Localised disaster preparedness
Presence of local bodies is paramount to the effective management of catastrophes, ensuring proactive disaster preparedness and facilitating public participation
Tamil Nadu has witnessed yet another natural disaster after Tsunami caused unfathomable loss to the people in Nagapattinam, Thiruvarur, Cuddalore, Thanjavur, and Pudukkottai districts. The damages are much more than what the tsunami caused. People of those regions have lost everything, including their hope that they will recover from this disaster easily. Rich, poor, middle-class have all been equalised. All their conditions are the same. It is a pity that we have had enough lessons to learn from the tsunamis, and yet, those lessons have not been effectively used to manage the disaster. Everything went well before the Gaja storm hit. Bungling began from the next day onwards as there was no local authority to take responsibility. Local bodies have a huge responsibility for disaster management. The presence of local bodies is imperative for disaster preparedness on the ground. People have to be prepared and all wherewithals have to be provided at the local level to manage the disaster. Local bodies' role and the public's participation are crucial in disaster preparedness. It seems that nobody realised the importance of local bodies in Tamil Nadu. It is sad to note that there have been no local bodies in the past two years in the state. In their absence, a centralised administrative system currently operates at the district level to manage any disaster. Reaching out to the villages from the district headquarter is a herculean task as the roads are completely blocked by the trees. As a result, state government faces the wrath of the people despite their fast relief and rehabilitation works.
After the tsunami, a disaster management act was enacted, a disaster management authority was created up to the district level and a comprehensive training manual has been prepared to conduct training programmes to build the capacity of local bodies. Equal power has been given to local bodies to take steps to indulge the community in disaster preparedness. Had the local bodies been in position, it would have done a great job of mitigating the problems of the people by providing food and water, and maintaining sanitation with the involvement of the people. People would have been collectively involved in a range of disaster management activities. They would not be in despair and frustration. In the absence of local bodies, people have become onlookers – sitting on the roads demanding relief from the government. Even without going into the villages, details of damages have been calculated and compensation has also been announced. When compared to the losses in terms of crops, animals, houses, are huge, the figures given officially by the authorities created wrath among the people.
It is to be remembered that from 11th Five Year Plan onwards, advise has been given to the state governments that disaster has to be looked upon as integral to all development activities. It should be part of our development plan. In this context, we have to look at the preparedness of the government. People have to be trained in disaster-response measures. All activities have to be carried out with active participation of the people. Relief activities have to be coordinated through the panchayats in the rural areas and municipalities in the urban areas. Disaster management committee under the leadership of the panchayat president is to be held responsible for the data about the conditions of households. All the data pertinent to the losses have to be placed before the Gram Sabha and it is to be approved by the Gram Sabha. Since every panchayat has got a pucca building, the material has to be stocked in the panchayat office. In this way, the disaster-preparedness activities have to be carried out. If powers are given to the people through Panchayati Raj, they act in a more responsible way to tackle the issues. Even if there are lapses they will not accuse others. But now people feel that powers and resources are with District Collector, Minister and state government. If they have been deprived of powers and resources then they will certainly not have any grievances against the state government. People's power and energy have to be used for all activities. Relief and rehabilitation activities have to be done only with the active participation of the people through local bodies. This has to be realised by our political and bureaucratic class. Otherwise, they have to face the wrath of the people. In Tamil Nadu, the major parties are not interested in empowering the people rather they are interested in the distribution of benefits to the poor during the crisis. Despite the provision in the Constitution that election has to be conducted before the expiry of five years, the Tamil Nadu State Election Commission has not conducted the local body election, completely knowing that this is a violation of the provisions of the Constitution. It is a pity that there is no political will on the part of political parties to see that elections are due in local bodies.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)