Prevention is better than rehabilitation

A room overlooking the Gori Ganga, Uttarakhand
A room overlooking the Gori Ganga, Uttarakhand

The Himalayas were born of continental shift when the Indian subcontinent challenged the larger Asian landmass. This tortured birth still continues making the region susceptible to landslides and earthquakes. In addition to this geological fact, climate change is altering rainfall patterns and leading to more instances of very intense rainfall, which further increases the problem of landslides.

Locals have developed an ability to gauge the weather and the land due to years of dealing with such issues. This local knowledge is constantly evolving with continuous observations of changes in weather patterns and local vulnerabilities along with with knowledge inputs from the 'outside' such as improved access to weather reporting services (Wisner, B. 2010).

This is not always foolproof in the case of extreme rainfall or landslides as was proved during the cataclysm of June 2013 when extreme rainfall took 2.5 lakh pilgrims by surprise and led to the death of atleast 6,000. Local knowledge is certainly not efficient in the case of earthquakes, as was tragically demonstrated during the Sikkim earthquake of November 2011. To expect the locals to predict all such disasters is laying too much of a burden on them. 

How can we lessen such loss of life, property and our biodiversity? Commonly understood steps in disaster management are response, relief and rehabilitation but there is no mention of prevention.

This gap in thought process is acknowledged by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). Set up in 2005, its objectives encompass incorporating disaster management principles across all development measures, ensuring compliance with recommended measures, ensuring forecasting and warning, and increasing the efficiency of response (B.Bhattacharjee, 2012). 

Efficacy of the present disaster management mission
The Comptroller and Auditor General of India recently published a report that is scathing in its evaluation of the progress made towards disaster management in India (Comptroller and Auditor General of India, 2012).

The performance audit indicted disaster preparedness in India at all levels including:

  • the lack of meetings of the National Executive Committee
  • the absence of a National Plan for Disaster Management
  • mismanagement of state disaster response funds
  • lack of an efficient communications system despite expenses incurred
  • lack of training and capacity building

as reasons for the increased vulnerability of the nation to disaster.

The report also points out that conditions in the Himalayan states are worse than those in the plains. In Uttarakhand, the state and district authorities were non-functional, with the state executive meeting having never met since its conception while the district disaster management authority had met only twice (in April and May 2011) since it was constituted in 2007. There was a lack of a state disaster management plan, irregularities in the management of the state disaster response fund, lack of an early warning and communication system, no measures taken to rehabilitate villages identified for immediate relocation in 2008, and lack of capacity building.

A few measures such as the establishment of communication equipment and emergency operations centers had been taken at the time of the audit. Dr. Pankaj Tewari of CHEA has confirmed that as of December 2013, preparation of the state disaster management plan is well underway.

What explains this negligence?

A passion shared by all the individuals involved, from policy makers to householders, through the entire bureacracy is necessary to ensure implementation of a nation-wide mission such as that of increasing resilience to disasters. This 'will' responds to the following incentives: political, economic, legal, administrative and moral/ethical (Wisner et al, 2011). Each of these influences each other and are influenced by various stakeholders. For example, the desire of administrative staff to ensure the safety of a state may be undone by a lack of funds. Community-led disaster management for reduced vulnerability in the future may take a back seat to the urgent necessity of securing a livelihood today.

This complex interconnection between stakeholders, their incentives to implement disaster risk reduction measures, and their incentives to ignore these measures makes it difficult to select a single initiative or group of initiatives to ensure compliance.

The solution

Rather than the system of providing incentives, education and awareness raising has the potential to tip the scale in favour of implementing disaster mitigation methods. Lack of incentive to implement disaster mitigation measures can also be read as increased importance being given to some aspect of the present situation. If people disregard laws that prohibit construction on river banks, it is because a certain value is ascribed to a river view; hotel rooms that overlook the river are preferred by tourists.

Hesitation to limit the number of visitors to pilgrimage points indicates a dependence on the income generated from this trade as also a reluctance to anger a voting population. Creating awareness of the risks involved has the potential to increase the 'value' ascribed to disaster management, which is then the incentive required to successfully implement these measures.

A number of pilgrims bathing at the fragile Gaumukh glacier

This is not an easy task, simply because of the diversity of people that need to be included in this campaign; the list includes politicians, administrative officials, development workers, media personnel, funding organisations, religious leaders, and communities, to name but a few. The positive note is that it has been done before, and on an even larger scale.

The inspiration

India's polio eradication drive is a stunning example of an entire nation working towards a common goal- national campaigns involving 2.3 million health workers, which gave birth to innovative strategies to reach migrant and transit populations. It involved all sections of the community from celebrities to religious leaders in creating awareness, initiated research, and gave birth to a surveillance programme more robust than any seen before (Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, 2012).

At its peak, polio affected 1.5 lakh children in the country. Natural disasters in the Indian Himalayas affect 2 lakh people each year. Today, India has been polio-free for two years. It is time to assess whether India can sustain yet another life saving campaign- that of a disaster-resilient population.


B.Bhattacharjee, 2012. National Disaster Management Guidelines- National Disaster Management Information and Communication System (NDMICS) 2011.A publication of the National Disaster Management Authority, Government of India ISBN: 978-93-80440-12-5, February 2012, New Delhi

Comptroller and Auditor General of India, 2012. Performance Audit of Disaster Preparedness in India. Report no 5 of 2013. Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India. Pg5.

Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, 2012. 'From 2,00,000 to Zero: The journey to a polio-free India'. Polio Summit  2012. Available online:

Wisner, B. (2010). Local Knowledge and Disaster Risk Reduction. Keynote address at the meeting on Indigenous Knowledge, Global Platform for Disaster Reduction. Geneva, 17 June 2009. Revised 25 June 2009

Wisner, B, George Kent, Jean Carmalt, Brian Cook, JC Gaillard, Allan Lavell, Marcus Oxley, Terry Gibson, Ilan Kelman, Dewald van Niekerk, Jonatan Lassa, Zen Delica Willison, Mihir Bhatt, Omar-Dario Cardona, Djillali Benouar, Lizardo Narvaez, 2011. Political Will for Disaster Reduction: What Incentives Build It, And Why Is It So Hard To Achieve? A Contribution to the Review of the draft GAR 2011, Chapters 5, 6 & 7.

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