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A Decade of Disaster Risk

Management in India
Malini Nambiar

Natural Disasters are set to

increase in the coming years.
Climate change, coupled with a
growth in population and
insufficient enforcement of
building codes in high-risk zones,
has not only heightened Indias
vulnerability to the impact of
disasters but also created new
challenges to risk management.
Approaching a decade after the
implementation of the Disaster
Management Act of 2005, how far
have we been able to manage
risk; how far are we resilient as a
country? As the Disaster
Management Act goes under
review, this article suggests
recommendations based on the
experiences in Uttarakhand
and Odisha.

The author would like to thank the EPW referee

for reviewing and providing comments on the
earlier version of this article.
Malini Nambiar (malini.nambiar@yahoo.com)
is a disaster risk management consultant based
in Delhi.


he frequency and severity of natural disasters1 in India are increasing. In 2013-14 alone India
witnessed several major natural disasters
floods and landslides in Uttarakhand,
drought in Maharashtra, cyclones Phailin
and Hudhud in Odisha and A ndhra
Pradesh, respectively that affected
millions of people and caused an unprecedented scale of financial loss, including
the cost of response and recovery. The
level of intensity and the degree of
loss raise the question regarding the
effectiveness/preparedness of disaster risk
management in India.
India is among the worlds most vulnerable areas to natural hazards,2 particularly
earthquakes, floods, droughts, cyclones,
and landslides. The Global Climate
Change and Vulnerability Index 2011
ranked India as the second extreme risk
country in the world after Bangladesh,
vulnerable to natural and climate change
hazards (Verisk Maplecroft 2011). As per
the latest seismic zoning map brought
out by the Bureau of Indian Standards
(BIS),3 about 60% of the country is prone
to earthquakes of intensity VII or more on
the Medvedev-Sponheuer-Karnik (MSK)4
scale. Over 8% of Indias landmass is
susceptible to cyclone hazards and almost
76% of the 7,516 kilometre-long coastline is prone to cyclones and tsunamis.
Approximately 68% of the country is
drought prone; 12% of the area is susceptible to floods, and approximately 15% of
the total area of the country is susceptible
to landslides.
Climate-induced hazards are very
common in the entire Himalayan region.
According to the Fourth Assessment report
of the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change (IPCC), the incidence
of floods in the Himalayan region are

expected to increase as a result of a rise

in precipitation during the monsoon
season and glacial melt, both occurring
due to changing climate (IPCC 2007).
In addition, Indias high level of
poverty and rapid urban growth further
increases the vulnerability of its people
to the impact of natural hazards and
climatic changes. New residents and
urban poor living in peri-urban areas and
informal settlements concentrated in
high-risk zones are particularly vulnerable to natural hazards due to lack
of adequate infrastructure, insufficient
enforcement of building codes, a near
absence of financial and insurance
mechanisms that help transfer risk, and
limited access to basic and emergency
services. In 2011, the level of urbanisation was at about 31.2% (377.1 million
people), and was estimated to increase
to about 40%-50% in the next 20 years
(Planning Commission 2012a: 318).
Thus, with urban development unable
to keep up with rising demands, the vulnerability of people and infrastructure
in cities have a higher degree of defencelessness to natural hazards and effects
of climate change (Dickson et al 2012). It
is estimated that around 200 million city
dwellers in India will be exposed to
storms and earthquakes by 2050 (World
Bank and United Nations 2010). In the
Twelfth Five-Year Plan (2012-17), the
Government of India (GOI) estimated
that $1 trillion would be needed to bridge
Indias infrastructure gap over the
next two decades (Planning Commission 2012b: 26).
Given the vulnerability and exposure
to disasters, over the past decade India
has made major strides in formulating
guidelines, procedures, and putting in
place systems to address such events.
The exposure and experience from past
disasters (particularly the Odisha super
cyclone in 1999, the Gujarat earthquake
in 2001, and the tsunami of 2004) have
brought disaster management to the
forefront of Indias development agenda
with the enactment of the Disaster
Management Act in 2005. The GOI has in
place an institutional and strategic approach towards disaster management

