Contrasting Houston and Mumbai
With a reported 50 inches of rainfall further aggravated by massive flash-floods last week, Hurricane Harvey in Texas has gripped the world's attention. The fury is said to have returned after a long wait of 500 years. The storm has displaced more than 1 million people, with 50 feared dead from the flooding that has paralysed the entire state. But halfway around the world, another flood has wreaked havoc. India is simultaneously witnessing a series of floods as heavy downpours continue across the country. What a stark contrast stands between the way India and the US react to the natural calamities.
I had a glimpse of the promptness with which the administration moved in to deal with the situation during my visit to Texas. The official response to Harvey appears to be very competent. For instance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was on the ground two days before Harvey reached the land. Texas governor Greg Abbott deployed the entire Texas National Guard. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner quickly activated the police and firefighters while also providing clear instructions to the residents.
The administration promptly pressed in helicopters that rescued stranded people. About 30,000 National Guard and active duty troops were on standby to assist Texas authorities. Immediately before the devastating Hurricane Harvey hit the state, the governor of Texas requested aid for long-term recovery projects. The citizen-soldiers of the Texas National Guard have also been called upon to provide assistance.
Two days after the havoc wrecked the city of Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner told CNN: "We need immediately, right now, just for debris removal alone, anywhere between $75 million to $100 million." As capable as the local, state, and federal disaster response has been, more impressive was the great effort made by thousands of Texans, volunteering to help their fellow citizens. Old timers point out that this was much better than the response to the Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana in 2005.
There is a huge Indian population in Texas of about 3,50,000, of which Houston alone houses 1,50,000. Though the office was shut, the Indian consulate worked day and night to reach out to the affected. Despite all roads being inundated with water and closed for traffic, Consul General Anupam Ray personally went to the University complex where more than 250 Indian students were stranded. Ray was all praise and said, "The same rescued Indian students were out within a day volunteering at city shelters," and that the Indian American community also came in to provide relief and assistance in a large way.
The US administration is currently getting ready to face the aftermath. There is likely to be a long-term threat to public health like water contamination, pollution, power outages, and economic disruption. Some of the hardest hit communities are the low-income groups. Texas is also home to the second largest Latino population of the US (9.8 million). Most undocumented immigrants are in deep fear of deportation.
For President Trump, this was the first major disaster and a significant test for his leadership response. Visiting Texas twice in the last week, he made no secret of his desire to be seen as leading a successful disaster response effort. Texas Governor Greg Abbott has sought more than $125 billion for relief work. The Trump administration has sought $7.85 billion appropriations for response and initial recovery efforts.
Compared to that, the response to last week's Mumbai rain fury showed that very little has changed since the 2005 deluge when the city had been completely marooned. The city administration was not equipped to meet the natural disaster despite several warnings from the Met department predicting heavy rains. There was no advance planning to deal with the situation. There were no efforts to provide additional transportation or necessary warning signals to the public.
Friends from Mumbai claimed that the demand for essential commodities like bread, milk, and eggs was not met. The point is that the administration has no plans in place to meet this kind of situation, despite the regularity of floods causing havoc in the city. Mumbai remains highly vulnerable to the heavy rains despite well-identified solutions to reduce the risks. The city's drainage system is over a 100 years old and incapable of handling annual monsoon rains.
Following the 2005 deluge that killed over 400 people and caused huge damage to infrastructure and buildings, a committee recommended overhauling the drainage system, but not much has been done. The politician-builder nexus continues to flourish merrily.
According to the statistics, 68 per cent of India is prone to drought, 60 per cent to earthquakes, 12 per cent to floods and 8 per cent to cyclones, making it one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. There is every need to bolster our defences against the natural calamities.
Preparedness is the key to the success of any Disaster Management Plan. There is a need to enhance the role of Civil Defense and formulate an effective National Plan for Disaster Management. The Disaster Management Authority needs to make concentrated efforts to educate and effectively institutionalise the entire process and plan for successful disaster management.
The integration and coordination of various crucial departments like Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), Geological Survey of India (GSI), etc is an absolute prerequisite. Instead of having a disaster management task force as a part of the Police Department or Home Guards current conditions demand a separate command centre that should be put in place. Even a ministry for disaster management could be cognized and formulated.
A United Nations report says that India spends about $ 10 billion every year on crisis management. Why should not a part of it be spent on disaster management?
While the government can in no way prevent natural calamities from occurring, it can certainly provide the resources and the leadership to tackle impending disasters. IPA
(The author is currently writing from Texas, USA. The views expressed are strictly personal.)