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The manifestations of nature are boundless- what nurtures life and beauty, is perhaps the greatest source of destruction as well, when it unleashes its wrath in the form of natural disasters. The evolution of the human race, particularly progress in science and technology has resulted in aggravation of natural calamities as well as occurrences of ‘man- made’ disasters- ranging from global pandemics to chemical accidents. It is now more than ever that the concept of ‘disaster management’ has assumed relevance worldwide owing to the global COVID-19 causing Coronavirus outbreak.
Disaster management refers to the efficient management of resources and allocation of responsibilities aimed at lessening the impact of disasters. Simply put, it is the collective efforts undertaken towards saving as many lives and property as possible in times of calamity. It is a multi- faceted programme which includes social institutions as well as legal framework.
Disaster Management Act, 2005
Disaster management in India, leading up to 2005, consisted of a reactive, relief- centric and post disaster approach. However, the passage of the Disaster Management Act in 2005 caused a paradigm shift in the conventional regime of disaster management and ushered in an era of disaster control focussed on preparedness and mitigation.
Events preceding its introduction-
Originally, the Ministry of Agriculture of the Government of India was the designated nodal ministry for disaster management. The government simply called for the Armed forces during and after disasters. But even they were often left grappling for directions, since their mandates and priorities are, after all, starkly different.
The Orissa super- cyclone of 1999 is believed to be a turning- point in the development of the current disaster- management structure of the country. The devastating cyclone and the subsequent floods claimed approximately 10,000 lives and destroyed property worth US $ 4.5 million. The impact would have been far less, but for the lack of preparedness, and the unequipped state of the executive to undertake relief and rescue of the required scale. It jolted the state government of Orissa into action towards revamping its disaster- management system, which led to the constitution of the Orissa Disaster Management Authority (ODMA), the first disaster management authority centre established in India. Its focused approach, skilled manpower and well- developed infrastructure eventually served as a role- model for the Disaster Management Act of 2005.
The Bhuj earthquake of 2001, one the most devastating in recent times, prompted the Gujarat government to become the next Indian state to conceptualize a massive reconstruction and rehabilitation programme, followed by measures for long term capacity building of all stakeholders to fight future disasters.
The Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004, which claimed nearly 2,28,000 lives globally, and around 10,000 in India served as a major catalyst for the passage of a single, comprehensive act to address disaster management. The catastrophe was followed by a sweeping sense of urgency in the government to consolidate and revise its disaster management policies. Committees were formed, which gave recommendations on management of calamities of various magnitudes and laying the foundation for the Act
Scope and objective
The Disaster Management Act was passed with the primary objective of preparedness, prevention and early planning towards disaster. Its statement of objective reads that it is “An Act to provide for the effective management of disasters and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto”.
The Act received the assent of the president on 6th of January 2006 and is applicable to the whole of India. Briefly, it provides for a detailed action- plan right to guide the central government through to the district and local levels to draw, implement and execute disaster management plans.
The Act designates the Ministry of Home Affairs as the nodal ministry for steering the overall national disaster management.
It puts into place a systematic structure of institutions at the national, state and district levels. Four important entities have been placed at the national level-
- The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA)- It is tasked with laying down disaster management policies and ensuring timely and effective response mechanism.
- The National Executive Committee (NEC)- It is comprised of secretary level officers of the Government of India assigned to assist the NDMA
- The National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM)- It is an institute for training and capacity development programs for managing natural
- National Disaster Response Force (NDRF)- It refers to trained professional units that are called upon for specialized response to disasters.
The Act also provides for state and district level disaster management authorities responsible for, among other things, drawing plans for implementation of national plans. The Act further contains the provisions for financial mechanisms such as the creation of funds for emergency response, National Disaster Mitigation Fund and similar funds at the state and district levels. The Act also devotes several sections various civil and criminal liabilities resulting from violation of provisions of the act, including- punishment for wrongful claim of relief, assistance or any other benefit in consequence of any disaster; misappropriation of money/ materials allocated for providing relief in disaster struck regions, and raising false alarms in relation to severity of any disaster and causing panic.
