Recently I was part of a team assessing the legal compatibility of the proposed post-tsunami reconstruction works in the costal stretches of affected states. We discovered that the Coastal Zone Management Plan (CZMP) was the most important document to be looked into. The CZMP is really the operative part of the CRZ Notification, 1991 - a specialized regulation for Coastal Zones in the country - in the sense that all construction activities are to be undertaken in pursuance of what is prescribed in that Plan. But finding this document proved very hard - despite the fact that our team included some high-profile members with good connections in government.

If a team of lawyers who know that CZMP has been judicially held to be a public document faces this difficulty, one can only guess how much harder it might be for ordinary citizens. We know that the Kerela High Court has said that Coastal Zone Management Plan is to be published and should be made available in all places. The State cannot refuse the right of the citizen to have access to the Coastal Zone Management Plan. Moreover the State cannot refuse to make available the plan in the offices of the Local Authorities and the Public Libraries. (Kaloor Joseph vs State of Kerala. O.P.No. 20278 of 1997, dated 2nd June, 1998.)

There are two lessons that we take from this experience. One, that the law in principle is different from the law in operation. And two, that people seem to matter very little in law-making, which explains the apparent futility of sharing relevant policy and legal documents with them. The Right to Information might mean the duty to publish, as a friend has recently suggested, but on 'technical' subjects like planning for complex coastal ecology government servants believe there is little point in honouring that duty. This second lesson triggers further thought: Why should people be involved in shaping legal and policy approaches to disaster management, and (if the why is answered in favour of the people) then how are we to go about involving the people? With the caveat that my thinking on disaster management could itself be a disaster for the readers, let me think aloud.

The Gujarat Disaster Management Act makes the citizens duty-bound to assist the Collector or the commissioner in disaster management activities, rather than the other way around!
Why should people be brought in for a community approach to disaster management? The answer should be easy to appreciate. If tribals in the Andamans could survive the tsunami, it was because their existing warning systems worked well in comparison to our non-existent modern systems. The fact that traditional houses of wood and stone survived the Uttarkashi earthquake not so long ago while modern buildings collapsed offered a similar lesson. In the flood-prone rural North-East, you can find houses on bamboo stilts that allow flood waters to flow under them rather than through or over! One need not multiply examples to just make a small point: Native intelligence is significant and technical expertise needs to treat this as complementary. This intelligence needs to be tapped for devising approaches to management of disasters. Further, policies and laws for disaster management need to provide space for such intelligence to be counted.

Do the existing or proposed laws and policies have the necessary room for community participation? Take the example of flood control and management. Under the present legal regime most of the important aspects of flood management have been vested in the State officials; these are tasks like identification of areas suitable for flood works, initiating the schemes for such works, requisition and acquisition of lands, etc. While the laws dealing with structural measures for flood control provide for limited involvement of people especially by way of inviting comments or objections and mandating service of notice to those affected, the laws with respect to relief works for the victims of natural calamities vest complete powers with the State officials for any works that they may be proposing to undertake. When it comes to the Town and Country Planning laws, apart from the fact that most do not even envisage disaster management as a possible subject, some isolated provisions in mostly 'hidden' laws facilitate reaction to a draft plan document at best, and do not necessarily involve the people in plan-making stages.

The Gujarat Disaster Management Act 2003 provides - although again generally - for capacity building of groups in local communities to cope with any disaster. However the central feature of the Act is that it establishes the Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority - a high powered body comprising the Chief Minister as an ex-officio chairperson, and includes two other ministers, the Chief Secretary and the State Relief Commissioner, the Director General of Police of the State and such other officers as may be appointed by the Government. The Authority acts as a central planning, coordinating and monitoring body for disaster management and post disaster rehabilitation, reconstruction and assessment. This seems to be an important legislation, as this scheme at the state level is a definite precursor to the proposed National Disaster Management Authority under the about-to-be-enacted National Disaster Management law. An influential Union Minister of State in a public appearance suggested that the proposed Authority would constitute an Expert Group which will take care of inter-departmental coordination for tackling disasters.

If one tries to see through the present legislative ferment, it appears clear that the decision making on disaster management is going to be top heavy and centralized. The people will come in not as an advisory but at best an assisting role at local levels. Note here that the Gujarat Disaster Management Act makes the citizens duty-bound to assist the Collector or the commissioner in disaster management activities whenever their assistance is demanded!

A Draft National Disaster Management Policy also exists for some time now that proposes to integrate disaster mitigation into developmental planning. Following the best traditions of reactive policy and law-making, post-tsunami, the policy should also be close to finalisation now. The Draft Policy commits to a Revision of Relief Codes in the States and develop them into disaster/manuals. The revision of codes would just be the right way to make amends - and propose amendments - in codes to make them more people oriented, reflecting greater faith in their ability to contribute to decision making. In fact a recent booklet of the Ministry of Home Affairs indicates that they have initiated a National Disaster Risk Management Program in 2004 in all the flood-prone states and that "assistance is being provided to the States to draw up disaster management plans at the State, District, Block/Taluka and Village levels while involving the Panchayati Raj Institutions."

There is no reason why the spirit of such programmes should stay in government booklets and stay out of legislation. Mass intelligence needs to be brought in for a community- and people-driven approach to disaster management; the coming tsunami of law and policy should reflect that.


On our 'CZMP search story' my colleague informs me that he has been able to get the copy of the Plan from a generous senior district level official in one of the worst affected regions but only after he deployed his tremendous persuasive skills. It looks like we will be able to complete the assignment after all.