In Times of Crisis, NDMA’s Disaster Management Has Been Disaster in Itself

Published: 21st September 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 20th September 2014 12:29 PM   |  A+A-

That the Supreme Court has entered the narrative of response insofar as the rehabilitation of the flood-ravaged people of Jammu and Kashmir is concerned is a matter of some significance. The judicial intervention into the metrics of responsive disaster management has raised a relevant issue. Is India ready to counter natural disasters with strategic response mechanisms that facilitate workable and effective tactics on ground?

Response to a disaster is a set of inter-related activities, which requires database, logistics, technological needs, self-reliance, communication infrastructure, emergency preparedness and forecasting. The Disaster Management Act of 2005 provides the blueprint for the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) at the Centre, the State Disaster Management Authorities and the District Disaster Management Authorities.

The fact is that even eight years after the enactment of the Act, the NDMA lacks the database to respond to disasters and even basic wherewithal to respond to the challenge in real time. The state-level disaster management authorities are yet to be established all over the country and made operational. In some states, the department for disaster management is the changed name of the department of relief and rehabilitation, home guards and emergency fire services with ad hoc personnel. The district-level authorities are the weakest links in disaster management efforts.

In the absence of a credible civilian disaster management mechanism, it is the country’s armed forces—that should be the last to step in aid of civil authority—that have to assume total control of the situation whenever a major natural calamity strikes.

The military’s primary task is to guard the nation’s borders. In matters domestic, the military is supposed to be a second respondent, except in the case of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incidences. Theoretically, the principle is “last to enter and first to leave”. Successive Administrative Reforms Commissions have said the military needs to be taken off from the loop of disaster management gradually.

When theory is matched with practice, however, this does not seem to be the case. A tendency to over-rely on the military has stunted the initiative, responsibility and accountability of the civil government and officials. It is this vacuum in delivery and governance that the armed forces, due to their ‘spirit to deliver’ training, have filled.

It is time we asked hard questions. In the case of disasters, why should the relief commissioners and civil administration not be held accountable for flouting norms of construction, ignoring drainage congestion and thereby exacerbating conditions leading to man-made disasters? We are aware of large areas of the country that experience floods regularly. Yet the civil administration is found wanting in its prevention and preparedness, which along with response, relief and recovery, are the constitutional duties and responsibilities of the administration.              

In the case of Jammu and Kashmir, the strategically located state on India’s borders with Pakistan and China, was not even on the radar of the Central Water Commission, tasked with issuing flood warnings. In 2010, the state flood control department filed a report warning of the risk of catastrophic flooding. The report was ignored. In state capital Srinagar, many of the old canals have been converted into roads, and wetlands, which absorb floodwaters, have been drained for illegal building.

In July 2013, a month after the Uttarakhand floods, a top NDMA official was candid enough to admit how the unprecedented tragedy had caught the nodal agency napping. The officials claimed that the agency learnt lessons in “how to better manage such natural calamities”.

More than a year later, Jammu and Kashmir has witnessed the worst flood in 100 years. As Army troops along with Navy and Air Force battled to rescue the stranded, the NDMA appeared to be watching helplessly from a distance.

The NDMA was formed after the 2004 tsunami and is tasked with “disaster mitigation, coordination between government agencies during rescue and relief operations, providing information about medical supplies required, and collection of data on deaths, diseases and missing people”.

At the time the floods struck Jammu and Kashmir, the NDMA, which is headed by the Prime Minister, was a headless body since June 17 after its vice-chairman M Shashidhar Reddy quit with five other members.

According to reports, the NDMA was heading towards the oblivion since last year. The vacuum in the leadership of the NDMA has left it like a rudderless ship. With the top brass absent, the body has not been screening weather reports and has not been able to sound warnings which could have helped save a lot of lives. The fact that the floods in Jammu and Kashmir found no mention on the official website of the NDMA underlines this irony.    

Menon is a former additional secy, Cabinet Secretariat      

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