Home / Opinion / Views /  India needs state-specific disaster readiness plans

The spike in recent years in extreme calamities, topped by the covid outbreak, spotlights the urgency of better disaster preparedness in Indian states and the Centre. Health pandemics like covid and climate hazards like the Uttarakhand floods or Delhi heat waves have differing origins, but they spotlight common gaps in readiness. With extreme health and climate disasters set to continue, these events must be seen as regular occurrences rather than one-off acts of nature.

Bloomberg ranks Singapore highest in covid resilience, based on fatality rates, test rates and vaccination rates. Drawing on its experience with Sars and Influenza A, the Singapore government has prioritized disaster preparedness in its investments. One indication of this priority is that the government has built up digital infrastructure and engineering capabilities that can be deployed before, during and after calamities strike. For example, tools for contact tracing, like SafeEntry and TraceTogether, are enabling Singapore to respond swiftly to the spread of covid. A suite of digital tools is helping disseminate information and enabling government agencies to better coordinate and manage the crisis.

New Zealand, ranked second by the Bloomberg index, makes intense use of scientific expertise, spanning public health, infectious diseases, genomics, modelling and immunology. Like Singapore, New Zealand has drawn on its lessons from Sars. Among its actions during the covid pandemic, a vaccine taskforce has been made responsible for ensuring access to safe and effective vaccines as a strategy for exiting the crisis. New Zealand cancelled all international flights, while rigorously adhering to public health guidance even when its cases were only a few.

Among Indian states, Kerala stands out for its handling of recent catastrophes. Despite high levels of recorded infection rates, Kerala has a 0.3% death rate from covid, the same as Singapore’s, which has the world’s lowest death rate. Early detection, swift isolation and speedy contact-tracing have been responsible. The use of frugal innovative methods as platforms for decision-making has been effective, as has been Kerala’s oxygen management, direct procurement of vaccines and a policy of zero vaccine wastage. The state has effectively used the E-Sanjeevani telemedicine portal, offering psycho-social support for the sick. The needs of frontline workers, the elderly living alone and of migrant labourers—challenges in other Indian states too—have been a priority for Kerala’s government.

Ranked by HSBC as the most vulnerable to climate change among 67 nations, India needs to make a paradigm shift to prioritize preparedness and not just recovery. The Prime Minister’s announcement of a Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in 2019 is therefore welcome. India also has a Protocol for Disaster Risk Assessment and Reduction, based on composite methods of states and the experience of the National Disaster Management Authority in disaster management. But a vast gap remains in implementing vital investments in infrastructure, education and health needed for disaster mitigation.

Indian states have positive lessons in confronting calamites. In Odisha, the 1999 super cyclone with windspeeds of up to 260 kilometres per hour took 10,000 lives (50,000 by an unofficial count). Cyclone Phailin in 2013 and Cyclone Fani in 2019, while comparable in intensity (windspeeds of 220 and 200kmph respectively), saw a dramatic fall in fatality to 44 and 89 respectively, thanks to the state’s investments in early warning systems and timely evacuation.

In Gorakhpur, local communities are using nature-based solutions to build resilience against frequent floods. Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group has come up with climate resilient methods for vulnerable communities. For example, farmers switched from mono-cropping to rotating multiple crops to improve soil health and drainage. Several adopted organic practices, which reduce harmful run-off in nearby rivers. A weather advisory group helps farmers use a text message-based early warning system to schedule irrigation and harvesting.

In dealing with covid, local efforts have also played a critical role, be it citizens’ responses in such cities as Delhi, Guwahati and Jaipur, or those of gram panchayats in rural areas. But across the country, covid has revealed glaring gaps in health systems, and, in many instances, poor governance and often a lack of trust in governments. State investments in health vary enormously. Kerala’s per capita public health expenditure, for example, is about twice that of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Often, reform proposals and actions follow calamities. In Australia, following its deadly bushfires of 2018 and 2019, Insurance Australia Group recommended that government funding prioritize risk reduction, lessening the need for spending on disaster recovery. To aid in better preparedness, the Australian Natural Disaster Resilience Index now assesses the risk profiles and resilience of communities faced with bushfires.

In a similar vein, an audit of how the central and state governments have handled covid will offer valuable lessons that can guide them to upgrade hospitals, increase medical inventories and create/update crisis response plans, for example. Every state should conduct a ‘stress test’ of how well it can cope in the event of even more frequent and intense calamities. These results should be published transparently.

Following the Great East Japan Earthquake and the 2011 tsunami, Japan continues to strengthen its most important disaster preparation capabilities. One feature of its efforts is an improvement of the relationship between the national government that oversees broad policy and local governments in charge of policy implementation. Coordinating capacity in different locations helps localities with limited capabilities cope. In India, it would pay to establish inter-state pooling of technical capabilities, supplies and staff power to manage deficits and gaps.

The overarching lesson for the Indian states and the Centre is to make more and better investments in health, education and social safety nets. Local initiatives will continue to aid disaster preparedness, but governments must act in anticipation of emerging calamities rather than scramble to respond after they strike.

Vinod Thomas & Chitranjali Tiwari are, respectively, distinguished fellow, Asian Institute of Management, Manila; and alumnus of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore.

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