Recovery of 17 more skeletal remains in the Kedar Valley, a year after thousands got swept away by floods in Uttarakhand on the night of June 16, 2013, has put the role of National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) under sharp scrutiny. Residents of the area say that if the agencies had been more proactive, perhaps many more people could have been rescued.
The scanner on agencies has become more prominent as NDRF managed to recover only 8 bodies of the 24 students who were washed away after the dam gates were opened in Beas River. The bodies of the remaining 16 students and a tour operator are still missing even as the search operation has entered the eighth day.
Last Sunday, 24 students from a private college in Hyderabad and a co-tour operator Parahlad were washed away when Larji project authorities opened the floodgates of the dam without warning.
Dr Mahboob Alam, Director General of NDRF, however, differs and claims that they did a good job. “There is nothing to learn from the Uttarakhand disaster. Everyone in the country appreciated our efforts,” said Dr Alam.
“Though we have one of the best equipped forces in the world, with the best technology, it is difficult to get 100 per cent results. There are so many other factors which have to be kept in mind. Even in the Beas tragedy, we are using the best technology, but there are problems like boulders and maintaining less water levels for a long time,” he added.
In the past nine years, the NDRF Director General has been changed nearly every year.
A month after the Uttarakhand disaster, NDMA’s vice-chairman M Shashidhar Reddy had saidthe responsibility to respond to any disaster is with the states, brushing aside the responsibility of NDMA which is under the direct control of the Prime Minister.
The Chief Minister is the head of the State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA) and the Revenue Minister is the vice-chairman, while other ministers are members.
“Even after all these calamities disaster management in India is getting a step-motherly treatment. This is evident from the fact that although there are several institutions in India offering disaster management as a post-graduation course, since as early as 2006 in TISS, there is no National Eligibility Test (NET) for this subject,” said an expert from Tata Institute of Social Sciences’ (TISS) disaster management school.
“Disaster management has to be taken up seriously with frequency of extreme global changes increasing. It should be taught in schools,” the official said.
“The current NDMA and NDRF officials are either bureaucrats or people from the social work sector but none are disaster management specialists, even though there are good disaster managers available in the country now,” the official said.
“Government forces take time in responding to a call, so community-based response forces should be made to react immediately to a disaster,” the official added.
The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) presented its report on disaster preparedness in April, 2013. The report observed that a national plan for disaster management has not been formulated till date and there are no provisions to make guidelines issued by NDMA binding on state governments.
None of the major projects undertaken by the NDMA have been completed nor has the National Disaster Mitigation Fund been established. The effectiveness of National Disaster Response Force has been hampered due to shortage of trained manpower and absence of appropriate training facilities, infrastructure and equipment. The Standard Operating Procedures for deployment of the NDRF have not been finalized and Communication systems for DM are not developed. Critical equipment has not been procured and satellite-based communication network has not been developed.
According to damages reported by the Uttarakhand government to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), the flash floods in the state killed 580 people of which 249 bodies were recovered. The number of missing stands at 5,526.
Unofficial estimates, made by non-government agencies are much higher. It is argued that close to 70,000 pilgrims were stranded in the region and the number of fatalities is over 5,000.