Progress made under the Act
The Disaster Management Act incorporates the belief that investments in mitigation are far more cost- effective than expenditure on relief and rehabilitation. By laying down measures for strategic partnerships and drawing up blue- prints of action plans to counter catastrophes of various degrees, the Act has brought about significant progress in a number of areas, including-
- Detailed directions to guide disaster management efforts
- Capacity development in all spheres
- Consolidation of past initiatives and best practices
- Co-operation with agencies at national and international levels
In the wake of the scare caused by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, which is fast gripping India, the Disaster Management Act has been invoked by the authorities. Given the nature of the crisis, the powers of the Ministry of Home Affairs have been delegated to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, in pursuance of Section 10 of the Act. The section talks about monitoring the implementation of the national disaster management plan, in consonance with the plans prepared by the ministries or departments of the central government and gives overarching superintendence power to the officer executing it. Some of the measures taken to contain the spread of the disease in pursuance of the invocation of the act pertain to closure of schools, colleges, places of public entertainment etc, regulation of supply and price of masks, medicines and other medical equipments to ensure their steady availability and taking cognizance of acts amounting to circulating false/ incorrect information and creating mass panic.
Although the Disaster Management Act has undoubtedly filled a huge gap in the scheme of governmental actions towards dealing with disasters, one cannot deny that it comes with its fair share of drawbacks.
One of the most glaring inadequacies in the Act is the absence of a provision for declaration of ‘disaster- prone zones’. Almost all disaster – related legislations in the world have mapped out disaster- prone zones within their respective jurisdictions. The state cannot be expected to play a pro- active role unless an area is declared ‘disaster- prone’. Classification helps in determining the extent of damages as well.
The Act portrays every disaster as a sudden occurrence and completely fails to take into account that disasters can be progressive in nature as well. The classic example is that of epidemics, which come and go, often taking with them thousands of lives without even being acknowledged as a ‘disaster’. In 2006, over 3,500 people were affected by dengue, a disease with a history of outbreaks in India, yet no effective mechanism has been put in place to check such an ordeal. Tuberculosis is known to kill thousands of people in the country each year but since its occurrence is not sudden or at once, it has not found a place in the Act.
The Act calls for establishment of multiple- national level bodies, the functions of which seem to be overlapping, making co-ordination between them cumbersome. Moreover, the local authorities, who have a very valuable role to play in the wake of any disaster as first responders, barely find a mention at all. There are no substantive provisions to guide them, merely a minor reference to taking ‘necessary measures’.
Added to that, delayed response, inappropriate implementation of the plans and policies, and procedural lags plague the disaster management scheme in India. Inadequate technological capacity for accurate prediction and measurement of the disaster result in large scale damage. The implementation of the act relies entirely on government actions and alienates the community and private sector enterprises.
Response to, and recovery from disasters is a major yardstick to determine a country’s internal strength and standing. Countries like Japan and China have emerged as great role- models in this respect. India is a disaster- prone country and, owing to certain geographic factors and its demographic composition, is always grappling with some catastrophe or the other. It has shown immense improvement in its dealing with disasters over the years, particularly in pre- disaster mitigation, following the introduction of the Disaster Management Act of 2005. However, experts feel that there are still miles to go before the system is perfected and the authorities are equipped to deal with disasters of every kind and magnitude.
Laying down elaborate plans on paper doesn’t serve the purpose unless they are translated into effective implementation. Each disaster brings out new shortcomings in the Indian disaster management regime, and the 2020 coronavirus outbreak seems to be the most recent one, where the government is struggling to achieve containment of the virus.
New disaster management guidelines are underway and one can only hope it incorporates provisions to overcome dysfunctions of the current authorities and not oversee yet again the valuable role that the civil society, private enterprises and NGOs can play towards building a safer India.
Author: Adrita Biswas from ILS Law College, Pune.
Editor: Ismat Hena from Faculty of Law, Jamia Millia Islamia.