The plans that were devised by the Centre under the provisions of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, did not foresee such a huge calamity and the humanitarian crisis emerging out of it
The complete lockdown of the country within three-four hours of the announcement regarding it in a televised address by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the plight of migrant workers around the country, forced to trudge back to their hometowns, thousands of kilometres away, hungry, thirsty and tired, reflect that India was not prepared for the impending disaster. This is despite the fact that the danger had been looming over us since the outbreak of the Coronavirus in China months ago.
An overconfident Government had not thought it prudent to devise a plan for the efficient management of the pandemic that has brought developed countries, with better healthcare systems than ours, to their knees.
The Government was ill-prepared to handle a disaster, the likes of which this world has not seen after the 1918 Spanish fever which infected nearly 500 million people worldwide and killed an estimated 30-50 million.
Obviously, the plans that were devised by the Centre under the provisions of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, did not foresee such a huge calamity and the humanitarian crisis emerging out of it. Disaster management concentrates on making arrangements to diminish the impact of a calamity. Failure to make such an arrangement could prompt large-scale human casualties, loss of income to the masses and losses to India Inc, which in turn, prove disastrous for the economy.
Hence, plans relating to disaster management should pursue the nature of disaster vis-a-vis its management. The Government mainly functions based on the enactments made by the legislature. Hence, all the programmes, conceived plans and guidelines would be within the framework of the legislations made in the said regard.
The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) decided to observe the ’90s as the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR). It initiated a global campaign towards creating socio-economic strategies for countries during natural disasters. Now, due to the UNGA’s efforts, many countries around the world have disaster related legislations. Pursuant to the same, in 1999 the Indian Government, too, set up a High Powered Committee (HPC) on disaster management.
Thereafter, a series of catastrophic natural disasters such as the Gujarat earthquake in 2001 and the tsunami in 2004, led to the enactment of the Disaster Management Act, 2005. Though it was the first step in the right direction, the entire legislation was drafted with a myopic view. The definition of “disaster” under Section 2(d) of the Act defines disaster as a catastrophic, mishap, calamity or grave occurrence in any area, arising from natural or man-made causes or by accident/negligence which results in substantial loss of life or human suffering or damage to property or degradation of the environment and is of such nature or magnitude that it is beyond the coping capacity of the community of the affected area.
A reading of the aforesaid definition shows that the same has been drafted keeping in mind disasters such as tsunamis, cyclones, earthquakes, industrial or fire accidents and so on, vis-a-vis specified areas. It did not visualise a situation wherein a disaster may be caused because of cross-border viral contaminations spreading throughout the country. The use of the words “any area” in the definition of “disaster” is very confined. It relates to only a particular area within the country wherein such a natural disaster occurs. On the whole, the matter of public health has been unable to find any space in the legislation.
The Act also provides for establishment of a number of statutory bodies such as the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), the State Disaster Management Authorities (SDMAs), advisory committees, executive committees and sub-committees under the Government. The establishment of so many committees and authorities does not seem to have a strong logical foundation. There are such overlapping duties found among various authorities in the Act that they are bound to confuse people. Further, the coordination among these bodies appears to be very cumbersome.
Though Section 3 of the Act contemplates establishment of the NDMA with the Prime Minister as its Chairperson and other members, not exceeding nine, being nominated by him/her, no qualification has been specified for the members. This should have been done because it is an authority at the national level, dealing with an issue of national importance. In the context of the political scenario of our country, the appointments to the national authority can be strongly influenced by political motives, which defeats the whole purpose.
Section 6 of the Act contemplates the powers of the national authority and it is empowered to formulate policies, plans and guidelines in relation to disaster management. However, these would be in consonance with the definition of “disaster” contained in Section 2(d) of the Act, which is quite narrow.
Obviously the entire Act would be implemented in the backdrop of the definition of “disaster” contained in Section 2(d). Therefore, all the plans would be short-sighted, confined only to disasters of a particular nature which relate to particular areas.
Our lack of preparedness to meet a pandemic like the Coronavirus requires an amendment to the definition of “disaster” as contained in the Act, so as to enable the Government to formulate plans and policies in consonance with it.
At present, we are witnessing an exodus of migratory workers from the cities, deprivation of livelihood of daily-wage earners, break in supply chains, hardship in distribution of essential commodity to those who live Below the Poverty Line (BPL), hospital management/facilities and so on.
We have to devise plans in such a manner that they minimise the adverse effects of a disaster as enormous as the Coronavirus outbreak.
Anticipating a disaster is one aspect and post-disaster management is another. In order to anticipate a disaster and to formulate a policy, the definition also should include such disasters which may affect the whole country and not just be confined to the extent of those disasters which are limited to a specific area. If such an amendment is brought in, a suitable plan would be formulated by the competent authorities under the Act.
Section 42 of the Act empowered the Central Government to constitute a National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM), the main function of which is to develop, undertake research and documentation in relation to disaster management.
The NIDM also conducts programmes and formulates comprehensive human resource development plans covering all aspects of disaster management. But as stated earlier, the entire action would be directed against only those aspects which can be termed as a “disaster” in accordance with Section 2(d) of the Act.
Section 35 contemplates measures to be taken by the Government in relation to disaster management. The Central Government shall coordinate with all the Ministries, State Governments, the national and State authorities. Though Section 35 empowers the Central Government to take measures, in the light of the narrow definition of disaster, it would be very difficult to visualise a situation that has arisen right now.
No disaster can be ever dealt with effectively only through administrative set-up, alienating the community as a whole. But unfortunately, the Act entirely ignores this very important aspect. The Act is implemented entirely through the Government system.
Now the Government has to bring in a suitable amendment to the 2005 Act to effectively deal with such situations as presented by the Coronavirus pandemic. More particularly the definition of “disaster” under Section 2(d) has to be amended so as to bring into its fold calamities/disasters like the one which the country is facing now in order for the Government to be able to effectively handle the present calamity.
Unfortunately, the Disaster Management (Amendment) Bill, 2016 moved by Mullappally Ramachandran for the amendment to the Disaster Management Act, 2005 also does not contemplate any amendment to the definition of “disaster.” It only proposes an amendment to Section 11 and Section 35 which relate to preparation of plans and stipulating guidelines. But the same would be futile unless the definition is amended.
(Writer: Chittarvu Raghu; Courtesy: The Pioneer)