Responding to floods is not new for India. Responding effectively is work in progress. With the Rs1,000 crore relief for Bihar announced by the Prime Minister this week the need for responding effectively becomes even more important.
During the past decade, since the 1998 Kandla cyclone, India has tried to be more effective. After the 1999 Orissa cyclone, a high-powered committee was set up; after the 2001 Gujarat earthquake, an all-party committee was floated; after the 2004 tsunami, a National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) was set up. After the 2007 floods in Bihar and Assam, establishment of a national flood commission was discussed. However, India is far from its potential and even further from what is needed on the ground, especially in the case of flood response. Victims repeatedly remain without flood relief or protection. The 2005 floods in Mumbai, the 2006 floods in Surat and Rajasthan, and the 2007 floods in Bihar and Assam demonstrated the need for improved action, accountability to victims and joint performance rating.
The great need to put flood-affected people’s priorities at the heart of flood response was most recently recommended by the people’s commission on the floods in Surat.
Humanitarian agencies — private and public — time and again get into crisis situations in large numbers and often leave the communities they aim to assist undermined. There is tremendous need to do better by actually supporting and facilitating flood-affected communities’ own relief and recovery efforts and working alongside government counterparts.
The necessity for the Union government, with state and civil society organization support, to invest much more in risk reduction and preparedness between two floods is suggested in the Disaster Management Act of 2005 but NDMA has not yet found ways to fund state initiatives. Like other states, Bihar has received national guidelines for flood response but not the matching funds to apply those guidelines. The National Alliance for Disaster Risk Reduction at its 3-4 November convention demanded immediate action in favour of states and added that local communities are the first to assist in saving lives. With this in mind the humanitarian community ought to provide ongoing countervailing balance to national and local preparedness measures in India. The Hyogo Framework for Action of the UN’s international strategy for disaster reduction provides a blueprint for such effectiveness.
Perhaps the time has come to consider establishing a voluntary or more formal certification and accreditation system for humanitarian aid actors. Sphere India, a leading Delhi-based network of humanitarian agencies, has done the basic groundwork in this respect. There are also those who believe that it’s time to set up an effective inter-agency oversight mechanism that has the authority to provide performance feedback and measure improvements. These arguments need to be teased out and developed into a formal citizens’ audit of flood response. The tsunami experience, especially that of tsunami evaluation coalition and the UN’s work in south India, has put these arguments firmly on the agenda.
It’s important to translate lessons learnt after each flood into doable action. Humanitarian agencies have individual and collective responsibility to take forward the lessons. The first national congress for disaster risk reduction, organized by the National Institute of Disaster Management on 29-30 November 2006, underlined this knowledge gap.
India has faced floods for the past 60 years. That must make the 2008 response more effective.
Mihir R. Bhatt is director, All India Disaster Mitigation Institute, Ahmedabad. Comment at email@example.com