january 31, 2015

vol l no 5


Economic & Political Weekly


the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) is

the key nodal agency for coordinating
hazard relief and mitigation activities,
in conjunction with the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA),
the State Disaster Management Authorities (SDMA s), the National Institute of
Disaster Management (NIDM) for trainings, and the National Disaster Response
Force (NDRF).
The Twelfth Five-Year Plan by the
Planning Commission has outlined the
aim of consolidating progress made
towards disaster preparedness, prevention and risk mitigation by integrating
them into the development process.
Nevertheless, the current disaster risk
management frameworks need upgradation wherein cross-national experiences,
domestic resources and collaborative
initiatives continuously feed into improving disaster management systems
and practices.
Building Resilience
On the brink of celebrating a decade
since the passing of the Disaster Management Act of 2005, Indias disaster
management system has seen a significant shift from a relief-driven response
to being more proactive, with an emphasis on disaster prevention, mitigation
and preparedness. The Act paved the
way by providing a detailed action plan
right from the central government to the
district and local levels to design and
implement disaster management plans.
Several programmes and projects were
initiated to prepare for different types of
disasters urban earthquake vulnerability
reduction projects, disaster risk reduction
programmes, national cyclone risk mitigation, etc, to name a few.5
Such legislation and the efforts by the
central government and states to work
out an integrated disaster risk mitigation
policy, as part of their development activity, was tested during cyclone Phailin
that hit the Indian east coast in October
2013. On receiving the early warning sent
by the Indian Meteorological Department
(IMD), the countrys disaster preparedness teams and the Odisha state authorities immediately acted by prepositioning
emergency response teams and supplies,
and evacuating nearly a million people
Economic & Political Weekly


january 31, 2015

within 36 hours before the landfall of

cyclone Phailin this has been termed
one of the largest emergency evacuations carried out in the world, within a
record time frame.
The credit for the exemplary show in
disaster preparedness goes to the Government of Odisha. The low loss of lives
despite the severity of Phailin would not
have been possible without incorporating and building upon the lessons learnt
after the states past experience with the
super cyclone of 1999. The success of
minimising human casualties was due to
the resolve of the state and the preparedness of the Odisha State Disaster Management Authorities (OSDMA). The Odisha government and OSDMA had commenced preparatory activities by immediately dispatching emergency assistance, deploying disaster response teams,
and evacuating people to nearby cyclone
shelters or other identified safe buildings. Similar steps were undertaken to
shift the livestock to safer places. Helicopters and boats were prepositioned for
rescue and relief operations. These efforts were made in close collaboration
with the Odisha Disaster Rapid Action
Force (ODRAF), NDRF, Central Reserve
Police Force (CRPF), Odisha State Armed
Police (OSAP), and the Indian Air Force
(IAF) (World Bank 2013b).
Taking heed to meteorologists warnings that climate change will increase the
severity of natural calamities, Odisha has
invested heavily in disaster risk reduction
projects. The state has its own disaster
management departments and has built
hundreds of cyclone shelters across the
coast. Technological advances have
enabled the state to keep abreast with
weather predictions in advance. Drills
are regularly organised so that local
communities and people know what to
do when an alert is issued. Large groups
of volunteers have also been trained to
support evacuations processes and distribution of aid. Over the years, the state
has established an extensive network of
disaster management task forces.
Those Unprepared
Unfortunately, not all states in India are
as well prepared as Odisha. Some of the
states in the country have not established
vol l no 5

a state disaster management authority,

and many among those that have, are
not functioning efficiently. A case in point
is Uttarakhand, whereby the capacity
of the state authorities was severely
challenged during the massive flooding
and landslide disaster of June 2013. The
unprecedented rainfall that caused rivers
and glacier lakes to overflow, and triggered massive landslides, disrupted
normal life and affected over 9,00,000
people in the state (World Bank 2013a).
The reason for the high numbers of lives
being affected by the disaster was due to
the fact that the event took place during
the Hindu pilgrimage season. It was only
a year prior, in 2012, that flash floods
washed away buildings in Uttarkashi;
however, few lessons seem to have been
learnt from that incident. It has also
been widely reported by national dailies
that the Uttarakhand state disaster management authority has not convened
since it was first set up in 2008 (Chauhan
and Haq 2013).
Uttarakhand is not the only state to
find its capabilities challenged and
being unprepared for countering such
events. Odisha may have passed the test
in responding to cyclone Phailin, but
many states in India are guilty of evading their responsibilities or do not find it
necessary to establish a SDMA or preparing a state disaster management plan.
The absence of a detail mapping of risk
zones, safe zones where people can head
to, crowd management systems, early
warning systems, or standard operating
procedures of various state departments
during a disaster, heightens the states
vulnerability and exposure to disasters.
This reflects a worrying apathy for
human safety and indifference on the
part of most state governments.
With recent trends showing an increasing frequency and intensity of natural
hazards, there is a greater need for
political commitment to keep the momentum going for building resilience since
the 2005 enactment. The national, state
and local governments need to understand
their vulnerability and exposure especially within their development paradigms in order to design and implement
effective adaptation and disaster risk
management strategies.


