MY PIECE: Disaster response is a time for excuses and shirking as far as our bureaucracy & govts are concerned

Army personnel in Srinagar's Jawahar Nagar, rescuing people. Photo: Jugal R Purohit
Army personnel in Srinagar’s Jawahar Nagar, rescuing people. Photo: Jugal R Purohit

Having covered some of the natural disasters in recent years, one can say that with the exception of Odisha vis-à-vis cyclone Phailin, hardly any state administration or bureaucracy has displayed the resolve and ability to act decisively in the face of a natural disaster.

Invariably the armed forces step in, take over, do their best and ensure they deliver. Coverage of their courage ensures they remain the celebrated ‘last resolve’ who can mean the difference between life and death. That having been done, life goes on at least till the next disaster strikes.

What can explain, for instance, the collapse of all forms of communication links in an ultra-sensitive state like Jammu and Kashmir by five days of rainfall? Or for that matter, in eastern Uttarakhand, the total absence of the state administration in a sensitive border region which had been ravaged by floods and landslides? To cite another example, in the remote Spiti region of Himachal Pradesh, bordering China’s Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), such is the state of the administration that at any time of the year, the electricity link may snap and all that people can do is to pray for its return since there is no accountability with anyone. The condition of the shortest connecting route to the Spiti valley is such that even bigger vehicles cannot move beyond 20 kmph.

While covering the present crisis in Srinagar, one found that the issue that enraged the locals the most was to see how their own administration had simply packed up. A senior citizen, who was the only one in her family to have been evacuated, while crying outside the Rambagh locality in Srinagar said, “God knows it was only our children and the men from the army who helped us. Policemen and our state governments were nowhere around.”

This author was witness to another situation in Uttarakhand’s Harsil sector last year, where at an army base where stranded tourists were being kept till the air force helicopters flew them out, the local administration could not even provide a few home guards for crowd control as was requested by the army. As a result, the army ended up evacuating, hosting, feeding, doing all the paperwork and sending them home. To make matters worse, many stranded tourists were forced to trek into the army camp there by cunning policemen in places like Gangotri who scared them away so as to evade responsibility of handling a crowd.

The state government was able to wriggle out of it by merely saying it was in no position to help out, as simple as that.

Despite a public debacle over not uploading the names of the deceased or rescued on a public platform like their website following the Uttarakhand floods last year, again the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and the state had to be nudged to do so. Why couldn’t they learn and take an initiative?

Why are we tolerant of bureaucracies and state governments feigning weaknesses and inability in protecting us? Do we not, as citizens, deserve strong governments in our states? Or this strength is to be displayed only while blocking reforms and legislations pushed by the centre over the cause of federalism?

Coming to the aid of the civil administration in times of disaster is among the duties of the armed forces. No one is ignoring that. There will remain certain qualities exclusively in the domain of the armed forces like large fleets of aircraft suited for a variety of roles, cutting edge equipment, skill sets etc. Such skills are neither required nor can be absorbed by a state administration. What is however, required is to be able to play a complementary role when disaster strikes. For the armed forces are to act in support or aid of the civil administration which means that the civil administration cannot flee under pressure and let the armed forces run the show. Unfortunately, what is happening today is exactly that. Every time there is a crisis, the armed forces do the work while the state administration struggles to remain relevant.

For how long will we allow this?

If you think this laxity hits us only during natural disasters, think again.

What if during 26/11 attack, the local police had immediate access to detailed maps of the hotels where the terrorists were lodged? What if in Srinagar, the local authorities had worked on better crowd control to allow flood relief to continue unhindered? What if the local authorities strengthened the flood barriers on time, or better, exercised a scenario where the valley was inundated by heavy precipitation and involved people in it? What if our municipal authorities keep a check on the health of our buildings and issue advisories from time to time? The list is endless. Many readers may think of what I have mentioned as impossible or some sort of a dream scenario. That very thought is a proof of the long rope we’ve allowed our bureaucracy with.

Needless to say, our role in the entire affair as citizenry is far from being in the clear.
(The writer is a Special Correspondent with the HEADLINES TODAY news channel and can be followed on Twitter @JRPur)


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