritas, Oxfam and Vani are among the 20 organisations which are in the NGO taskforce. They are adopting camps.
You were a part of the UN relief operation for tsunami and it was counted as one of the best. Can that be replicated ?Of course . That is why the NDMA was formed with professional expertise. Our mission is zero tolerance to avoidable deaths. We are creating early warning systems and rescue systems.
You have been periodically issuing guidelines on flood management and quake resistance. What is the compliance?We have issued guidelines on management of floods, earthquakes, and now on biological disaster. Our national executive committee, headed by the home secretary, monitors their implementation. Our guidelines on earthquakes mooted that all home loans should have a component on quake-proofing houses. It is already in place for zone 4 and zone 5 houses. For the rest, the emphasis is on strengthening the lifeline structures like schools and hospitals. Do you know 33,000 children died in China’s schools in the recent earthquake and many of the 88,000 victims of the Muzaffarabad quake died in classrooms. We have to prevent that here.
Are we expecting any disaster now?Yes, a devastating earthquake near Uttarakhand. It can happen anytime.
How many schools have we retrofitted?Just one in Delhi and we will do eight more, besides one each in a district of Zone 4 and 5.
You have retrofitted just one school in four years. Doesn’t that reflect poorly on the NDMA?We are launching a school safety project this year and we hope to see better results in retrofitting schools. (Business Standard)
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