Planning the Next Decade

It is time that India constructively focuses
on building resilience, i e, the ability
to anticipate, absorb, accommodate, or recover from the effects of a hazardous event
in a timely and efficient manner, including
through ensuring the preservation, restoration, and/or improvement of its essential basic
structures and functions (IPCC 2012: 5).

Resilience can only be achieved when

learnings of past disasters are analysed,
are used for improving functional capabilities to cope with disasters and a synergy in the approach and strategies for
better risk management is brought about
in the country as a whole. As Odishas example has shown, in building resilience,
it is not only essential to be proactive in
anticipating the effects of disasters but
also prudent by investing in improving
physical structures and functions.
Hence, the first step in building resilience in the coming decade must be to
make it mandatory for all states and
union territories to establish a functional
SDMA, a State Executive Committee (SEC)
and District Disaster Management
Authority (DDMA). These management
authorities, once established, will enable
states to focus on long-term disaster risk
management and build capacities to
deal with disaster, both within the
government as well as the citizenry. The
benefits of having an apex body solely
for disaster management and mitigation
are immense.
The OSDMA not only performed disaster
preparatory activities but also demonstrated the ability to be proactive in
times of crisis. Despite numerous studies
on disasters risk management, research
has not focused on examining the merits
of these institutional arrangements in
India vis--vis the success and failure of
the states preparedness in coping with
disasters (Thiruppugazh 2014). Nevertheless, the experience of OSDMA suggests
that a permanent institutional authority
helps quick decision-making in a short
time frame, improves coordination and
collaboration among stakeholders and
helps mobilise resources and manage
relief operations.
With the establishment of SDMA, SEC
and DDMA in every state within the
country detailed disaster management

plans for identified areas of vulnerability will become possible as that is central
to their mandate. The exercise of designing disaster management plans will
enable states to better understand and
know in advance which districts or
blocks are more prone to disasters, and
which are better prepared to handle
them. It will also assist the states in
identifying deficiencies in infrastructure
(e g, whether building standards and
safety regulations have been adhered to
or not, lack of support infrastructure,
etc) within the identified vulnerable
areas. These plans also include various
mapping processes within the state
high density areas, livelihood/land use,
resources (hospitals, fire stations, doctors)
and weather/rainfall patterns. It is these
plans and information that work as the
basis for mitigating disasters.
Such information can be stored as
part of a national/state disaster database,
along with digitalised maps through
geographic information system (GIS), and
will help monitor, analyse and prioritise
mitigation activities over time, thereby
improving the preparedness of high-risk
zones to face disasters. Such initiatives
need to be in place in identified high-risk
zones that have a tendency of increasing
population growth, especially in the
coastal areas. For example, with the
physical loss sustained during cyclone
Phailin, the Odisha government, through
a process of systematic analysis, has
planned to increase the number of
cyclone shelters and strengthen existing
ones, construct pucca resilient houses
for people living within a five kilometre
distance from the coastal line, and
are also considering underground electrical cabling in the coastal areas (World
Bank 2014).

