Challenge of Disaster Management in India

(By Dr Arvind Kumar President, India Water Foundation, New Delhi. Published in Third Concept Magazine in August 2012 Issue)

The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), established under the aegis of Union Ministry of Home Affairs has a logo which says: “India envisions the development of an ethos of Prevention, Mitigation and Preparedness and will strive to promote a National resolve to mitigate the damage and destruction caused by natural and man-made disasters, through sustained and collective efforts of all Government agencies, Non-Governmental Organisations and People’s participation, by adopting a Technology-Driven, Pro-Active, Multi-Hazard and Multi-Sectoral Strategy for building a Safer, Disaster Resilient and Dynamic India.” 

According to William Waugh, facilitation of organizing administrative machinery and dealing with disasters is a vital responsibility of governance.1 Strong and effective emergency management has been a felt need in all almost all parts of the globe. Responsiveness of governance becomes evident in the manner in which it addresses the crucial task of ameliorating suffering and reducing losses. In Waugh’s opinion, it devolves on the public officials to formulate policies and build capacities for dealing with such situations. 

Viewed in broad perspective, the public perceives governments to have learnt from experience, theirs and others. Yet, a common complaint has been that government agencies are unprepared or ill-prepared for the next big crisis and are unable to prevent large-scale loss of life and damage to property.

download (1).jpgEmergency management has been an important item on the agenda of governance, even though it was not known for having a specific constituency or lobby to support its cause at all times.3 Its importance was underscored every time there was a major natural or manmade disaster.

The month of May 2008 witnessed two major events. There was a deadly cyclone that devastated Myanmar, killing tens of thousands and severely affected millions.4 Less than a fortnight later, People’s Republic of China suffered an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale that resulted in more than 50,000 deaths, and suffering for millions.5 Both these incidents highlighted the myriad deficiencies of public administration.

It had been no different in other places. If it was wildfires in Greece, it could be mud slides in Philippines, nuclear accidents in Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, or potential pandemics like SARS. And terrorist incidents in Mumbai, New York, London, Madrid, and Beslan or in the Middle East pointed to a different type of hazard that had gained prominence. All these served to direct attention of the public and policy makers towards the policy domain of disaster management.

Disasters had serious consequences for nations and their economies. Despite developments in science and technology, the costs of disasters had been increasing. Interestingly, growing losses strengthened the arguments of scholars who stressed increasing vulnerability due to socio-economic development. In the decade between 1997 and 2006, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies noted that 1.209 million people lost their lives and 2.679 billion person were affected. Losses caused by disasters increased from US $ 75.5 billions in the 1960s to US $659.9 billions in the 1990s.6 Disasters also extracted a very high price in social, psychological and economic terms.

Their impact was felt in trails of destruction, families torn apart, children orphaned, livelihoods destroyed, and communities traumatized. They had a long-term impact on the social health of families and, in turn, the community. At the individual and family levels, loss of livelihood or a diminished earning capacity had an equally damaging effect. It was held that damages to domestic and business constructions imposed a burden that was never recovered through government compensation packages or insurance payouts. For businesses, losses were more than immediate calculations of damages, since profitability depended on intangible factors. The total impact was likely to be more, since an accurate estimation was difficult due to serious methodological difficulties in calculating primary and secondary losses.7

The opportunity cost of relief and reconstruction expenditures has also a reason for its enormous salience. Losses of infrastructure and public assets impose a heavy financial burden on government resources. Concurrently, the uncertainty associated with disasters make it more difficult to make appropriate budgetary allocations.8

First, it costs resources to restore normalcy and to invest in mitigation programs. Secondly, from an opportunity cost perspective, countries are forced to expend resources on disaster management that would have otherwise been more productively invested. There are always contending demands for available resources, making them a significant issue in all countries. For example, after Hurricane Katrina in US, there were calls for re-prioritization of resources. If it could happen in a developed country like the United States, the economically disruptive effects of disasters in developing countries were likely to be infinitely more.

Disaster Management in India
The disaster management assumes significance more for democratic polities because they are likely to be held accountable for delivery outcomes by their constituents. Therefore, greater vulnerability serves to increase the importance of this domain, with a potential for electoral repercussions. It increases the stakes for having effective policies that mitigated losses.

For India, the salience is evident in view of the numerous natural and manmade disasters suffered by the subcontinent. India has endured the devastation of natural hazards such as droughts, epidemics, floods, cyclones (as wind storms were better known in India), earthquakes and the rarely occurring tsunami. Industrial mishaps, terrorist incidents, transportation accidents in urban locations, communal and caste riots had also taken a heavy toll.

