Making a cyclonic difference

By Suresh Kumar Pramar

Traditionally India is vulnerable to natural disasters on account of its unique geo-climatic conditions. Floods, droughts, cyclones, earthquakes and landslides are recurrent phenomena. About 60 per cent of the landmass is prone to earthquakes of various intensities; over 40 million hectares is prone to floods; about eight per cent of the total area is prone to cyclones and 68 per cent of the area is susceptible to drought. On the east coast, cyclones occur frequently. In the interior of the Plateau or in the Himalayas – earthquakes, and in the Ganga-Brahmaputra plain, floods are more common. Rajasthan or Western Orissa often experience severe drought, as do other areas in South India. According to official figures over 65 per cent of the total land area is vulnerable to earthquakes. The fragile Himalayan mountain ranges are extremely vulnerable to earthquakes, landslides and avalanches. Western and central India are equally unsafe. The super cyclone in Orissa in October 1999 and the Bhuj earthquake in Gujarat in January 2001 underscored the need to adopt a multidimensional approach involving diverse scientific, engineering, financial and social processes. In the decade 1990-2000, an average of about 4344 people lost their lives and about 30 million people were affected by disasters every year. The loss in terms of private, community and public assets has been astronomical. The need to adopt multidisciplinary and multi-sectoral approach and to incorporate risk reduction in the developmental plans and strategies was also felt.

Stung by the growing spread and intensity of disasters, the government of India has over the past couple of years, brought about a paradigm shift in the approach to disaster management. This new approach proceeds from the conviction that development cannot be sustainable unless disaster mitigation is built into the development process. Another corner stone of the approach is that mitigation has to be multidisciplinary spanning across all sectors of development.

Historically disaster response has been the province of domestic and international relief agencies. While governments are expected to be actively involved in disaster management in recent years the public has come to expect increased social responsibility and community service from companies. Major disasters have become a rallying cry for corporate involvement.

At a recently National Workshop on Cross Sect oral Strategies for Disaster Risk Reduction organised in New Delhi by Project Concern International (PCI) for stakeholders, participants from Corporates, Civil Society Organisations, the Academic Institutions and IAGs (UN + NGOs) debated on how best to establish a cross sectoral learning network and share resources. The workshop is part of the efforts to strategise learning for long term sustainability of results achieved. Such workshops have been planned in five states including Andhra Pradesh, Uttarkhand, Gujarat, Orissa and Bihar.

According to the PCI the stakeholders across these state were often unclear about the roles of the state in disaster risk management and response. The workshops are an attempt to promote better understanding of roles of the various stakeholders.

At the Delhi workshop the role of the corporate sector in the area of disaster response was highlighted. It was found that the potential role of the business sector in local networks is not well defined. It was revealed that corporate response was largely limited to assistance in cash and kind. Employee involved was rare. It was indicated that employee volunteering was both difficult and costly.

The corporate group at the workshop felt that there was growing interest in business to participate in local response networks. It was felt that there was little in way of formal mechanisms to support
their contributions. The group felt that a more engaged corporate sector could contribute to disaster prevention and mitigation through planned procedures and dedicated resources. It was felt that disaster management and response should be included in the CSR agenda. Corporates need to develop disaster plans, workplace training and strengthening social responsibility commitments.

The need for increased employee participation in disaster management and response was highlighted. Employees of companies that take a leadership role during times of national or international crises often feel a sense of pride and loyalty towards their companies. Not responding to disasters, it was pointed out, can leave employees feeling disappointed and even frustrated with their companies. Consumers respect companies that step up to disaster relief; when companies stand at the sidelines, the effect can be one of public disapproval.

The challenges of stepping up to disaster response are significant, preventing most businesses from even trying. even large companies with significant resources at their disposal typically stumble when it comes to disaster response, as their core business mission precludes a focus on the evolving field of addressing disasters, including connecting with the right support on the ground and engaging employee participation. Smart policy would dictate that companies should not over-invest in disaster.

While disaster response can be regarded as a company’s civic duty, businesses can not serve as relief agencies. For a company to mobilise its resources around disaster response would be a challenge for several reasons. Disaster campaign building is not typically a capability that companies have in-house For a company to create custom campaigns would be time-consuming.

It would find it both difficult and time consuming to leverage public interest quickly. Companies usually don’t have pre-existing relationships with the nonprofits and agencies in disaster zones that
must be partnered with in order to provide effective relief. Only the large companies have the resources to activate their consumers and employees around disasters.

Business can play an important role both in disaster management and response by working in partnership with civil society and academic institutions. NGOs working at the grassroots have the expertise to meaningfully build local capacity to manage risk and also to respond swiftly to any disaster. They lack the resources and management skills. Corporates can provide the resources, which they do. They could also help by provide crucial management skills which may be lacking among NGOs through an employee voluntary programme.

Corporates can also play an important role by contribution to research, advocacy and professionalism of the humanitarian community. Most often these institutions are unable to make a contribution because of the lack of adequate financial support. Corporates can help be funding research into various aspects of disaster management and response.

Suresh Kumar Pramar is an executive director, Centre for Training & Research in Responsible Business.
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