Kerala floods: Chinks in India's gold armour called disaster management

Kerala floods have demonstrated two aspects of disaster management in India: First, our preparedness and response to disasters has improved; and second, when it comes to a large-scale disaster, social and financial assistance becomes instrumental in mitigating the impact faster.

However, disasters do not announce their arrival, and once they strike, they demand a lot of money for equipment, food and fuel, shelters and reconstruction. Does the government mobilise enough funds for disaster management, and does it utilise them fully and rationally?

Data show that central funding towards disaster management has dwindled in recent years. The amount collected as the National Calamity and Contingency Duty (NCCD) declined from Rs 57 billion in 2015-16 to Rs 37 billion in 2017-18. NCCD is the input channel for the National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF).

The amount spent by the NDRF on disaster response reduced from Rs 125 billion in 2015-16 to Rs 72 billion in 2017-18, according to data presented in the Union Budget. So far, Rs 6 billion has been promised to Kerala in 2018-19.

Similar to NDRF, the mandated targets for transfers to states’ disaster response funds (SDRF) have not been met, either. States receive direct funds from the central government in a pre-decided manner, according to the recommendations of 14th Finance Commission.

Against an allocation of Rs 350 billion by the Finance Commission in the three years to 2017-18, the Centre has released only about 75 per cent, or Rs 265 billion, to all SDRFs put together.

More importantly, variations among states with respect to FC grants to SDRFs do not appear to be progressive. The allocation to states is based not on the need of the state or its capacity (or the lack of it) to handle disasters, but on the spending on disaster management by the state concerned in the past.

As a result, Maharashtra has always been the biggest beneficiary of FC grants to SDRFs, receiving 13 per cent of the total FC-SDRF transfers in any particular year in the term of the 14th FC (2015-16 to 2019-20). The reason is not that Maharashtra has faced the worst calamities in recent years, but the fact that it spent the most (because it had the capacity) on disaster management in the period from 2006-07 to 2011-12.

In 2018-19, like in previous years, six states — Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Odisha — have been allocated half of the FC-SDRF transfers.

A similar variation among states is observed in the NDRF release to states.

The central government collects cesses on excise and customs duties on some items as NCCD and parks the money into the NDRF. The Centre decides its release to states according to the need of the time and the extent of the disaster – in short, at its own discretion.

In 2015-16, it collected Rs 57 billion on the NCCD account. This rose to Rs 65 billion in 2016-17 but dropped to Rs 37 billion in 2017-18 – back to square one. This essentially reduces the capacity to respond to disasters and necessitates the expenditure of extra amounts meant for other purposes in times of calamity.

There are some surprising aspects in the funds released to states from the NDRF. Maharashtra tops as the biggest beneficiary in the discretionary NDRF transfers, too. It received Rs 53 billion in four years to 2017-18, while the amount received by Assam, which sees frequent flooding every year, was NIL.

The Centre spends more amount on disaster management than states. The FC-SDRF transfers at Rs 265 billion from 2015-16 to 2017-18 were 15 per cent less than NDRF-state transfers (Rs 310 billion in the same period).

Further, there is a catch in the FC-SDRF allocations. The Centre used to fund 75 per cent, while the general category states contributed 25 per cent to the SDRF. The ratio was 90:10 for special category, northeastern and hilly states.

The 14th Finance Commission had recommended that the Centre pay out 90 per cent contribution to SDRF for all states. The Centre, however, had not yet complied with the recommendation, it clarified in Parliament earlier this year. The period of the 14th FC is about to end in March 2020.

Apart from the response and post-disaster management, which is the curative aspect, the National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) handles the preventive aspect. It works towards improving the preparedness for disaster and puts things in place for disaster risk reduction.

Kamal Kishore, member of the NDMA, says that three things have improved from a decade ago. “Today, a multi-tier system (centre-state-district) is in place and ready for quick assistance; a kind of specialisation has been evolved, especially in response to floods; and the public understanding and timeliness of early warnings from Met department have improved greatly,” he told Business Standard.

However, he also said that improper and careless land use planning, such as construction on flood plains, is a generic phenomenon observed across states and cities of India. This hampers the risk-taking capacity of regions concerned.

More than 15 states set up their state disaster management agencies (SDMA) only after 2013. Odisha was one of the first to constitute SDMA in 2001, in the aftermath of the 1999 cyclone. Uttarakhand set up its SDMA only after the June 2013 cloud burst and subsequent flash floods devastating half of the state and claiming more than 600 lives.


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