Six years after the release of the India Disasters Report the Indian government is addressing, through a proposed Disaster Management Policy, a number of points raised by the report on the state of disaster preparedness in the country. This is no mean achievement and means there is scope for lobbying and improvement in India's democratic set up. It is time for humanitarian workers, legal experts, academics and media professionals to come together for a debate on the emerging policy and find ways to make it proactive and humane. We all have to ensure that the policy-makers walk the talk till the last mile.

One Act, half a policy

Disaster Management is fast emerging as a key concern in India's academic, bureaucratic, scientific, technical and humanitarian circles. India enacted the Disaster Management Act in 2005 and a draft national Disaster Management Policy is to be released for consultations by the end of 2006.

Let us first examine the Disaster Management Act 2005. It has put in place a three-tier administrative framework to deal with disasters and integrated it with the activities of various government departments and other organisations. It envisages management and mitigation plans, a coordinated and quick response and penal action against those who do not comply with its provisions. The Act has led to the setting up of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), the National Disaster Management Institute and the National Disaster Response Force of about 10,000 trained and equipped personnel stationed across the country.

It is a top-down Act, in the classic command-and-control mode. It gives sweeping powers to National and State governments and district collectors and an almost ornamental role for elected local representatives and local communities. Lower courts, for instance, cannot entertain any suit against action taken under the provisions of this Act. The Act takes precedence over other laws. It may be noted that it can get further sharpened as it allows the government to iron out "difficulties" through Gazette notifications in a two-year interval period.

A command-and-control system has its own merits especially in times of an emergency. In fact, the powers vested with the Indian bureaucracy even before the Act made tsunami relief highly efficient here unlike in the free-for-all scenarios in Sri Lanka or Indonesia, where para-dropped international agencies confounded the confusion and misery of people. The provisions of the Disaster Act can be used positively against discrimination in relief distribution, misappropriation of funds, negligent or dangerous work by companies, departments, agencies and so on in the tsunami rehabilitation field, scores of erring officials, NGO workers and others can be imprisoned under the provision of this Act. To apply legal provisions, the complaint has to come either from concerned officials or after the officials have been given 30 days' notice to respond.

Besides, except in cases of fund misappropriation, false claims and false alarms, the punitive provisions are for not complying with official orders or obstruction of officials, not necessarily negligent and dangerous work. To illustrate this point further, if an NGO builds unliveable temporary shelters as directed by the district collector as most of them did in the tsunami areas they are not really punishable. A large number of the temporary shelters were hot, humid, windowless, flood-prone, wind-blown, rodent-bitten but they are perfectly legal. Worse, the bulk of them still exist two years on, as only a quarter of the permanent houses are complete.

On the other hand, if the NGO defied the collector's order and built comfortable thatch huts, technically its director could be penalised (even imprisoned) on counts of non-compliance, 'causing danger', neglect and so on. For, several collectors have publicly noted that thatches are a fire risk, and physically prevented the construction of thatches. Eventually, most of the tsunami temporary shelters that caught fire over the past two years hundreds of them together in one case were made of bitumen sheets recommended/ insisted upon by district collectors. As it happened few agencies and local officials dared to build comfortable shelters – at least till the full scale of bitumen-sheet misery became apparent in a year's time. So a law that upholds the infallibility of the IAS is problematic. At least till a time when we have officially-recognised rehabilitation codes in the lines of our famous relief codes.

The drafting period of the Disaster Bill was a missed opportunity for NGOs working in the field of disasters to make it more people-friendly and grassroots-oriented like the Right to Information Act is to a large extent. Some of them did debate it, but the hectic schedules of tsunami relief, the hurry to burn foreign funds and concerns about proposed changes to the Foreign Contributions Regulations Act somehow overshadowed any talk about the relevance of the Act and the possibilities it offered. The Act became a law almost at the will of the bureaucrats who framed it.

