Uncategorized

Don’t blame nature, bolster disaster preparedness

A Parliamentary panel has rejected Union Home Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi’s contention that there cannot be preparation for a disaster like the Chennai floods which “occurs once in 100 years”.

Details:

  • The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs in its report on ‘Disaster in Chennai caused by torrential rainfall and consequent flooding’ has strongly recommended that the Ministry of Home Affairs, through its subordinate concerned agencies, bolster its disaster preparedness.
  • The committee has also observed that the cost of preparing for the disaster is disproportionately high.
  • The panel said it does not quite accept the argument that since the rainfall was unprecedented and was more than the hundred years’ average the damage was also huge. In the opinion of the committee, any natural disaster of bigger intensity has the propensity to cause damage. Thus instead of putting the blame on the forces of nature, advanced technology should be used to fight it.

Suggestions made by the committee:

  • Separate action should be taken to prepare calamity map of all important cities by developing standard vulnerability indices so as to minimise loss of life, loss of private and public property and vital installations.
  • The administration of both centre and state should work together and remain vigilant to tackle the situation.
  • Natural disaster of high magnitude will always adversely affect people in large numbers and the administration has to respond in a fastest possible manner. Accordingly, the National Disaster Management Authority and all concerned bodies of central and state governments should have established procedures so that vital time is not lost in wriggling out procedural delays.
  • The committee has also recommended that the guidelines prepared by NDMA should be scrupulously followed and they should also review town planning of each city by giving due importance to clear flood channels, proper drainage, safe passage to excess water in lakes, other water bodies, de-siltation of river bed, removal of illegal encroachment.

Background:

Devastating floods submerged Chennai and its neighbouring areas in November-December 2015 claiming the lives of over 400 people

GS-3, Uncategorized

PM Modi releases country’s first National Disaster Management Plan

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently released the National Disaster Management Plan (NDMP). This is thefirst ever national plan prepared in the country.

Key facts:

  • The plan aims to make India disaster resilient and reduces loss of lives.
  • The plan is based on the four priority themes of the “Sendai Framework,” namely: understanding disaster risk, improving disaster risk governance, investing in disaster risk reduction (through structural and non-structural measures) and disaster preparedness, early warning and building back better in the aftermath of a disaster.
  • The plan covers all phases of disaster management: Prevention, Mitigation, Response and Recovery.
  • It provides for horizontal and vertical integration among all the agencies and departments of the Government.
  • The plan also spells out the roles and responsibilities of all levels of Government right up to Panchayat and Urban local body level in a matrix format.
  • The plan has a regional approach, which will be beneficial not only for disaster management but also for development planning.
  • It is designed in such a way that it can be implemented in a scalable manner in all phases of disaster management.
  • It also identifies major activities such as early warning, information dissemination, medical care, fuel, transportation, search and rescue, evacuation, etc. to serve as a checklist for agencies responding to a disaster.
  • It also provides a generalised framework for recovery and offers flexibility to assess a situation and build back better.
  • To prepare communities to cope with disasters, it emphasises on a greater need for Information, Education and Communication activities.
  • It even calls for ethical guidelines for the media for coverage of disasters as well as self-regulation. The plan wants the media to respect the dignity and privacy of affected people.
  • Also, in a move aimed to stop rumours and spread of panic, the plan directed the authorities to schedule regular media briefing (depending on the severity of the disaster) and designate a nodal officer for interacting with the media on behalf of the government.
GS-3, Uncategorized

SC pulls up Centre, States for failing to tackle drought

The Supreme Court has pulled up states for their “ostrich-like attitude” on drought, saying they ignored information provided by central agencies and failed to take any preparatory steps to tackle a possible disaster.

Important observations made by the court:

States are not assessing the drought situation in time leading to serious consequences. The adverse or negative impact of a delayed declaration of drought affects the common person, particularly women and children, and postpones the assistance that is needed. It also puts an undue strain on the resources of the State Government and the Government of India.

