Do Kerala floods qualify as national disaster? Needless clamour over nomenclature takes away from vital relief work

There has been a collective appeal by the Pinarayi Vijayan-led government in Kerala and other national parties, including the Congress, to declare the Kerala floods as a national disaster. Social media, too, is inundated with people criticising the BJP-led central government for not taking the calamity in the southern state seriously.

Prime minister Narendra Modi had visited Kerala on Saturday and announced a Rs 500 crore package for relief and rehabilitation of those displaced in the floods, which has been described as "worst since 1924 floods" by chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan. The relief fund will be released from the National Disaster Response Fund. Union home minister Rajnath Singh had earlier announced Rs 100 crore aid for the flood-hit state.

"Dear prime minister, please declare Kerala floods a national disaster without any delay. The lives, livelihood and future of millions of our people is at stake," he tweeted on Friday.

While the clamour to declare the Kerala floods as a national disaster rises, let's see when can you declare a natural calamity a national disaster. As of now, there is no fixed criteria.

As per the Disaster Management Act, 2005, “disaster” means a catastrophe, mishap, calamity or grave occurrence in any area, arising from natural or man-made causes, or by accident or negligence which results in substantial loss of life or human suffering or damage to, and destruction of, property, or damage to, or degradation of, environment, and is of such a nature or magnitude as to be beyond the coping capacity of the community of the affected area. A natural disaster includes earthquake, flood, landslide, cyclone, tsunami, urban flood, heatwave; a man-made disaster can be nuclear, biological and chemical. But, there is no provision, legal or otherwise, to declare a natural calamity as a national disaster. In 2001, the National Committee on Disaster Management, under the chairmanship of the then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was told to look into the parameters that should define a national calamity. However, the committee did not suggest any fixed criteria.

In reply to a question in the Parliament during the recently-concluded Monsoon Session, Minister of State (Home) Kiren Rijiju said, "The existing guidelines of State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF) and National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF), do not contemplate declaring a disaster as a ‘national calamity’.” And in March 2001, the then MoS (Agriculture) Shripad Naik had told the Parliament that the government had termed the 2001 Gujarat earthquake and the super cyclone in Odisha in 1999 as “a calamity of unprecedented severity”, The Indian Express reported. In the recent past, there have been demands for declaration of a natural disaster during the Uttarakhand floods in 2013, Cyclone Hudhud in Andhra Pradesh in 2014 and the Assam floods of 2015.

But as the DM Act 2005 guidelines state, there is no such provision for a disaster to be given more importance or urgency in relief only if its is declared as a national disaster. That is, it states that any calamity which is termed to be of "severe nature" or a "rare severity" will get adequate financial support and assistance from rescue forces such as the NDRF. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) identifies 'vulnerable zones' for various natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, cyclones etc. and charts guidelines accordingly.

A Calamity Relief Fund (CRF) is also set up in a severe calamity" situation and if CRF resources are deemed inadequate, additional assistance is provided from the National Calamity Contingency Fund (NCCF), which is funded completely by the Centre. And thus, following on those norms, the Centre has provided additional relief and released top-up NDRF teams for rescue and relief operations for Kerala floods without it being declared a 'national disaster' as such.

Hence, in the absence of a provision which necessitates for a big calamity to be termed as national disaster, the growing clamour for it be called so, is vague and only drives away from the larger issue of rehabilitation and rebuilding which lies in front of the state, now that the rescue work is nearing completion.

Central government officials have said that declaring Kerala floods as a 'national disaster' on paper is not going to help the state any more than what is already being extended to it in terms of financial aid and deployment of relief and rescue forces on the ground. Depending on the extent of damages and requirement of relief and rehabilitation exercise, the Centre will continue to pump in financial assistance and other relief materials, the officials told The Week . “As compared to the US, we have a better system in place since there is no need for a government notification to move central forces like the Army or the NDRF to assist states for disaster relief and rescue work. As soon as the state sends a requisition to the central government, the central forces are dispatched," the officials added.

“The demand for declaring a calamity as a national disaster is more of a political demand. It cannot be either a priority or the basis on which central relief is being extended to the state. The Central resources have already been put at the disposal of the state government. Both the home minister and prime minister have ordered release of central funds under the NDRF and central assistance by multiple agencies is already being extended to the state,'' The Week quoted a home ministry official as saying.

Follow latest updates on Kerala floods here 


Updated Date: Aug 20, 2018 12:02 PM

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