Delhi sits on three active fault lines, with over five earthquakes measuring over five on the Richter scale hitting it since 1720. It is designated as a category four seismic zone.
A Nepal-like earthquake would flatten 80 per cent of Delhi’s 25 lakh buildings, including the Walled City and the Trans-Yamuna housing societies.
Cloistered by flyovers with a lifespan of 10-15 years, the city rarely inspects them. Its disaster management centres are housed in small, cramped buildings, lacking basic survival equipment like hammers and torches.
The Walled City remains inaccessible to disaster management, while relief camps lack basic amenities. Even its hospitals are in high-rises.
India is accustomed to disasters. About 70 per cent of its area is prone to tsunamis and cyclones, 60 per cent is vulnerable to earthquakes, and 12 per cent to floods. And yet, risk management is still in its infancy.
The National Earthquake Risk Mitigation Project (launched in 2013), under the National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA), for retrofitting old buildings and making new ones disaster-resistant, lies mostly moribund.
Nepal’s earthquake was barely detected by India’s accelerographs, its initial earthquake warning system, given funding cuts and bureaucratic delays in shifting to a newly established, albeit defunct, National Centre for Seismology.
Multi-storied housing has boomed in urban India, built on a framework of beams and pillars and brick walls. With parking spaces prioritised at the ground level over structural stability, retrofitting is urgently needed, despite its significant costs (20 per cent of a new construction).
Over 84 per cent of Indian houses are made of brick masonry walls, with fire/unfired bricks and stones, and yet, just 3 per cent of undergraduate civil engineering courses consider these materials, focusing instead on reinforced cement and concrete.
Earthquake engineering is taught as a specialisation at just a few universities, including Roorkee, leading to a serious shortage of retrofitting trained civil engineering manpower.
Planned urbanisation can withstand disasters. Consider Japan, which easily withstands a 6.8 Richter scale earthquake (May 13).
Schemes for ensuring seismically-safer habitats by training architects and engineers have mostly failed to meet their targets.
The India Disaster Resource Network should be institutionalised as a repository for organised information and equipment gathering. The National Earthquake Risk Mitigation project needs to be speeded up.
The NDMA has no means to forecast major floods, relying instead of insufficient Central Water Commission forecasts. Two years later, after the Kedarnath tragedy, Uttarakhand still does not have any Doppler radars to provide alerts (up to 3-6 hours before) on cloudbursts and heavy rain.
There are few guidelines on how construction in flood-prone regions, or a map of safe zones, let alone sufficient helipads. While large dams are sanctioned in the hills, the NDMA has kept silent.
Few states have prepared emergency action plans for India’s 5,000 dams, with just 200 dams covered so far. Inflow forecasts for just 30 reservoirs and barrages are currently available against 4,800. Mitigation projects for upgradation of the observatory network have barely commenced.
This situation needs to be changed. The NDMA is headless and defunct. Out of a board of 11 or 12 members, only three have been appointed. It has no enforcement authority, given as it is to guideline-making.
With few policies converted into area-specific action plans, its national guidelines are not binding on states. The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) reports instead to the home ministry, and rescue efforts remain ad hoc in nature.
The majority of the NDMA’s disaster preparedness projects have failed to get started, while there is significant mismanagement in State Disaster Response Funds.
A National Disaster Mitigation Fund is still in the early stages, while the National Disaster Response Fund is often utilised for other purposes.
Despite the Nepal effort, the NDRF’s effectiveness is hampered by a shortage of trained manpower, training, infrastructure and equipment.
As the CAG states, the NDMA’s performance in projects like vulnerability assessment, mitigation projects and microzonation of major cities has been “abysmal”.
The Disaster Management Act (2005) laid down the NDMA’s responsibilities as focusing on “policies, plans and guidelines for disaster management”.
Despite significant investments, the agency faces a significant gap in ethnographic understanding, focusing on addressing disasters through technical fixes, without a systemic and holistic approach.
Disaster management training currently focuses on standardised alleviation measures, without training for risk mitigation, social complexity and anticipatory governance.
The country needs a strong disaster management agency.
Disaster preparedness should be focused on meeting the immediate contingency, implementing a conceptual long-term rehabilitation strategy while maintaining an ethnographic understanding. It must be built on anticipatory governance, emphasising studies that embed foresight and foster citizen awareness.
The NDMA’s reconstitution and enforcement ability should be given due priority. Coordination between the NDMA and nodal ministries for various disasters needs to be improved. Roles and responsibilities among the apex bodies should be specified. Regular meetings of the NDMA must be convened, and a retrofitting policy formulated.
Disaster mitigation funds at the national, state and district level must be created to boost mitigation activities. The Department of Space should ensure that the DMS Communication Network and Doppler radars are installed soon. The NDRF must fill its vacant specialist positions, while being given better control over transfers and deployment of its personnel.
Environmental disasters are caused by complex interactions between ecological, social, cultural and economic processes, along with physical hazards. Understanding the inherent complexity associated with the catchment area of a disaster management authority is therefore necessary.
There can be significant cultural gaps between experts making policy, and the citizens who have to live with such policy action. Without an understanding of local ecologies, adaptive processes and informal community systems, local needs are left unmet and potential synergies discarded.
Until then, only the Army and paramilitary forces can remain first responders.