been recognised in the aftermath of

the tsunami in Tamil Nadu and the
super cyclone in Odisha in 1999, they
are still underutilised. These representative bodies could play a significant role
not only in disaster risk planning, but
also by catalysing social mobilisations
and by tapping the traditional wisdom
of local communities (Yudhvir and
Sunita 2013). For a more proactive role
for the PRIs, continuous education/and
training programmes need to be integrated with the aim of ensuring that
individuals within the disaster management authority and the local elected
authorities have the knowledge to prepare
for and respond to major threats from
multiple disasters.
In Odisha and Uttarakhand, large
numbers of buildings were damaged
which raises the question whether
building codes and regulations were
adhered to during construction or
whether there was a lack of knowledge
regarding seismically safe construction
among architects and engineers. Hence,
state and local authorities recognise the
importance of safer homes for resilient
communities in post-disaster reconstruction and recovery work. They are
taking responsibility for training local
masons, distributing resilient reconstruction designs within the communities, verifying construction sites and
building back better.
This brings us to the point that no
disaster can ever be dealt with effectively
only through an administrative set-up
and without the proactive participation
of the community itself. Community

Building Vertical Synergies

To achieve successful and comprehensive state disaster plans, two things are
essential: (a) integrating the panchayati
raj institutions (PRIs) and urban local
bodies (ULBs) in disaster risk planning
and management, and (b) augmenting
the capacity by training individuals.
Although the roles of the PRIs and ULBs
in both disaster risk reduction and management of a post-disaster situation have
january 31, 2015

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Economic & Political Weekly


participation is vital with regards to

understanding vulnerability and longterm risk management. Hence, involving the community in risk identification,
risk planning and risk management
would not only enable the joint development of adequate measures and plans
but also provide a sense of collective responsibility for mitigating vulnerability
and risk. In Odisha, the multipurpose
cyclone shelters built along the coastlines are managed and maintained by
the community.
Related to the above point is the
importance of communication, information and building awareness among the
community. As part of disaster preparedness, having a proactive participation
and involvement from the community
is vital in managing disasters. As the
government investment evolves in disaster
mitigation practices and programmes,
they also need to invest in creating
public awareness about natural phenomena to prepare the community for the
inevitable disruption that accompanies
disasters. Having a good disaster mitigation and recovery plan understood by
the state authorities and associated
agencies is one thing, but equally important is the need to ensure that the vulnerable community as a whole is aware
of the part that they must play.
Awareness building and communication in a pre-disaster phase must include
preparedness messages through multimedia (newspaper, radio, television,
mobile phones, and internet), training
in disaster response for community
groups and institutions, early warning
systems, evacuation routes, demarcation
of safety zones, as well as conducting
public information campaigns. Through
a robust communication strategy, a
safety culture within the community
would be inbuilt enabling them to be
aware of what to do at the onset of a
disaster and also support efforts during
and post disaster.
Community Participation
and Ownership
The lesson that has come out from Odisha
post cyclone Phailin was not only the
established level of intra-departmental
communication and coordination, but
Economic & Political Weekly


january 31, 2015

also the partnerships and community

trust built prior to and following the
disaster, that added to the successful
disaster mitigation and management.
The commendable recovery and relief
efforts in Odisha was made in close
collaboration with youth volunteers,
community groups, community leaders
(Sarpanch of the panchayats), communitybased organisations, non-governmental
organisations, ODRAF, NDRF, CRPF, OSAP,
Odisha Fire Service Department and
the IAF.
This cooperative and collaborative
effort for a shared goal of zero casualties
enabled the evacuation of almost 1 million
people to safety, restored road connectivity within two days, and provided
relief to those affected by the cyclone.
Thus, it is imperative for state disaster
management authorities to establish a
rapport and build trust among the various
stakeholders before disaster strikes
to ensure both speed and quality of
response, along with quick decisionmaking ability in a compressed time
frame that is vital for effective coordination in an emergency.
Various research and secondary data,
all indicate that multi-hazard risk
financing and risk insurance in India is
at a very nascent stage. Past experience
of disasters in India has shown that loss
of income and severe damage to uninsured assets caused by natural disasters
are a major threat to the lives and livelihood of a large section of the population.
An independent study by the Centre for
Economic and Business Research (CEBR)
for Lloyds estimates that in India 85%
of the total loss following a disaster
is due to uninsured loss. It put the average uninsured loss per natural disaster
event at $1.96 billion (approximately
Rs 10,000 crore, IRDA-NDMA 2013). The
disaster response funds at the national
and state level indicates a gap between
the amount available and the relief expenditure incurred by states during a
disaster. This gap is usually met by the
states from their own resources implying reallocating funds from other developmental activities. The gap in funding
is often significant in years when states
have been struck by major or recurrent
disasters. Also external assistance is not
vol l no 5

