Disaster Management in India

Vishal Singh

Disasters and their management generally get discussed in their aftermath but practically it should result in planning and preparing the strategy to tackle and mitigate disasters in a responsible and effective manner. Disasters, both natural and unnatural, are macro level events or processes, which induce disturbances and turmoil for a prolonged life-threatening environment for a community.

World Development Report (IFRCRC, 2001) categorizes natural disasters into hydro meteorological (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc) and geophysical (landslides, droughts, etc) categories. The scope of unnatural disasters broadly encompasses conflicts, civil strife, riots and industrial disasters.

In the past decade (1991-2000), natural disasters have killed 66,59,598 people, accounting for 88 percent of all deaths due to disasters. Similarly, unnatural disasters have killed 86,923 people during the decade. Nearly two-thirds of the people killed in these disasters hail from developing countries like India, with only four percent of the casualties being reported from highly developed countries (IFRCRC, 2001).

Disaster management is essentially a dynamic process. It comprises the classical management functions of planning, organizing, staffing, leading and controlling. It also involves many organizations, which must work together to prevent, mitigate, prepare for, respond to and recover from the effects of disaster. Disaster management would therefore include immediate response, recovery, prevention, mitigation, preparedness and …..the cycle goes on.

India is considered as the world’s most disaster prone country. Like many other countries in this region, India is plagued by various kinds of natural disasters every year, such as floods, drought, earthquakes, cyclones and landslides. Millions of people are affected every year and the economic losses caused by natural disasters amount to a major share of the Gross National Product (GNP). Natural Disasters are huge economic burdens on developing economies such as India. Every year, huge amount of resources are mobilized for rescue, relief and rehabilitation works following natural disaster occurrences.

In India, a closer analysis of what transforms a natural event into a human and economic disaster reveals that the fundamental problems of development that the country faces are the very same problems that contribute to its vulnerability to the catastrophic effects of natural hazards. The principal causes of vulnerability include rapid and uncontrolled urbanization, persistence of widespread urban and rural poverty, degradation of the environment resulting from the mismanagement of natural resources, inefficient public policies, and lagging (and misguided) investments in infrastructure.

Development and disaster-related policies have largely focused on emergency response, leaving a serious under-investment in natural hazard prevention and mitigation.

Conventional response to Disasters

Humans have managed disasters and an overview of our past experiences shows that management of disasters is not a new concept. For example, in ancient India, droughts were effectively managed through conventional water conservation methods, which are still in use in certain parts of the country - like Rajasthan. Local communities have devised indigenous safety mechanisms and drought-oriented farming methods in many parts of the country.

The subject of disaster management is not mentioned in any of the three lists in the Seventh Schedule of the Indian constitution, where subjects under the Central and State governments are specified. In the post-independent India, a journey through the five-year plans points to the fact that the understanding of disasters was to mitigate droughts and floods; schemes such as the Drought Prone Area Program (DPAP), Desert Development Program (DDP), National Watershed Development Project for Rain fed Areas (NWDPRA) and Integrated Water Development Project (IWDP) are examples of this conventional paradigm (Planning Commission, 2002).

Recent changes

The late 1990s and the early part of this century marked a watershed in Disaster Management in India. The Orissa Super Cyclone and the Gujarat Earthquake taught the nation a hard lesson. The experiences of the stakeholders like the state, voluntary sector and the communities at large helped in initiating the planning process pertaining to preparedness and mitigation of disasters.

A welcome step in this direction was setting up of a High Powered Committee on Disaster Management in 1999, which submitted its report in 2001. An important recommendation of the committee was that at least 10 percent of plan funds at the national, state and district levels be earmarked and apportioned for schemes that specifically address areas such as prevention, reduction, preparedness and mitigation of disasters. Also for the first time in the planning history of India, planners devoted a separate chapter titled ‘Disaster Management: The development perspective’ in the tenth five-year plan document (Planning Commission, 2002).

More recently, several institutions with a focused mandate on disaster management have come up in various parts of the country. The Ministry of Home Affairs (Disaster Management Division), National Institute for Disaster Management (New Delhi), Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority (GSDMA), Orissa State Disaster Management Authority (OSDMA), Disaster Mitigation Institute (Ahmedabad) can be seen as initiatives taken in the right direction.

There has also been a concerted effort on the part of the state to mainstream Disaster Mitigation initiatives in Rural Development schemes. One of its example is the coordination between the Ministry of Rural Development and the Ministry of Home Affairs, which is now the nodal ministry for coordination of relief and response and overall natural disaster management, for changing the guidelines of schemes such as Indira Awas Yojna (IAY) and Sampoorn Grameen Rojgar Yojna (SGRY) so that the houses constructed under IAY or school buildings/community buildings constructed under SGRY are earthquake/cyclone/flood resistant.

Role of NGOs

Since the community is the first responder in any disaster situation, there is a great need for community level initiatives in managing disasters. The initiatives taken by various agencies, including the state, need to be people-centric and the level of community participation should be gauged through the role played by the community in the process of planning and decision-making. Efforts should also be made to strengthen local economies, thereby making people independent of external assistance (Gupta, www.gisdevelopment.net).