  • The Centre is also to be blamed for taking refuge in the concept of “federalism” to pass the buck to the States for declaring and managing drought and providing only financial aid.
  • States such as Bihar, Gujarat and Haryana are not even willing to acknowledge, leave alone address a drought. Such an ostrich-like attitude is a pity and the sound of silence coming from these states is subjects the vulnerable to further distress. The failure to declare drought by these States has robbed the poor of their fundamental right to dignity of life.
  • A drought definitely falls under the definition of ‘disaster’ under Section 2(d) of the Disaster Management Act of 2005. But, governments have not even tried to enforce the statute.

Background:

These observations were made by the court based on a PIL plea that alleged that parts of 12 States such as Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar, Haryana and Chhattisgarh were hit by drought and the authorities were not providing adequate relief. The court found that the total population in the districts affected by drought is about 33 crore.

The court asked the government to:

  1. Establish a National Disaster Response Force with specialist cadre in six months.
  2. Set up a Disaster Mitigation Fund within three months.
  3. Frame National Plan on risk assessment, risk management and crisis management in respect of a disaster.
  4. Update 60-year-old Drought Management Manual keeping in mind “humanitarian factors” like migrations, suicides, extreme distress, the plight of women and children.
Editorials, Environment, GS-3, Uncategorized

We did start the Uttarakhand fire

Article Link

 

Forest fires in the hills of Uttarakhand have damaged valuable natural resources. Forest fire is a common phenomenon during summer in Uttarakhand. However, this time, the fire started in February and spread to most forest areas of the state. A number of theories are circulating on what would have caused such gargantuan fires in Uttarakhand, reportedly the worst the state has seen in recent times.

Background:

In terms of the incidences of forest fires, this year is particularly bad. According to data from the environment ministry, a total of 18,451 incidents of forest fires were reported from across the country in 2013, compared with 19,054 in 2014 and 15,937 in 2015. This year has seen a jump, with at least 20,667 fires already reported as on 21 April.

  • In December 2015, the environment ministry released the India State of Forest Report. According to the report, India’s forest cover is 701,673 sq. km which is about 21.34% of the country. As per the Forest Survey of India data, almost 50% of India’s forest areas are fire prone but this does not mean that fires affect 50% of the country’s area annually.
  • The major forest fire season in the country varies from February to June. Reports have estimated that about 6.17% of Indian forests are subjected to severe fire damage annually.

What led to early forest fires?

  • The major reasons for forest fires in Uttarakhand are the highly inflammable material of dry chir pine needles and the dry-leaf litter of broad-leaved trees on the forest floor associated with chir pine. Chir pine covers a significant forest area (about16%) in the state and, every year, encroaches on the mixed species area due to its hardy nature as well as the ban on green felling above 1,000 metres.
  • Mass migration of villagers is also to be blamed. In recent years, migration from the state has checked the local utilisation of the needles, leaving more fuel for forest fires. Himalayan forests are spread over difficult and inaccessible terrain, which forest officials cannot access without the help of locals. It’s difficult even for the forest department to cope with the situation.
  • Scant rains, with a dry spell in winter, El Nino and climate warming have also led to early forest fires. High atmospheric temperatures and dryness offer favourable conditions for a fire to start. In many forest ecosystems, reduced precipitation before and during the dry season can reduce fuel moisture and lower humidity near the surface, allowing fires to more easily escape from human control, and spread more rapidly over the landscape.

How can early forest fires be prevented?

