Centre declares Kerala floods ‘Level-3’ calamity; demand to call it ‘national disaster’ either ignorance or mischief

The only official classification of natural disasters available in India is this:

L0 (L stands for level) This refers to normal times when there is no disaster. That’s when state-level preparations to deal with disasters, including training in search and rescue operations, must happen.
L1 These are disasters that can be managed at the district level, but the state and Centre must be ready to provide assistance if needed.
L2 These are the disasters that may need assistance and active participation of the state, as well as state-level mobilisation of resources.
L3 These are situations arising from large-scale disasters, wherein districts and the state may not have the capacity to respond adequately and need assistance from the Centre.


The High Power Committee, set up in August 1999 during Atal Bihari Vajpayee's term as prime minister, had made this level 1 to 3 classification of disasters. The panel had submitted its report in 2001. Although this categorisation doesn’t find place in the Disaster Management Act of 2005, it figures in the National Disaster Management Guidelines of July 2007 and the National Disaster Management Plan of May 2016.

The Centre has placed the Kerala floods in the Level 3 — or L3 — category. This was made clear to the Kerala High Court on Monday in response to a petition, which had sought to have the floods declared a “national disaster”. The L3 status means that the Centre must help a state with its personnel and funds, which the Narendra Modi government has already begun to do in the case of the Kerala floods.

There is no law or provision in India under which a calamity anywhere in the country can be declared a “national disaster”. It was either out of sheer ignorance or deliberate political mischief that Kerala’s CPM-led Left Democratic Front government and other Opposition leaders, including Congress president Rahul Gandhi, demanded this label for the Kerala floods.

Labelling disasters is tough

It’s difficult to find fault with the High Power Committee for not being more precise in the classification of disasters in terms of intensity and the aid affected places need. Indeed, there can never be a precise scale to measure a disaster’s exact intensity. For obvious reasons, even the Richter Scale measures the physical intensity of an earthquake but not the exact degree of the havoc it can wreak on the place it strikes. For instance, an earthquake of magnitude 6 on the Richter Scale can possibly be more disastrous in a thickly populated city than a magnitude 8 earthquake in a rural region with fewer people.

 Centre declares Kerala floods ‘Level-3’ calamity; demand to call it ‘national disaster’ either ignorance or mischief

Rescue operations are on in full swing in Kerala amid heavy rain. Image Courtesy: Naveen Nair

Experts worldwide have had a serious problem quantifying or labelling disasters, though it is a necessary exercise that can determine the aid required. Governments and aid agencies globally have traditionally relied on the number of casualties and the financial loss — the obvious indicators of a disaster’s impact. But there has been no unanimity on the use of this data either.

There are many who argue that while the death of an individual is equally tragic anywhere, the impact of financial loss can differ from place to place, depending on the income levels of the affected regions. This is akin to arguing that when a cyclone ravages Mumbai, a slum in Dharavi needs better official attention than an affluent neighbourhood in Cuffe Parade. Some disaster analysts have come up with very complex methodologies to calculate the impact of calamities, but they always add the rider that there is no foolproof way to do it.

A ‘national’ confusion

In India, the phrase “national disaster”, which has no official significance in the absence of a recognised category by this nomenclature, is something used loosely in general parlance. The prefix national here can only mean either colossal or something that must concern the whole nation.

Confusion might arise from the fact that we have a National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), the National Disaster Management Plan and the like. But ‘national’ here applies to the response force and the management plan without qualifying the disaster.

Needless semantics

So the phrase “national disaster” is bandied about the way “national pride”, “national leader”, “national shame”, etc are tossed around. If the demand that the Kerala floods be declared a “national disaster” means that the calamity must alarm the entire nation, nobody — not even the Centre — denies that it does. But if it means that the central government must foot the bill for relief and rehabilitation from the National Disaster Response Fund, it has already begun to do that. The Rs 600 crore that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Affairs Minister Rajnath Singh had announced will be granted from that fund. While a demand for more central funds makes sense, clamouring for this particular label doesn’t.

The High Power Committee categorised the disasters into levels 1 to 3 on the basis of “vulnerability of the disaster-affected area, and the capacity of the authorities to deal with the situation”. This was partially along the lines of how international agencies look at calamities. Till another official classification replaces it, this division stands final.

On Monday, Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju declared that the Kerala floods were a “natural calamity of severe nature”. He might as well have said “very severe”, “acute”, “terrible” or “dreadful”, or other potent adjectives from his vocabulary. He could have even been generous to actually call it a “national disaster” to make Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Rahul happy, but it would have made little difference.

The only thing that matters to get the central machinery moving to extend full-scale help to a state is a disaster’s L3 classification, which is what the Modi government has done to deal with the deluge in Kerala.

Under the procedures laid down, Kerala will present a memorandum to the Centre sometime soon, detailing the losses it has suffered and the money it needs. The Centre will then dispatch an inter-ministerial team to the affected area to assess the damage and arrive at the quantum of relief aid.

It’s not a charity that Centre will bestow on Kerala. The Modi government is legally and morally bound to grant funds to the flood-ravaged state. On its part, Kerala must do a good job of explaining its losses in its memorandum, instead of making ridiculous demands to declare the floods a “national disaster”.

The author tweets @sprasadindia

Updated Date: Aug 21, 2018 23:45:27 IST