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The situation in India has also alarming from a vulnerability perspective. 60% of India’s landmass is almost vulnerable to earthquakes, more than 40 million hectares to floods, 8% of its area of 3.29 million sq. km. to cyclones, and 68% to drought.9 Flooding in river plains has been a regular phenomenon in parts of India, like Bihar and Assam. Disaster literature, in general, and about India, in particular, refers to an increase in number of ‘great natural disaster events’ that was attributed to growth of population and urban sprawl.10

There had been catastrophic natural disasters like the 1993 Latur earthquake in Maharashtra province, 1998 Kandla cyclone in Gujarat, 1999 super cyclone that battered coastal Orissa, the Republic Day earthquake of 2001 that devastated large parts of Gujarat, and the calamitous 2004 tsunami that swept away coastal villages in Tamil Nadu and Andaman & Nicobar Islands.

According to broad estimates, up to 2004, 4344 human lives were being lost, and an approximate 30 million people affected by natural disasters every year. As far as disasters from manmade hazards were concerned, the 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy had been one of the worst accidents in the history of the industrial world.

In addition, terrorist incidents, transportation accidents, communal and caste riots had also taken a heavy toll. In 2007, India suffered heavycasualties, next only to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan in the entire world.11 Terrorist incidents in 2001 and 2003 were particularly serious.

Recent years have seen growing sense of urgency to view this domain of public policy, considering the vulnerability of the nation and the devastating impact of disasters. It resonates with the goals of disaster research. A greater focus on the subject was also due to external influences. There was increased international influence from exposure to and dissemination of overseas experiences and best practices. The United Nations had declared the 1990s as the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR).

The Government of India recognized the enormous influence of IDNDR. The 1994 Yokohama Strategy of the IDNDR played a significant role in changing its relief-oriented approach to one based on mitigation and prevention. A joint program for disaster risk mitigation was taken up in 2002, by Government of India and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) with the assistance of United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and European Union (EU). It was aimed at capacity building in seventeen of the most disaster-prone states in India.

Overseas agencies, like USAID, assisted India in developing climate forecasting systems. India was also exposed to international norms and standards, being the largest recipient of World Bank aid for disaster management programs. In the industrial sector, a United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) initiative focused on vulnerabilities to man-made disasters, and was instrumental in improving practices in the sectors of transportation and of hazardous chemicals.39 It initiated a process in which the country gained insights through interaction with other countries and international bodies.

Comprehensive reform was taken up by the Indian government. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) was notified as the nodal ministry for Disaster Management in 2002. Policy makers realized a need to overhaul all aspects of the administrative approach towards disasters.

In the new millennium, an Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC), only the second in independent India, was constituted by the Union government, to examine and suggest measures for efficient and sustainable administration at all levels. Its terms of reference included Crisis Management and to suggest ways to “(a) quicken the Emergency Responses of administration, and (b) increase the effectiveness of the machinery to meet the crisis situation and enhance crisis preparedness.”

Soon after, a comprehensive Disaster Management Act was passed by the Indian Parliament in December 2005. In place of archaic Relief departments, provinces were encouraged to set up Disaster Management departments, Disaster Management Authorities and promulgate Disaster Management Codes in place of outdated Relief Codes.

Comprehensive reform addressed long-term mitigation and prevention requirements of disaster management. The Indian Meteorological Department and the Central Waters Commission took up modernization and upgradation of flood forecasting, early warning systems.

A National Core Group on Landslide Mitigation was set up, with Geological Survey of India as the nodal agency. Another National Core Group on Earthquake Mitigation was set up, and under its aegis an expert committee was tasked with drafting building bye laws, town and country planning, and zoning regulations.

The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) was asked to develop building safety codes, sensitize local government personnel, and train municipal architects and engineers. It was planned to complete modifications of Town Planning laws for all new constructions, finish retrofitting of prioritized structures, and adopt Model Town Planning laws. Government of India also took the assistance of USAID in strengthening climate forecast system.

Large-scale changes were mooted for training and human resource development, too. The National Center for Disaster Management, which was set up in 1995, was upgraded to a National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM) in 2003. Its purpose was to conduct research, undertake documentation, develop training modules, conduct training programs, and assist training institutions and state institutes. After promulgation of the Disaster Management Act in 2005, NIDM was recognized as a statutory, nodal institution. The country’s premier institution for training civil servants, the National Academy of Administration, was notified as a nodal agency for training trainers. Natural disaster management cells were set up in state administrative training institutes, which trained government personnel, to increase awareness and spread norms.