  • The pine needles, the main fire hazard, need to be converted into a resource for the community by extending capital, technological and industrial support for their effective utilisation and as a livelihood opportunity. They can be used in briquettes, compost, boards, tiles, etc.
  • Some of the measures can be tried through the creation of forest self-help groups (FSHGs) or local forest special purpose vehicle (FSPV) — with an industrial linkage to the removal of dry needles with the help of villagers for making bio-briquettes, compost or vermicompost, composite boards, panels, etc.
  • This activity can also be linked with employment generation schemes like MGNREGA, Skill India and Make in India, as well as women’s empowerment schemes. This will provide a double benefit — removing the pine needles from the forest and generating employment and incomes. It’s a bio-fuel and bio-energy resources are always welcome.
  • Migration is an indirect issue that needs to be addressed to control forest fires. The willingness of local village communities to stay in the state can be strengthened by an assurance of employment and basic facilities like healthcare, education and communication. They can be motivated by nature-related activities with a market tag, for example, organic crops and products like millets, milk, mushrooms, fruits, colourants, fibres, etc. All these activities make people vigilant and also protect their surroundings.
  • The conventional centuries-old method of making fire lines or firebreaks (also used as inspection paths) and burning and clearing them before the summer is also not practised properly due to a lack of manpower. Usually, a forest guard or beat guard would look after a large forest area, which is difficult to cover even over several days on the tough terrain. Therefore, the forest department needs to exclusively recruit forest-fire-fighting staff acquainted with modern technologies.
  • There can be other approaches to reducing the fire hazard in the monoculture/ pure chir pine forest, like the inclusion or plantation of indigenous broad-leaved, moisture-conserving species, particularly banj oak, Myrica, Alder, Rhododendron, etc at higher elevations and sal, khair, Harad, Baheda, Arjun, sissoo, etc at lower elevations. The selection of species must be done after understanding the local ecology and public needs. Besides, it’s necessary to strictly follow scientific and advanced borehole methods for resin extraction.
  • Modern fire-fighting techniques like the Early Forest Fire Detection Using Radio-Acoustic Sounding System, Doppler radar, etc can also be used. Further, the use of modern forest fire detection and monitoring systems with help from the Forest Survey of India (FSI) and Isro, as well as creating awareness among locals along with their participation, can be a better solution.
  • On the scientific forestry front, a gradual arrest of the spread of chir pine forest, specially above 1,000 m, is leading to a change in forest composition. The selective green-felling of chir pine, as silvicultural thinning and improvement thinning to help the deodar-oak forests, needs to be done by presenting the case in the Supreme Court.
  • Dry-spell periods are increasing and the moisture regime is gradually depleting. This needs to be redressed by proper soil and water conservation measures to maintain soil moisture and recharge the natural springs.
  • A participatory approach is key to success in all initiatives, which reflects on joint forest management (JFM) areas by strengthening JFM committees. Similar approaches are needed in strengthening van panchayats and other local bodies.
  • Communication — via print or electronic media, social media, community radio, Doordarshan — can also boost public awareness and action. Communication measures should be activated at the start of summer and some reward and recognition should be announced to motivate locals. This job can only be done with the active participation of local communities who need to be trained, equipped, authorized and supervised by local staff of the forest department.
  • In the US and Canada, specialised aerial fire-fighting aircraft are used to drop water, foam- and gel-based water enhancers, and other fire retarders. Hence, provision of helicopter-squads and watch towers would certainly help, especially during a crisis.

Conclusion:

Though fires have been ravaging Uttarakhand’s forests for nearly three months, central and state authorities have woken up to the damage far too late. Only after several of these localised fires coalesced and damaged flora and fauna in six Uttarakhand districts, has the issue received the attention it deserved. Hence, in fire control strategy, emphasis should be put on prevention rather than curing. Curing is of no use after the loss of biodiversity, forest wealth and lives.

