There are three unalterable constants when natural and man-made disasters strike in India — there is almost always a prior alert or intelligence report that is ignored, local administration and police and government generally at all levels (local, state, and central) disappear from the scene, and the army fills the breach, the only orderly presence engaged in saving people and restoring a semblance of order. The recent Uttarakhand floods featured the three constants as had the earlier natural disasters, such as the horrid cyclonic storms that lashed the Odisha coast in the late 1990s. The question is two-fold: Why are alerts and prior intelligence invariably disregarded by the government — as evidenced, once again, in the Bodh Gaya bombing — and why do official organisations dematerialise from the impacted areas at just the point in time when they are most needed?
The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) is, of course, a bad joke. Previously housed in the rundown public sector Centaur Hotel (near the airport) but now occupying a swanky blue glass building in South Delhi, it does little other than provide sinecures for politicians and post-retirement jobs for superannuated bureaucrats and the like. NDMA also guzzles public funds — to the extent of ` 864 crore in the last fiscal, makes paper plans for managing disasters, but once disasters actually happen, there is nary a hint on the ground of plans having been implemented, and the usual helter-skelter recovery efforts ensue leaving the NDMA trawling for excuses. In the Uttarakhand case the NDMA chairman, Shashidhar Reddy, a Congress party honcho, blamed the agency’s failure on not getting the Doppler radars to detect the formation of cloudbursts! There being no system of accountability, excuses and finger-pointing is the norm in the wake of disasters.
Some disasters are wholly the product of the way the government system routinely (mal)functions. The 1999 hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu to Kandahar by way of Amritsar was preventable. Indeed, the military, paramilitary forces, and various civilian outfits had practised pre-empting just such an incident, including stationing a truck in front of the aircraft to prevent it from taking off, and thereafter mounting action by commandos to infiltrate the aircraft and rush the hijackers. This training exercise was code-named “Sour Grapes”. But when the plane landed for refuelling in Amritsar, the predictable happened. The lessons of the exercise were forgotten, and the emergency committee commandeered by then national security adviser Brajesh Mishra couldn’t communicate with Amritsar, the only order getting through was to the Army formation surrounding the Raja Sansi Airport to stand down, do nothing as the plane was refuelled and flew off with the Islamic extremists cocking a snook at the country.
The response to every new uncontained disaster is the same old bureaucratic solution — new committees and organisations to add to the layer upon layer of bureaucracy piled up over the years that gum up the works and complicate authority lines and decision-making. Thus the 26/11 episode was followed by the mooting of the National Counter-Terrorism Centre (of the kind the CIA has) as the apex body to co-ordinate, collate and process intelligence data streaming in from a plethora of agencies. Except the National Grid (Natgrid) was already established for this purpose.
It leads one to ponder the worst — the horrendous consequences and the aftermath of, say, a nuclear attack. Over the last 15 years, when addressing military audiences on nuclear doctrine and strategy, I have made it a point to bring up the little matter of the “No First Use” (NFU) principle embedded in the country’s nuclear doctrine. It elicits knowing laughter when I tell the officers that for a country that is unable to handle a seasonal phenomenon, such as “a Monsoon strike” that can be predicted to the hour and reduces Indian cities to extended lakes, to imagine it can absorb a nuclear first strike, and retain its wit and wherewithal to launch a retaliatory counter-strike as decreed by the Indian nuclear doctrine is, beyond fantastical to, in fact, be delusional!
And yet, the NFU is one of the central pillars of India’s nuclear strategy requiring that, notwithstanding any intelligence of an adversary planning a surprise nuclear attack, Indian strategic forces will have to bide their time, wait patiently for the enemy to first vaporise an Indian metropolis, say, at his convenience, before a nuclear missile salvo is permitted to be fired in retaliation. The country’s institutional/systemic weaknesses and the government’s inability to keep its head and nerve in a crisis of any kind, should have been factored into drafting the nuclear doctrine, and NFU discarded at that stage, but it wasn’t. The NFU, incidentally, was hotly debated by the doctrine drafting group in the National Security Advisory Board and incorporated anyway for all the wrong reasons and without reference to an absent civil defence system and infrastructure.
NDMA, incidentally, is tasked with drawing up plans for dealing with nuclear bombed Indian cities or, more plausibly, the triggering of radiation diffusion devices (“dirty bombs”). Hopefully, NDMA has stocked up on the anti-radiation potassium iodate pills and, perhaps, has made plans for evacuating people and, in case of alerts being available, of removing large parts of the population, for instance, to the tunnelled portions of the track on which the Metro trains run — such tunnels being perfect underground nuclear shelters. Except, such evacuation/safety measures will have to be repeatedly practised by the people and conducted by NDMA, with the tunnels being provisioned with sufficient food, medicines, etc.
But civil defence exercises to train city folk on what to do, where to go, and why to avoid mass hysteria, panic and pandemonium have not so far been undertaken by NDMA in any city, and the first time its plans will be rolled out is only post-nuclear attack. Then, it will be discovered that everything that works well on paper, in actual practice, will go horribly wrong. In the event, people will be left free to deal with the cataclysm the best they can, mostly on their own.
Bharat Karnad is Professor at Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com