Developments following floods in Kerala last week appeared to follow a wearyingly familiar trajectory. Heavy rains begin and floods follow; people are stranded, and many die. The army is mobilised and the Indian public gets to watch dramatic footage of rescues by helicopter and rubber dinghies. The prime minister and chief minister make aerial surveys. Relief funds are allocated; appeals are put out to contribute to all manners of relief funds. Then the rains abate and all is forgotten until the next monsoon and the next disaster somewhere else in India that causes more deaths and displacement. The irony of this pattern of events is that India has had a 13-year-old disaster management machinery, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), that was set up by an Act of Parliament and is chaired by the prime minister and boasts an elaborate blueprint to coordinate with state disaster management authorities.
The NDMA had its origins in the tragedy of the 2001 Gujarat earthquake; the broad idea being that the country needed a centralised authority that anticipated natural disasters and had a management blueprint that would be activated when disaster struck. To be sure, the task is a challenging one: It involves coordinating between a host of scattered agencies that predict weather, earthquakes and so on, and working with each state to prepare a disaster management plan. If the death tolls from floods alone are to be gauged since the NDMA was set up — Bihar (2008, over 400 deaths), Uttarakhand (2013, almost 6,000 deaths), Kashmir (2014, over 200 deaths), Chennai (2015, over 500 deaths), and Assam (2017, over 100 deaths) — the approach hasn’t worked. A recent World Bank study says India accounts for about a fifth of global deaths due to floods and climate change is likely to make matters worse. The NDMA is well aware of this. It recently predicted that more than 16,000 people could perish in floods in the next decade. The question is what it is doing about it.
The record so far suggests that coordination with states remains poor, and Kerala is a case in point. Most of the state’s 39 dams had reached 85 to 90 per cent of their capacity by the end of July, a month that had seen 18 per cent more rainfall and much more was predicted for August. Had the dams slowly released water in July, the problem may not have become a disaster. Why was this obvious step not taken? Apparently, the state government needed an accurate flood forecast. Incredibly, the National Flood Forecasting Network, that comes within the ambit of the NDMA’s damage limitation blueprint, does not have a single station in Kerala.