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Uttarakhand Floods: Let’s blame ourselves for a change

Jul 05, 2013

It is time that we constituted some rules around how we will all behave as a nation during a national or regional emergency like the recently endured Uttarakhand floods, writes Kavita Narayan.

Uttarakhand Flood

Watching the recent events unfurl in the wake of the Uttarakhand flash-floods is like watching the same story—calamity after calamity. Finger pointing, taking sides, widespread denial, leadership at all levels absolving self of blame, saving lives based on boundaries and affiliations and maximising political limelight and economic opportunity as quickly and as vehemently as possible. Oh, and our innovative counting methods to report death tolls!

Here’s a bird’s eye view at some of the significant natural disasters in India over the last two decades.

  • 1993 Latur earthquake. Killed 20,000, injured 30,000 and destroyed about 52 villages.
  • 1999 Odisha cyclone. Killed almost 10,000, left over 2 million homeless and disrupted 20 million lives.
  • 2001 Kutch earthquake. Killed 20,000, injured 1,67,000 and left over 6 lakh people homeless. Bhuj was devastated.
  • 2004 the Indian Ocean Tsunami affected over 2,200 kms of coastline, killed over 15,000 people rendered lakhs of people homeless.
  • 2005 floods in Gujarat killed 123 because thankfully over 2,50,000 were evacuated in time by helicopters of the Indian Air Force. The state suffered losses of over Rs 8,000 crores.
  • 2005 Mumbai floods killed 5,000 people, more than 24,000 animal carcasses disposed.
  • 2012, Uttarakhand was the victim of very similar flash floods. 38 people were reported dead.
  • 2013 Uttarakhand. Not done counting. Latest toll reports ranging from 900 to 10,000!

It is interesting that in most of the reports, there is a clear distinction of dead versus missing. It is time we stopped fooling ourselves to acknowledge that after a reasonable period of time, it is fairly logical to count the ‘missing’ among the dead. Do we really believe that people affected during these disasters are hiding out there, away from their families and loved ones, somewhere in those gushing waters or debris?

Let us leave out man-made disasters like terrorism for a minute and stick with the ones we know, that may happen with a fair bit of anticipation and announcement, such as the one in Uttarakhand. How can we justify a total lack of preparedness and planning for something that is expected in a certain region at a certain time of the year? And announces its arrival with glaring warning signs and alarm bells.

It is time that we constituted some rules around how we will all behave as a nation during a national or regional emergency; each one of us with only the best intent; from the authorities charged formally with taking care of the problem to the hundreds of ‘do-good Samaritans’ often setting up community collection centers and piling tons of unwanted clothes and stuff that the victims don’t care for, to the large healthcare providers and manufacturers often donating close-to-expired drugs and supplies, to our friends from the food and beverage industry who donate millions of cans and plastic bottles of food and drinks because after all, recycling plastic is so top of mind during a disaster! We all want to help but it is time to be thoughtful.

It is time we stopped reacting to every national emergency situation with the same chaos, lack of coordination and unpredictability with which most of us are expected to live our lives each day… then blame god or the current planetary alignment for the outcome.

It is time we learned something from the armed forces—the only consistently saving grace in each of the disasters. For most parts, they arrive, they search, they rescue, they rehabilitate… perform their roles precisely and leave when the last call of duty has been performed. No theatrics.

It is time that we truly mastered the art of professionally dealing with emergencies big and small, by empowering ourselves with the relevant knowledge, skills and attitudes, at every level; the home, community, town or city, state and the nation.

We do not let pilots fly planes without passing all emergency landing tests. Nor do we allow physicians (at least the good ones) to practice medicine unless we are fairly sure they know the basics of saving a life. And yet, we allow hundreds of administrative staff in formal roles to not just serve the public but also make life or death decisions during an emergency situation, without a clue about disaster management principles! And expect them to come out with flying colors!

It is indeed time to take a good hard look at the in-house capacity and leadership capability of institutions responsible for leading the region and nation during an emergency. Do we have the right people on board? Do they know what exactly is to be done? Is there a standard operating procedure to be followed during a disaster? Is it only on paper or have we rehearsed for the real thing? Is there a communication and hierarchy protocol that is different from regular operations? Is there a sense of shared ownership and commitment to the mission?

Let me elaborate on this issue from a public health angle. For instance, do we have a planned national approach to ensure the quality of air, water, food, shelter and hygiene post a disaster such as the one in Uttarakhand? Ask any public health fledgling and they will rattle off a whole laundry list of issues to be tackled: threat of epidemics, water-borne diseases, women’s health issues including maternal, reproductive and sexual health, children under five and infants whose nutrition and health-status on an average day in India is a matter of concern, let alone post disaster, senior citizens and patients on long-term medications for non-communicable diseases like diabetes, hypertension and cholesterol…it is a long list.

And here’s another issue crying for attention: mental health. In a country with a little over 4,000 psychiatrists and a negligible number of mental health or grief counselors, therapists or social workers, it is safe to say that the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression among populations that have just had their everything taken away from them, is yet to make its way to the priority list of public health challenges to be addressed. A closer view of certain communities hit by the tsunami in southern India throws light on the rampant substance abuse that tends to follow a life-altering crisis. Do we simply pull the rug over it and walk away because we have other more-burning issues to deal with?

I know for a fact that we have brilliant reports adorning the walls of policy makers and implementing bodies with answers to several of these questions, so that’s not the real issue. Unfortunately, very few have made their way into a public health action plan post a disaster. In the cases of those that do have a plan, they have seldom been tried or tested or put into use systematically.

It is time to put research into action, and policies to work for the people for whom they are designed. Besides temples, schools and hospitals, its time to rebuild hope… hope for true leaders who are skilled and trained to lead us through any crisis and come out winning the lifelong love and loyalty of the people for having put nation before self.

It is time to get that old chip off our shoulders and learn from the past… it is time to stop using the excuse “we are like this only”.

(The author is a hospitals and health policy expert from the Public Health Foundation of India and a FEMA-trained in Disaster management and response.)

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