Environment, GS-3, Uncategorized

Uttarakhand forest fires

Often unquantified, the social and economic impacts of forest fires are considerable: lives are lost, health problems occur, animals are killed and the environment suffers

The disaster:

Lives lost: 5

Land gutted by forest fire: Almost 1,600 acres of land (hundreds of villages/clusters)

Forest Fire in India:

Almost 50-55% of the total forest cover in India is prone to forest fire annually

Indian State of Forest Report, 2015: Tropical thorn forest, Tropical dry evergreen forest and Subtropical pine forest – most prone to forest fires

Period: Between February & mid-June

Why— Soil moisture is at its lowest

 

Himalayan Belt:

  • Western Himalayan region- moist deciduous, tropical dry deciduous, temperate and sub-Alpine types
  • Prone to fires owing to less rain in the pre-monsoon period
  • More susceptible trees: Pine forest in Garhwal & Kumaon Hills

 

Forest Fire & Ecology

  • The ground vegetation is completely destructed— severe loss of biodiversity
    • Loss of forest cover
    • Loss to the wildlife habitat
    • Loss of human lives
  • Emissions of Carbon in the Atmosphere (Climate change – lack of sustainable land use policy)
  • Expansion of deforested area— Change in landscape & micro-climate—Drying up of forest floor
  • Fires in the understorey of humid rainforests can cause tree mortality and canopy openness (Land transforms into ‘savannah’)

 

Major Issues related to Indian Forests:

Definition of Forest: No proper definition charted out with environmentalists and the government authorities having their own version of what exactly a forest is.

Greed for Land:

  • Increased industrial activity
  • Need to increase agricultural production
  • Nexus between land developers & Timber Mafia

Climate Change:

  • Natural Disasters: Volcanoes, Tsunamis, Earthquakes, Cloudbursts in Himalayas, Droughts, Storms
  • Mild winter: More pests and diseases (insect infestations)
  • The El-Niño effect: contributes to increases in the frequency of drought and lightning strikes

A recent study of various forest conditions in Russia suggests that a 2°C rise in temperature could increase the area affected by forest fires by a factor of between one and a half and two

India’s Efforts:

Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDCs): Pledged to

  • Increase its forest cover and improve the quality of forest cover
  • Create an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of Carbon Dioxide equivalent through additional forests and tree cover by 2030

Technology used for monitoring:

  • Satellite images to detect forest fires and its spread (INFFRAS)
  • Mapping of fire-sensitive zones as well as real-time data
  • Pre & post fire guidelines/warnings

Firefighting Techniques:

  • Clearance of stretches of ground vegetation in between forest areas to arrest the spread of forest fire
  • Beating the fire with the help of local community with specified certain equipment’s
  • Difficult to implement technique: Helicopters spraying water or carbon dioxide

Way Ahead:

  • The lack of regulatory enforcement and contradictory policies and laws need to be tamed in order to arrest the loss— ASEAN’s Zero Burning Policy needs to be reformed and given more teeth in order to keep the trend in check
  • Rural community is a major stakeholder and government should involve its large rural communities in preparing for the future— by utilizing effective intervention of community-led ‘van panchayats’ (forest councils) in preventing fires.
  • Usage of biomass alternatives, including cooking gas, has had a beneficial impact on fire risk, and this must be expanded
  • The plantation sector can be tapped for reducing the clearance of ecologically important natural oak forests, by giving preference to growing useful fodder and timber trees

Connecting the Dots:

  • What do you mean by Forest Degradation and Forest Fragmentation? How is the REDD Initiative related to the two?
  • Comment on the relationship shared between indigenous people and forests.
Agriculture, GS-3, Uncategorized

Water Crisis: Why has it reached such proportions?

As the summer sets in, many parts of the country are said to face one of the worst water crisis in the history. Reservoir levels in many states have come down alarmingly. Also, drinking water situation in states like Maharashtra is equally alarming. Ganga, which was to provide water to 1/3rd population of the country, is witnessing lower and lower water levels every year. Ten states had declared drought last year and with depleting water levels in reservoir it’s getting worse. In 91 major reservoirs of the country water level is just 25% of the capacity with monsoon still two months away.

How bad is the situation?