always immediate and may not necessarily be adequate.6

Hence, there is a great need at the
state level to prioritise and plan for a
long-term comprehensive risk financing
strategy which adds to the resilience of
the community and the state to recover
quickly in the aftermath of a disaster. For
this purpose states need to expand their
contingency risk budget funds, explore
the domestic markets and/or private
partnerships for this purpose. It is also
beneficial to involve the community,
build awareness about the benefits of insuring private/personal property (land,
residential homes, commercial buildings,
industries, land-use, livestock, vehicles
and others) and provide incentives
(tax relief) for those who contribute to
long-term financial risk management.
Insurance must also be taken for public
property and critical infrastructures.
This sharing of risk will assist in mitigating vulnerability of communities,
reduce financial burden of the government, ensure that development funds
are not relocated and assist in recovering faster from the effects of a disaster.
In Conclusion
Disaster management is not the sole
responsibility of the government or a
few institutions; it is the responsibility of
everyone. As the Disaster Management
Act of 2005 goes for revision after almost a
decade, it must call for collaboration and
commitment of all states and stakeholders
with the prime purpose of keeping
citizens safe and making India resilient
to disasters. Response to a specific disaster
is the best assessment of the level of
disaster preparedness as seen in the cases of Odisha and Uttarakhand. However,
Indian states cannot afford to wait for
the next disaster to strike before getting
their act together. They need to take
cross-national learnings and keep the
momentum that was initiated by the
Disaster Management Act of 2005 by
focusing on reducing vulnerability and
managing risks successfully.

Natural disasters referred here are those categorised as Hydro-meteorological (Cyclones,

storm/wave surges, floods, avalanche), Geophysical (earthquakes, landslides, tsunami,


volcanic activity) and climatological (drought,
extreme temperature or wild fires).
2 All of south Asia including India is prone to
multiple disasters, which is defined as two
or more natural hazards that affect a vulner
able population in the same region, singly or
in combination in N S Ray-Bennett (2009),
Multiple Disasters and Policy Responses Preand Post-Independence Orissa, India, Disaster,
33(2) 274-90.
3 IS 1893-Part 1: 2002, Map of Seismic Zones of
4 The Medvedev-Sponheuer-Karnik scale, also
known as theMSK,is a macro-seismic intensity
scale used to evaluate the severity of ground
shaking on the basis of observed effects in an
area of theearthquakeoccurrence. Scale VII is
indicated as strong.
5 As referred to on the website of NDMA, http://
taken%20by%20govt.htm, accessed on 10 Jan
uary 2015.
6 Ibid: 23.

Chauhan, Chetan and Zia Haq (2013): When Will
We Learn to Manage Disaster?, The Hindustan
Times, New Delhi, 6 July.
Dickson, Eric, Judy L Baker, Daniel Hoorweg and
Asmita Tiwari (2012): Urban Risk Assess
ments: Understanding Disaster and Climate
Risk in Cities, Urban Development Series,
Washington DC, World Bank.
IPCC (2007): Climate Change 2007: Synthesis
Report, Contribution of Working Groups I, II
and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,

Core Writing Team et al (ed.), IPCC, Geneva,
Switzerland, pp 13, available at http://www.
ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg2/ar4wg2-spm.pdf, accessed on 10 January 2015.
(2012): Summary for Policymakers in Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters
to Advance Climate Change Adaptation [Field,
C B, V Barros, T F Stocker, D Qin, D J Dokken,
K L Ebi, M D Mastrandrea, K J Mach, G K Plattner,
S K Allen, M Tignor and P M Midgley (ed.)]
A Special Report of Working Groups I and II of
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(Cambridge, UK, and New York, USA: Cam
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IRDA-NDMA (2013): Disaster Relief and Risk
Transfer Through Insurance, Discussion Paper,
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Thiruppugazh, V (2014): Post-Disaster Recon
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Reduction: A Comparative Study or Three
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Verisk Maplecroft (2011): Climate Change Risk Atlas,

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able at http://www.tarj.in/images/download/

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