The voluntary sector has been in the forefront of mobilizing communities, enabling them to cope with disasters in the past decades. Their initiatives and experiences have been consolidated and demonstrated on a larger scale with the help of the state. Development organizations working in communities share a good rapport with the community, which helps the state in implementing its plans more effectively; village level plans prepared after the Super Cyclone in Orissa could be seen as an example of the same.

The focus of any disaster management plan now incorporates the following:

4 Community Based Disaster Preparedness
4 Development of block, Gram Panchayat and Village disaster management plans

This has been made possible through continuous advocacy by development organizations like Action Aid, Oxfam, CARE- India, etc. These initiatives have been scaled up by the state, which has taken efforts to integrate disaster management plans with the larger developmental plans at all levels such as Village/Panchayat/Block/District/State.

Government has got the whole machinery in place and the relief work is carried out with the help of the following agencies- Indian Red Cross Society ,Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, UNDP India, Tata Energy Research Institute, Housing and Urban Development Corporation Ltd., Ministry of Urban Development and Council for Advancement of People’s Action and Rural Technology (CAPART). All these agencies in the past responded to major disasters in the country. For example, in the state of Orissa in the aftermath of Super Cyclone in 1999, they provided immediate relief services to the affected families. Further, they collected and distributed relief material, helped in providing immediate shelter, supported voluntary organizations for implementing activities pertaining to the relief and rehabilitation work and provided training to masons for repairing damaged houses. The vast network of partner voluntary organizations provides the Government with a greater opportunity to implement Disaster Management plans at the grassroots level much more effectively.

Challenges for the future

There is a growing need to look at disasters from a development perspective. Disasters can have devastating effect on communities and can significantly set back development efforts to a great extent. But then, it could also offer an opportunity to invest in development efforts in a post disaster scenario. Disasters are opportunities for communities to reinvent themselves.

Disaster prevention, mitigation, preparedness and relief are four elements, which contribute to and gain from the implementation of sustainable development policies. These elements, along with environmental protection and sustainable development, are closely inter-related. The Yokohama Strategy, emanating from the international decade for natural disaster reduction in May 1994, emphasizes that disaster prevention, mitigation and preparedness are better than disaster-response in achieving the goals and objectives of vulnerability reduction.

The Government of India has adopted mitigation and prevention as essential components of its development strategy. The Tenth Five Year Plan emphasizes the fact that development cannot be sustainable without mitigation being built into the development process. In brief, Disaster Management is being institutionalized into development planning. But, there are various underlying problems in the whole process. In fact, a number of problems stem from social inequities.

In the long run, the onus is upon the local communities to handle disasters with the help of the state and other such organizations. It is a well-known fact that the community dynamics is quite complex in a country like India. There is a need to address specific local needs of vulnerable communities through local traditions and cultures. Restoration of common property resources with the participation of the local level bodies is a real challenge. The historical focus of disaster management has been on relief and rehabilitation after the event but now the focus is on planning for disaster preparedness and mitigation. Given the high frequency with which one or other part of the country suffers due to disasters, mitigating the impact of disasters must be an integral component of our development planning.

One of the glaring lacunae in the process of Disaster Management in India has been the overlooking of unnatural disasters. The recent efforts focus purely on natural disasters, whereas the current global situation also demands initiatives in managing the impact of unnatural disasters. Developments at the international level, particularly the civil wars and civil strife in Eastern Europe and Southern America culminating on 9/11 have brought the issue of unnatural disasters at the forefront of disaster management. The global community has recognized the serious consequences of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) warfare. This remains a serious challenge for India to address in the near future.

The need of the hour is to chalk out a multi-pronged strategy for total disaster management comprising prevention, preparedness, response and recovery on the one hand and initiate development efforts aimed towards risk reduction and mitigation on the other. The countries in the Asia-Pacific region should establish a regional co-ordination mechanism for space-technology based disaster mitigation and strengthen co-operation, Luan suggested, adding that they also need to set up an all-weather and all-time comprehensive space-based disaster mitigation system and share the information.

A pro-active stance to reduce the toll of disasters in the country requires a more comprehensive approach that comprises both pre-disaster risk reduction and post-disaster recovery. It is framed by new policies and institutional arrangements that support effective action. Such an approach should involve the following set of activities:

4 Risk analysis to identify the kinds of risks faced by people and development investments as well as their magnitude;
4 Prevention and mitigation to address the structural sources of vulnerability;
4 Risk transfer to spread financial risks over time and among different actors;
4 Emergency preparedness and response to enhance a country’s readiness to cope quickly and effectively with an emergency; and
4 Post-disaster rehabilitation and reconstruction to support effective recovery and to safeguard against future disasters. q


1. Planning Commission (2002); "Tenth Five Year Plan (2002-2007) - Vol.1"; Planning Commission, Government of India; New Delhi.
2. Gupta A; "Information Technology and Natural Disaster Management in India"; www.gisdevelopment.net
3. www.ndmindia.nic.in
4. International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (2001); "World Disaster Report - Focus on reducing risk"; IFRCRCS; Geneva


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