This is one of the worst water crises in recent decades. The situation is acute in western parts of the country and equally concerning in southern states. Around 330 million people in India are affected by drought, according to the government.

  • The Marathwada region in India’s western Maharashtra state is badly affected, reeling under the worst drought in decades. In Latur, Maharashtra, the looming fear that the survival instinct can turn lethal on account of the water crisis, has led authorities to invoke Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code that bars the assembling of more than 5 persons near wells and other water collecting sources.
  • Currently, water levels in the 91 major reservoirs in the country have dropped to less than one-third of their capacity at 29%, as per the Central Water Commission’s report. This is considered the lowest in the decade.
  • Also, agriculture is largely dependent on a mere 400 BCM (billion cubic metres) of groundwater, which is again fast depleting.
  • Rivers are faring no better. The Ganga, regarded the lifeline of North India, catering to a quarter of India’s population, has been experiencing a much-reduced flow. To a great extent the river’s water level is determined by the groundwater reserves of the areas along its course. With the water table shrinking further over the years, and the delay in the melting of the Himalayan ice this year, the shortage is being acutely felt.
  • In South India, while the Krishna River basin is badly affected, Cauvery and Godavari basins are facing deficiency.

Reasons behind the crisis:

A combination of factors apart from inadequate monsoons has led to this crisis. It has been caused by an amalgamation of natural and man-made factors. The rampant plundering of groundwater reserves for agricultural and industrial purposes, contamination of underground drinking water sources, the cultivation of water-intensive crops such as sugarcane in vulnerable areas, and the damming of rivers in the upper reaches have been instrumental for this catastrophe.

Also, the rapid growth of population and its growing needs has meant that per capita availability of fresh water has declined sharply from 3,000 cubic metres to 1,123 cubic metres over the past 50 years. The global average is 6,000 cubic metres. As water demand is expected to rise further, the pace of supply is expected to fall further.

Effects:

This situation has been in the making for several years, and will likely aggravate in the coming days.

  • This is the worst time for agriculture and industries, with even power generation coming to a halt at the National Thermal Power Corporation’s station in West Bengal’s Farakka. This will affect also affect prices of cereals and other essential commodities. On the farming side, crop cycles tend to get affected as a result.
  • Depleting groundwater levels are the biggest threat to rural livelihoods and food security. There’s been a 6% dip in share of groundwater wells within 10 metres below the ground. This depth is the threshold beyond which farmers have to start using deep-water equipment, which adds to their hardship.
  • Mispricing of water has meant that large parts of Indian cities do not have access to regular water supply. Two of India’s 5 biggest cities are unable to meet the recommended quantities of water supply. Most of the water goes to privileged classes.

What needs to be done?

Land reclamation and efficient soil and water management, with well-planned seasonal crop mixes using short-duration varieties, should form part of a comprehensive strategy to protect and boost monsoon-dependent agriculture.

  • India’s monsoon-forecasting models need to be supplemented with emerging methods in data science, irrigation and seed use, and evangelised with communication technology-driven extension methods.
  • The stereotype of the Indian farmer needs to change from the haggard punter on rains to an Internet-savvy manager of nature. This needs fiscal and policy commitments. Agriculture is a state subject under the Constitution, and the kind of responsibilities required to overcome the monsoon’s challenges need active central intervention.
  • Cooperative groundwater management should be accorded top priority. This involves government at all tires, empowering local groups with the understanding of the status of groundwater on a regular basis, so that extraction does not exceed the sustainable limit.
  • Desalination and recycling are two other viable measures with strong support from experts. Recycling in addition to being cost-effective, also takes care of the problem of wastewater and is therefore, a much better long-term solution.

Conclusion:

At present 4 billion people worldwide are affected by the shortage for at least one month every year. Latest studies show that the impact of the crisis is most acutely felt by about 1.8 billion people for six months in a year. The World Economic Forum rates “water crises as one of the three greatest risks of harm to people and economies”. What India needs is a permanent wake-up call, not a snooze button in the form of news reports of water crisis cropping up once in a few weeks or months. Measures such as those suggested above needs to be complemented by conservation efforts from the grassroots level.