Academic courses, of engineers and architects, included subjects of disaster management. It was also introduced in school curricula in the 8th and 9th grades, to spread awareness.

When it appeared that federal disaster management had taken up comprehensive capacity building, the 2004 South Asian tsunami exposed its shortcomings in states. It highlighted the distance between the federal center and the states in terms of adopting policy change. In addition to a disproportionately high loss of lives, a total unfamiliarity with the disaster agent caught the administration totally unawares.

As a consequence, India joined an international effort to install tsunami detection systems in the Indian Ocean. It became a high priority issue and India went ahead with a plan to install a network of seismic stations, with 50 tide gauges and a dozen openocean tsunameter buoys. By March 2007, it had tested four tsunameter systems.

In case of manmade disasters, statutory safeguards were introduced earlier. The Bhopal Gas Tragedy in 1984 resulted in benchmarks and industrial safety standards in a number of countries. Under the influence of IDNDR in the 1990s, a major exercise was undertaken to improve Awareness and Preparedness for Emergencies at Local Level (APELL) by UNEP, in collaboration with government and industry. Its purpose was to minimize technological accidents and environmental emergencies, and their harmful effects. This was done by identifying and raising awareness of industry-related hazards, encouraging risk reduction and mitigation, and developing co-coordination between industry, local authorities and community.

Significantly, a new set of rules, the “Chemical Accidents (Emergency Planning, Preparedness and Response) Rules, 1996” were a major outcome of the APELL program. A Road Transport Safety (RTS) initiative, focused on all hazardous and non-hazardous industrial goods, was launched with the cooperation of UNEP, USAID and National Safety Council of India (NSCI).52 Similarly, in the oil and natural gas sector, the Oil Industry Safety Directorate (OISD) hadconsidered International benchmarks of IEC, API, NFPA, etc. while developing safety Protocols.

In the mitigation and preparedness phases, states were asked to integrate long-term plans with developmental policies. Schemes that addressed prevention and mitigation were given priority. Mitigation measures for earthquakes included designs for quake resistant construction and updating building codes according to Bureau of Indian Standards. States needed to set up specialist disaster response teams, in addition to undertaking vulnerability analyses, for reaching preparedness milestones. In the response stage, it consisted of emergency plans as well as mock drills.

Other steps included emergency support functions of procurement, mobile hospitals, search and rescue teams, and communication networks. Equally important were measures involving local communities and nongovernmental organizations, which were some of the key shortcomings identified even by the World Bank.

Nevertheless, the policy reforms undertaken by India are comprehensive and envisage specific parameters for the different phases of disaster management. The paradigm shift is a comprehensive overhaul that represents ‘double-loop learning’ as far as federal policy making is concerned. Its objective is to change the fundamental objective from distribution of relief to addressing all-phases of generic disaster management. The sum total of changes represents a complete policy overhaul in Indian disaster management. However, there is also need for sensitizing and galvakizing the people by launching outreach programmes at the grassroots level to prepare them for facing the odds. Besides, better coordination, cooperation and convergence is also called fro between the Centre and states with regard to disaster management.


  1. William L. Waugh Jr., Living with Hazards Dealing with Disasters: An Introduction to Emergency Management, Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2000. 
  2. William L. Waugh Jr., “Assessing Quality in Disaster Management”, in Arie Halachami (ed.), Performance and Quality Measurement in Government: Issues and Experiences, Burke, VA: Chatelaine Press, 1999, pp. 65-82. 
  3. NAPA, Coping with Catastrophe: Building an Emergency Management System to meet People’s Needs during Natural and Man-made Disasters, Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Public Administration, 1993. 
  4. UN News Centre, 
  5. Government of China, 
  6. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), A Global Report –Reducing Disaster Risk: A Challenge for Development, New York: UNDP, 2004.
  7. L.B. Bourque, J.M. Sigel, M. Kano and M.M. Wood, “Morbidity and Mortality Associated with Disasters”, in H. Rodriguez, E.L. Quarantelli, and R.R. Dynes (eds.), Handbook of Disaster Research, New York: Springler Publishers, 2006, pp. 97-112. 
  8. Government of India, Disaster Management in India – A Status Report, New Delhi: Ministry of Home Affairs, National Disaster management Division, 2004. 
  9. Ibid.
  10. Anil K. Sinha, “Disaster Management: Lessons Drawn and Strategies for Future”, in P.L. Sanjeev Reddy and R.K. Tiwari (eds.), Issues and Themes in Indian Administration, New Delhi: Indian Institute of Public Administration, 2001, pp. 453-472.
  11. NCTC, Report on Terrorism 2007, available at

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