xtremely severe cyclone, Fani, battered the state and left a trail of destruction, severely affecting an estimated 1.5 crore people across 14 districts. The government’s preparedness and credible institutionalised response helped successfully evacuate about 14 lakh people from low-lying areas, which remarkably reduced human causalities, unparalleled in the world.
Every disaster drains physical, cultural and emotional energy resulting from damaging socio-economic losses. However, political capital gets banked through futile rhetoric. For example, after every natural calamity there is a clamour to declare the said calamity as a “national calamity”. Fani has also given rise to such voices owing to the immensity of destruction. The Union government has declared Fani as an ‘extremely severe’ natural calamity that makes the state government eligible to seek logistic and financial assistance for relief and restoration before the Union government.
A look at the recent history of natural disasters shows that the Union government has not termed any of these as national calamities, be it the super cyclone of 1999, the Kosi floods in Bihar, the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 that hit Tamil Nadu, or the floods in Uttaranchal and Kerala.
All issues related to natural disasters and management of issues arising therefrom are governed by Disaster Management Act, guidelines framed under the Act and statutes made by different states. Section-2 (d) of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, defines a “disaster” as “a catastrophe, mishap, calamity or grave occurrence in any area, arising from natural or man-made causes, or by accident or negligence that results in substantial loss of life or human suffering or damage to, and destruction of, property, or damage to, or degradation of, environment, and is of such a nature or magnitude as to be beyond the coping capacity of the community of the affected area”. Natural disasters include earthquakes, floods, landslides, cyclones, tsunamis, urban floods and heatwave; man-made disasters include nuclear meltdown or biological and chemical incidents. The Act, however, does not define ‘National Disaster’. There is no provision in statutes or manuals or any code to declare a disaster a ‘national disaster’, howsoever devastating it may be. It is only an expression used in general parlance or in media circles.
There is no provision in statutes or manuals or any code to declare a disaster a ‘national disaster’, howsoever devastating it may be. It is only an expression used in general parlance or in media circles
The High Power Committee (August 1999), during the tenure of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had attempted to make another classification of vulnerability of disaster-affected areas and the capacity of the authorities to deal with these. They categorised disasters into levels 1 to 3. This was, to a great extent, done in conformity with international standards.
Though this classification does not find place in the Disaster Management Act, 2005, it figures in the National Disaster Management Guidelines-2007 and the National Disaster Management Plan-2016. The High Power Committee, in fact, missed a great opportunity owing to the heightened level of rigidity, in coming out with a better, more realistic and precise classification of disasters in terms of intensity and the magnitude of damage around affected areas.
The DM Act 2005 or guidelines framed thereunder have no provision for disaster to be given more importance or urgency in terms of relief, if the said disaster is named a ‘National Disaster’. Any calamity labelled as “severe nature” or “rare severity” will get adequate financial support and assistance from rescue forces such as the NDRF. The 10th Finance Commission (1995-2000) had an occasion to examine which disaster is “a national calamity of rarest severity” and which one is not. However, the panel did not define a “calamity of rare severity” or “National Disaster” but stated that it has to be adjudged on a case-to-case basis.
Labelling or quantifying disaster has been a vexed issue across the world, though it may be felt necessary to determine or labelling insofar as quantifying the aid required. The government and different agencies globally are grappling with determination of such indicators, but there is no visible unanimity on this issue. It is wondering what could be the philosophy behind not having such a nomenclature — the answer lies in the self-respect of the country.
Declaring a disaster as national calamity might give a handle to big economic powers to show their benevolence and big brotherly attitude towards the affected nation. Needless to say, India has a better system of central assistance in place than many nations boasting federalism, including the US, since the central government is quite responsive in providing assistance to states immediately without even any paperwork.
There is no foolproof methodology to assess the impact of natural disasters in terms of damages caused. Under the procedures laid down, the government of Odisha has to present a memorandum to the Union government, accounting the detailed losses suffered and the money required for the same. The Centre will then send an inter-ministerial team to the affected area to assess the damage and arrive at the quantum of relief aid.
Fact is, the demand for “National Disaster” status for a calamity is raised either out of sheer ignorance or as a deliberate political ploy. While demand for more central funds does make better sense, the clamour for this particular label does not. According to National Disaster Management Policy, state governments have to provide disaster relief from their respective State Disaster Response Funds (SDRFs), and only a “calamity of severe nature” makes them eligible for additional assistance from the National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF).
It is not charity that the Union of India shows Odisha or any other affected state; the Union government is constitutionally and morally obliged to grant funds to calamity-ravaged state or states. Even without declaring the current calamity as national calamity, the Union government is duty-bound to address the genuine concerns of the state without discrimination or ill will. Neither are state governments beggars nor is the Union government a donor; the federal spirit dictates the whole exercise.
The writer is an advocate, with practice at Supreme Court of India.