The cloudburst at Uttarakhand on 1 July has led to the deaths of at least 20 people, with as many as 12 people still missing in the Pithoragarh and Chamoli districts, as per official records, besides massive loss to property and livestock in the region.
The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), State Disaster Response Force (SDRF), Seema Suraksha Bal (SSB), Indo-Tibetan Border Police (Assam Regt) and the state police, have all been working jointly towards the relief operations, while the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) — acting as the nodal agency — has been monitoring the relief operation in the two affected districts. Their objective is to find every missing person as quickly as possible.
Maj Gen (retd) Anurag Gupta, Advisor (Operations), NDMA, who’s at the helm of the coordinated effort with other agencies, spoke to Firstpost, on the various aspects of the ongoing relief operation.
What is the NDMA's role in this relief operation?
In this disaster, the NDMA is the nodal agency monitoring the relief operations. I’m in touch with the Indian command force, National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) and other agencies involved in the operation in Pithoragarh and Chamoli. We’re monitoring the relief work, apart from running a 24x7 helpline (108).
Why are natural calamities such as cloud bursts, floods etc taking place so frequently in the region?
Global warming and climate change are the two most important factors, resulting in the increase of such natural calamities. Besides, there are other man-made factors causing calamities, such as rampant deforestation, concretisation of flood plains and river banks, construction on hill plains and seismic zones — all these block the natural path of water. Ultimately, water has to make its way out, which leads to disasters such as floods, landslides, caving of land etc.
Is the NDMA adequately equipped and prepared to tackle with such natural disasters and calamities?
We’ve senior consultants on our board and we carry discussions, studies etc with the IITs. We have prepared a set of 18 guidelines that are available on our website. From time to time, NDMA comes up with advisories for the public and calamity-prone states on how to mitigate the imminent calamity. Now, we’ve moved beyond just response and relief to eliminating the causes of such calamities. The mantra now is to mitigate such disasters as far as humanly possible.
What is the response time of NDMA and NDRF to such sequences? What kind of coordination does it have with state units in the affected areas?
Very fast. The NDRF has increased its strength from eight to 12 battalions. Besides mobilising the forces, some units are stationed at disaster-prone sites including the North East, Himachal Pradesh, Assam, and Odisha. Disaster is a state subject and usually, a state deals with it at Level 1 and 2. At Level 3, the state asks for help by approaching the MHA. Here the national agencies steps in. But, it doesn’t mean that the national agencies don’t help at Level 1 or 2.
When a disaster occurs, if the army or NDRF is stationed at a nearby location, it sweeps into action. We act on the basis of news channel reports, information we receive from the Army, the affected state and instructions from the MHA. We swing into action by chalking out relief strategy. The NDRF begins its action along with the army. In the Uttarakhand crisis, we’re monitoring all these and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) is very concerned and taking stock of the situation at regular intervals. There are six helicopters and three columns of the Army on standby for evacuation of people affected in villages of Pithoragarh and Chamoli.
If disaster is a state subject, what’s the role the states are playing to tackle such situations?
SDRF plays an important role in disaster management. However, only 21 states have such forces — out of which only seven have dedicated SDRFs and the rest have an ad hoc kind of arrangement.
At Odisha, the damages and casualties due to the super-cyclone was avoided as precautions were taken before hand. Why can't we take such steps in cases such as Uttarakhand?
Floods and super-cyclones are slow-paced disasters and one gets five to six days in advance to take precautions, unlike in the case of a cloud burst or an earthquake. In Odisha, after receiving the alert on the super-cyclone, the state machinery got all its emergency services in place, issued advisories, ensured strict implementation and could avoid loss of human lives. This is not possible with a cloudburst or an earthquake as you can’t predict its exact location and do not get time to alert residents to move out.
How much damage can a fool-proof system mitigate during a disaster?
There can’t be a foolproof system due to the geographical and climatic diversity our country has. We try to mitigate the dangers through pre-deployment of forces in disaster-prone areas, by issuing advisories and alerts, through capacity building of people on ground, create awareness by conducting mock drills, showing small documentaries and using social media platforms.
What is the status of the present operation? How much relief work is still left?
Much has been done and it’ll take another two to three days. Now, the main issue is to find the missing people; to find the people who might have got buried under the debris. Our motto is to keep the operation on till the last man is found.
As an advisor, what's your recommendation and advice to people in hill states and disaster-prone areas?
States, especially those on hills, in the North East and disaster-prone regions have to be proactive and act on the advisories and alerts based on weekly monsoon meetings, so that pre-deployment of forces and timely evacuation of citizens can be done.
Both SDMA and SDRF conduct mock drills at district levels across the country. By the year-end, we ask states to give us their schedule, so that we can conduct the drills. This year, 70 districts have responded and they will be given Rs 1 lakh each to spread awareness. We need an integrated approach to mitigate the dangers due to calamities.