When preparedness fails, calamities become disasters providing the opportunity to learn. The METROPLUS TEAM tries to draw some lessons in the wake of tsunami.
Pic by S. James
IT TOOK a tsunami to shake us out of our complacency once again. After each tragedy - manmade or natural - claims multitudes of lives and rips apart properties that we tend to take stock and organize ourselves as a society. Much has been written and talked about the unexpected anger of the sea. But then disasters are varied. They are unpredictable too. Yet, reactions are always the same. Grief, lament and the realisation to have a disaster management system in place. But have we succeeded? Madurai is listed as one of the few cities vulnerable to disaster in India. What if the Temple City is caught in flash floods tomorrow (like in the 1970s when Vaigai over-flowed). What if there is a major terrorist attack or a communal holocaust; what if a major fire breaks out in the high-density lanes around the temple, what if there is a festival stampede or an earthquake...?
Only if we try to answer such hypothetical scenarios we may be able to create a situation where there is no semblance of a crisis. Are our hospitals adequately equipped to handle any large-scale emergency? Do we have the infrastructure to cope with the pressures of an unannounced calamity?
Are we as citizens aware and trained to face the gravity of destruction and offer voluntary help? There is no dearth of fearful thoughts that cross our minds in the wake of tsunami and other colossal tragedies.
Instead of always blaming the Government, criticising other's inaction and passing the buck, what can we do as responsible habitants of the city? We deliberated on the topic this week for our ongoing series of monthly panel discussion. Taking stock of the city's preparedness and chalking out certain potential policies was our invited panel of experts, all of whom held first hand information on disaster management and experience of working in tsunami ravaged areas along the East Coast.
Predictably, each wanted to share his or own experience of working with the affected and the difficulties faced. An American College Professor who lost and found his son after a gruelling seven hours at Nagapattinam on that fateful day set the ball rolling by observing that "people themselves are a resource and a problem. Resource because without waiting for the State machinery to arrive, some people swiftly coordinate to attend to and ferry victims to hospitals or other places of safety. Problem because in the absence of any technology-based information and general ignorance, some people also create panic and chaos. Whereas, if not property then at least more lives can always be saved if people have right mechanism to receive information. The fact that the lapsed time of 150 minutes between the tsunami first hitting the Indonesian Islands and reaching the Southern India shores could have been effectively used is an over-stated fact now. Perhaps what should have existed is an industry-like emergency siren that would have warned all people at the same time of the impending danger and convinced them to evacuate the place.
With our panelists getting emotionally surcharged over the lack of a coastline alarm system, absence of infrastructure like good exit roads or more number of connecting roads to escape in case of an emergency, the discrimination over relief disbursement and much more, the Gandhigram Rural Institute Vice-Chancellor sought to put an order in the deliberations.
He classified disaster management into five stages: pre-disaster forewarning, event management and rehabilitation (of three types - immediate, relocation and social stabilisation). He said how impressed he was to find an already trained youth team swinging into action in Cuddalore and minimizing the impact in the aftermath.
All our members were worried about the failure to identify a problem. People living in vulnerable points need to be educated. They also need to be provided with an alternative communication system. Our youths were worried why the administration allows violation of environmental norms, town plans, building by-laws.
Why should vegetation be removed from seashores and people allowed to construct houses or why should buildings be allowed to come up in towns and cities without adhering to fire and other safety regulations? Mainly because disaster is seen as a relief and relief is only a curative measure. Whereas focus is needed on disaster mitigation, it was felt.
Endorsing this point, our members highlighted the PWD's "good cautioning system in Periyar-Vaigai system to tackle flood situations in the city."
Why can't other departments follow suit? Regretting the lack of infrastructure, the fire officers hinted how the city was sitting on a bomb waiting to explode. None of the roads match the basic requirement of being at least 30 feet wide for smooth vehicular movement.
Imagine, on how many traffic-packed streets, criss-crossing the city, can ambulances and fire tenders be given way in case of an emergency.
To have a double role for every system is perhaps a possible solution when there is no scope for infrastructure expansion. Imagine helicopters on a rescue mission if the Masi Streets were choked with unavoidable traffic in case of crises.
And when a crisis comes, why wait for bureaucratic orders? Why can't each of us, irrespective of our professions, have a role defined, which takes shape automatically in the hour of need? Through extensive and intensive campaigning in times of peace, why can't we educate the people of Madurai and tell them not to bring their vehicles on roads during times of emergency? The need to develop a mechanism for weeding out anti-socials from disaster sites was also mooted.
Contingents to handle any emergency situations could be drawn from NSS, Nehru Yuva Kendra, Self Help Groups, local panchayat bodies, resident associations. They can be trained by the Red Cross or any other international body and to keep them on the alert, there should be periodic mock drills. We should use our manpower to our advantage. People should be tuned to the idea of quick response system. Like the introduction of environmental science as a compulsory subject in school and college curricula. Now, even disaster management should be included.
The basic idea that came across was how the Government, the private sector, NGOs and the people can channelise their resources and work in tandem, rather than in contradiction. Multiple centres of power and bureaucratism cause confusion. While we need to decentralize our work structures, a spirited guiding force is also required. Only then can we as an integrated and enlightened society get into a total disaster preparedness mode. And finally it is our perspective whether to view tsunami as a boon or a bane.
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* A global safety network for all nations that will share information about disasters.
* Special free of cost training to students in particular to handle flood, drought, major fire, rail or road accidents.
* An intelligent and voluntary network of professional groups, specialized organizations, grassroot cadres and individuals with a pre-appointed coordinator to carry out relief work without delay and in an organized manner.
* Maximising connectivity in this period of enormous information; every communication channel from satellites to FM radios should be properly used.
* Permanent solutions like a corpus fund to meet financial requirements during calamities.
* All damaged properties should be rebuilt in a disaster-proof manner with expertise.
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