In Retrospect

Natural disasters: Can we take it on?

Well over half of India's population continues to reside in highly disaster prone areas, as has been admitted by the Home Minister, Rajnath Singh himself. With impending monsoons, climate change affecting the entire globe and India's population showing no signs of containment, is our nation equipped to take on the adversity of a full scale natural disaster? This is a question that has left many harrowed.
The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) confidently assures that yes we are – we have equipped ourselves to minimise the impact of a natural calamity. Admittedly, nature's fury is well beyond the control of even the most advanced societies, as developed nations too continue to face the wrath of unpredictable calamities. Floods, landslides, cyclones, storms, droughts, earthquakes have taken several lives across India, yet statistics do reveal that the scale of impact has been contained in recent times.

A natural disaster is almost always unstoppable; and the best that can be done is limiting its impact. Where earlier a natural calamity would lead to fatalities amounting in thousands, strong response measures over time has sharply reduced this number to just hundreds under most circumstances. The NDRF claim that over the years India has intensified its rescue and relief operations to ensure that the citizens across the country are well protected from disasters. The NDRF has 12 battalions located widely across the country which ensure that the span of the sub-continent is covered, prioritising swift response.

When floods washed down the hills and valleys of Uttarakhand in 2013, the Kedarnath Temple was one of the lone structures that withheld nature's fury. Not often do we witness such exceptions, as floods have caused massive losses to lives, divorcing people from their livelihoods, and causing massive ruins to infrastructure. A recent research suggests that India has the largest population vulnerable to disasters in the world, given various factors including its location, wide geological span, extreme monsoons and dense population. Due to a combination of all these factors a staggering 1.02 billion, or 82 per cent of our population is left prone to natural calamities. The report, while stating this, also added that India has made rapid improvements over the last 10 years, which can be seen specifically while analysing rescue operations carried out during cyclone Phailin.

Cyclone Phailin, which hit the coast of Odisha in October 2013 was of almost the same magnitude as the 1999 Super Cyclone in Odisha. Yet there was a noticeable difference in the impact of both these phenomenons. While in 1999 over 10,000 fatalities were reported, in 2013 the number was reduced to just 50.

"When Phailin hit in 2013 we had received information from the Indian Metereological Department regarding an impending cyclone, after which we sent out signals across the state. We had forces pre-positioned to ensure quick relief and response. Even though the cyclone was as intense as the 1999 Super Cyclone, we were able to control its impact by responding swiftly with our rescue forces," said Randeep Rana, DIG Operations, NDRF. Statistics do support these claims as Cyclone Phailin saw India's largest evacuation in 23 years with over 5,50,000 being moved up from the coastlines of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh to safer places. Specially built cyclone shelters were used to assist the evacuated along with their livestock sharply reducing what could've amounted to a much greater loss.

While on one hand there is the need to improve rescue operations, which over the years has shown marked improvement, there is also undeniable need to spread awareness and educate our masses. "We at NDRF don't only rescue during disasters, we also have our battalion which regularly goes to vulnerable areas to organise awareness programmes among people," said Krishan Kumar, PRO at NDRF. To add, DIG Operations Rana also said, "The people are the first victims, and they are also the first responders. There is increasing need to teach them basic evacuation and educate them to reduce the immediate impact which is often also the harshest." The NDRF in collaboration with the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) and Regional Response Centers (RRCs) actively conducts awareness programmes across villages in vulnerable states to reach out to the masses. "This is also a technique for us to send our troops to vulnerable areas so that they are acquainted with the terrain and location. When disaster strikes, the same troops go back, since they are already familiar with that area and the people; they are best equipped to respond in quick time," claims Kumar.

With monsoons approaching, the NDRF along with SDRF and the district level RRCs have begun devising strategies to combat the pitfalls that could be ushered in by the erratic rains of the country. A meeting was held on the 9th of this month between all concerned offices to discuss the future course of action for the approaching monsoons. "We work closely with the Indian Meteorological Department, along with the NDMA, National Institute of Disaster Management, the State Disaster Response Forces and the District Magistrates. We try to ensure that all steps are taken so that disasters can be mitigated to as much extent as possible," said Kumar. Home Minister Rajnath Singh too in a statement this month, emphasised on the need to devise a national strategy that would deal with "all disasters in coordination with state governments and other stakeholders." The National Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction has been set up to supervise the same.

Despite the government along with NDRF and NDMA acting on improving India's vulnerability to disasters, our growing population remains a cause of concern. Large populations are displaced each year by floods, causing loss of livestock and livelihoods. Unpredictable cyclones and tsunamis on striking coasts wash away villages causing large losses to the national exchequer. Yet, nature being the almighty, controlling it is beyond human parlance, our agency is limited only to maneuvering its possible impacts. The improved status of the NDRF provides some assurance that mitigation measures will now reduce the impact of a calamity, yet owing to their proximity to coastal areas and river beds – several in rural India continue to live in high risk. "We cannot deny that the population is a problem. But a disaster is a disaster. Our forces are well-trained and our response time anywhere across the country is only 15 minutes. From my experience of training with professionals across the world I can assure that the NDRF is second to none," said a confident Rana.

His response which is bolstered by statistics may provide a peaceful night's sleep, yet owing to our large numbers, which keep getting larger by the second, increasing numbers of our population still continue to remain vulnerable – 82 per cent of us, to be precise.
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