The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Even partial preparedness helps in the case of predictable disasters

A terrible flood has hit Assam; hundreds are without food, water and shelter, and thousands of acres of agricultural land have been submerged, destroying crops worth crores. Most of this belonged to farmers whose income was, at best, meagre — now they face the prospect of being pauperized. The situation is no better in the northern parts of West Bengal, and of Bihar — there, too, the poorest in the rural areas have lost their homes, and the hope of some income from their crops. Relief of some kind is being provided, to be sure; but it is never enough, barely sufficient to give the victims enough to eat every day.

Not very long ago, before the monsoon came, Andhra Pradesh suffered a dreadful heat wave, in which over a thousand people died. Fields were burned dry by the heat, water sources and wells dried up. Then, too, the calamity was not confined to Andhra Pradesh alone; parts of Orissa suffered equally. Again, whatever relief was provided was not considered adequate; and, of course, there was little anyone could do to prevent people from going out in the blazing sun — they had to earn a living, as labourers or hawkers, and it was mostly such people who died.

Going further back a few months, in the cold wave in December, January and February there were several people who died of the cold, who did not have enough clothing to provide them with any kind of warmth, and had little or no access to sheltered places where the intensity of the cold would not have been lethal. Once again, some kind of relief was provided, there were night shelters, and the distribution of blankets and warm clothing, but not enough to prevent people from dying.

These are not calamities that occur very rarely and take everyone by surprise. Floods, heat waves and intensely cold conditions occur every year, and every year people die, or lose their livelihood or their land. True, such calamities can never ever be stopped, nor can complete protection be provided against the sufferings they bring. Add to this the generally fragile condition of people, particularly women and children in villages or in the slums of our cities, and one can see that fatalities can never be prevented completely.

But need they be as high as they are now' It is necessary for those who are charged with the welfare of the people — in the state and Central governments — to ask themselves whether they are doing enough to lessen the suffering and the number of deaths. This is not an easy task, as everyone will readily admit. Floods, particularly, cause havoc on such a scale that it costs the public exchequer a huge amount just to get communications — road, rail and telephone — back, to repair buildings, clear canals and drains.

But that said, there still remains the question of whether enough is being done to lessen the sufferings of the victims of natural calamities. “Providential calamities,” Kautilya says, “are of eight kinds: fire, floods, pestilential diseases, famine, rats, serpents and demons. From these, the king shall protect his kingdom.” If, for the moment, we leave aside the last three, the other five remain even today as real calamities which have to be tackled.

Having accepted that what one can do is never going to be enough, one must not, consequently, go to the other extreme, and say that we can’t do anything except provide only token relief. There is a great deal that can be done and it needs to be considered with high seriousness, and given the importance and urgency one would to crises like widespread violence or even war. It is being done elsewhere; there’s no reason why we can’t do so here.

Effective, and modern early warning systems would provide some very precious time to move people from danger areas and save lives, whether from floods or other calamities. If it is impossible to predict some calamities like earthquakes with any certainty, then other steps, like making sure that only structures that can withstand earthquakes of an intensity that is the most common in the region are built, should be taken — be they public buildings or residential houses. Some system of making subsidies available could surely be worked out; after all, in the event of an earthquake crores would have to be spent on rebuilding houses and other buildings, and in that context this kind of subsidy would be a worthwhile investment.

Where early warning systems can and do work well is when floods occur. Authorities can be alerted well in advance about unusually high rainfall in catchment areas, in the upper reaches of rivers and other sensitive locations; that would make it possible to move people away in time to safer places, where adequate food, water and shelter would be available.

But it isn’t really a question of early warning systems in terms of equipment which provides warnings so much as foreseeing calamities in the long term. This is what is really needed and this is what is virtually non-existent. We know what the calamities are in this country, and we have a fairly accurate idea of how violent and widespread they can be. So, can there not be some kind of measures taken to be prepared at least to the extent possible' It’s not for me to say what the nature of preparedness should be; it’ll obviously be different for different eventualities, but the fact is these can be worked out and equipment kept in areas which are calamity-prone, and personnel trained to cope with it.

More important, the local authorities need to be given access to funds and financial authority which makes it possible for them to get things done without frantic calls being made every time to the state government.

Somebody in authority in the states and in the Centre must sit down and determine what priority these calamities need to be given. It’s easy to be very clever and detached about them because position insulates them from the suffering calamities bring. But officers who have had to deal with them would know what is involved, and only they can determine what kind of foresight is required at the level of the district, state and the Centre.

These are the kind of people, and those representatives of the people who have actually seen or even suffered from these calamities, who need to be brought together and asked to work out what needs to be done. What the political executive in states and the Centre need to do is give the deliberations of these people the importance they merit, and act on the advice they give. When there isn’t a calamity the accounts people will no doubt make constipated remarks on funds being “unutilized” (lovely word, that, coined, no doubt, by a gnome in some accounts section — the sort who’d see celibacy as an irregular act where a certain organ was unutilized) but, if the thinking has been realistic, and the equipment and funds provided as adequate as possible, then when a calamity does occur they may make the difference between a large number of people dying or living, between the spending of astronomical sums in rebuilding and restoring damage and amounts that would be relatively more modest. From these the king shall protect his kingdom.

Will this ever happen' Who knows — the state and Central governments usually live from day to day and it would be a wise and true statesman who would be able to see ahead and recognize the value of being at least partially prepared. There may be some such somewhere, and they may decide to think ahead, looking beyond the immediate calamities to those that are bound to visit us in future years. One can only live in hope and expectation, and leave reality to unravel in time.

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