Window of opportunity

The policy-framing period now offers a narrow window of opportunity for people's groups and humanitarian agencies to work towards a pro-people disaster management regime in India. Discussions with NDMA members and experts reveal the underlying principle of the policy is respect and value for human lives - "saving the last possible life" in effect. The draft policy talks about earthquake-safe building bylaws, disaster management as part of professional degree courses, medical preparedness, amalgamation of the traditional with the state-of-the-art and so on. As for governance components, the 11th Plan envisages incorporation of a disaster management component in all ministries. Local communities are supposed to be at the centre-stage of disaster management activities. (So when the policy comes into operation, we will presumably have pipelines that do not submerge in flood every year, and hopefully bridges won't collapse over running trains). The task of those who uphold civic rights will be to ensure that the policy discourages local officials from imposing uncomfortable box shelters on people affected by disasters. And to see to it that a village chief gets the right to demand the disaster vulnerability map of his neighbourhood from the collectorate or the block office.

Reaching the last mile

The test of a policy is in its implementation. Even if the notions expressed in the policy are noble, implementing them on ground will not be easy. Disaster managers will have to deal with a system that is red-tape-bound, lethargic, conservative and corrupt in parts; and citizens who tend to be hierarchical in social attitudes and generally indifferent to the safety of oneself and others, when not fatalistic altogether. Then there are conceptual limitations. The government has yet to deal with road accidents, communal clashes and the issue of forced migration as disaster/ humanitarian issues. But for those who want to push for a culture that values human lives there is a chance to influence the policy's final shape.

A key part of the policy will deal with technology in the context of India putting in place its own high-tech tsunami warning system and depending on its scientific institutions to take the lead in disaster early warning measures. The dissemination part is perfect till the district collectorate or the mandal village cluster level in cyclone-prone areas. That is, if everybody picks up the telephone and leaves behind contact numbers in case of an emergency, and bothers to call up and warn others – many officials from top to bottom failed to do these basic things during the tsunami. The real question will be how to take the message from the district or block office onwards.

Dysfunctional telephones and unwired remote villages often make the last mile reach a nightmare. The answer will be in strengthening and sustaining the local systems that work. Community radio initiatives coming up along the coasts and their networking could be an answer. So also village information centres.

At the recent NDMA sponsored Disaster Congress held in New Delhi, Science and Technology Minster Kapil Sibal talked enthusiastically about such an SMS system with automatic translation of warning messages into scores of languages. His enthusiasm for technology raised many eyebrows. But in fact, cell phones were widely used soon after the tsunami when all other communications were cut - to find missing relatives and later to spread alarms that turned out to be false.

The systems should involve not only dissemination of the warning, but also the next step safety measures, such as evacuation and rescue as needed. There are efforts to this end. The Government of India UNDP National Disaster Risk Management Programme, formulated under the National Disaster Management Framework of the Ministry of Home Affairs, aims at reducing vulnerabilities of communities at risk to sudden disasters in 169 most multi-hazard prone districts, spread over 17 states of India. One of the key components of the programme is a community-based response system. But often the groups identified and trained under such programmes tend to go back to good-old lethargic ways once the disaster-rehabilitation-training phases are over. A few months after such training was done in the earthquake-torn villages of Kutch, one could find that most of the villagers were totally unaware of any such a trained group.

It is important to note there are community initiatives that work very well even without any formal training, programme or funds. Take the case of Pulicat in Tamilnadu, a string of backwater islands and a thin strip of coast between them and the Bay of Bengal. It is a cyclone and flood-prone area. When the tsunami waves rolled in people managed to summon boats from the mainland and evacuate their villages quickly. The casualties were minimal. The lesson for disaster policy-makers is to evolve a judicious mix of traditional and technology-intensive systems.

Then there are aspects to be taken care of in the rehabilitation phase. The same absence of sensitivity often shows up in this phase as a one-size-fits-all Government Order. The result will be structures like empty concrete malls and two-bedroom cattle-sheds in the earthquake-hit Latur, and cyclone shelters custom-made for illegal activities in coastal Andhra Pradesh. People do not live in imposed, alien structures. Villagers do not enjoy shopping from malls. All these brilliant urban ideas showed a singular lack of understanding of local tastes and concerns. It is such top-down approach that is still causing untold miseries to people still living in tight rows of temporary shelters in Tamilnadu after the 2004 tsunami, many of them braving the second monsoon in knee-deep water. In Andaman and Nicobar, tsunami-affected people stuck in tin-box shelters asked for their rights to choose the kind of houses they would like to live in. A recent street demonstration led to a lathi-charge. It is rebuilding of communities, not just shelters that the new policy is supposed to envisage. The million-dollar test will be in the last-mile reach of the policy or in bureaucratic parlance, its last-desk reach.