Editorials, Uncategorized

From Plate to Plough — The big thirst

Article Link

Maharashtra is facing one of the biggest water crisis in recent decades. In Latur, where the traditional sources of water have run dry, Section 144 has had to be imposed to prevent into a water riot. Trains carrying water are now being despatched to Latur. Even, the high court intervened in the case of IPL matches and asked these to be shifted out of the state to save about 60 lakh litres of water.

Back-to-back drought has exposed the vulnerable water situation not just in Latur but in more than 250 districts (out of 678) in India.

Reasons behind the crisis:

  • Maharashtra has only 18% of its cropped area under irrigation cover compared to an all-India average of 47% and states like Punjab with 97%. Maharashtra is also hugely under-investing in developing its irrigation cover, just Rs 7,000 crore compared to Rs 25,000 crore in Telangana.
  • Sugarcane cultivation is also to be blamed. Sugarcane occupies about 4% of gross cropped area in Maharashtra’s agriculture but takes away almost two-thirds of the state’s irrigation water. Such a huge inequity doesn’t exist in any other state.
  • Also, water and power for agriculture in the state are highly subsidized and it artificially creates excess demand, triggering a scramble for these scarce resources.

What needs to be done?

The first thing needed is removing the elitist biases in public policymaking and resource allocation.

  • But, just pouring more money will not have the desired results. Maharashtra needs a white paper scrutinising its irrigation expenditures and irrigation potential, created and utilised, in comparison with similar states to find out why huge investments in the past haven’t yielded results.
  • The government has already decided that in the next five years, no new sugar factories can come up in Marathwada. It’s a welcome step, but care should also be taken to monitor the existing 20 sugar factories.
  • Also, when water is scarce, the only way to manage its demand is either by raising its price progressively with use, or by rationing quantity.
  • The government should also consider making drip irrigation almost compulsory for sugarcane. Drip will save almost 40-50% water.

Conclusion:

It’s not the first time, and certainly won’t be the last, that trains had to ferry drinking water in water-stressed areas. Their frequency and coverage may increase, unless some major corrective actions are taken. This crisis should be seen as an opportunity for change that can benefit the masses. The deepening crisis has also inspired a section of opinion-makers to intensify their demands for a nationwide river-linking project — touted to be a long-term solution. But, without assessing the environmental impact and human displacement such a mammoth initiative will trigger, any attempt at linking rivers can result in an even bigger catastrophe. For Maharashtra government, the situation is so dire that it will have to find an immediate solution to prevent a law-and-order problem spiralling out of control.

Environment, Geography, GS-1, GS-3, Uncategorized

The interlinking of rivers offers some solutions, but comes with a big load of problems

  1. Environmental: Inbuilt in the linking philosophy is that the rivers flooding is a disaster and that it should be curbed.
  • River flooding, in lowland areas particularly, is good for agriculture and ecology. If all human civilization and development are due to sustainability of agriculture then there is no earth process that is more beneficial to mankind than natural river flooding.
  • Floods are a constructive geological process, Floods are responsible for alluvium deposits in the Gangetic Plains. The floodwater brings along nutrient rick sediments, which get deposited in the plains, a process so crucial to agriculture.
  • River flooding created fertile plains, by depositing nutrient-rich sediments, which had acquired the textures and mineralogy to hold enormous quantities of water and nutrients. River flooding as a constructive geological process will be eliminated once interlinking takes palce.
  • Allowing the rivers not to flood will cut down the sediment supply and this could cause coastal and delta erosion by waves and longshore currents.
  • On a geological timescale, this will result in a loss of productive farmland as well as small-scale sea transgressions. If the global warming is a reality and taking place, with a consequent sea level rise on the east coast, the cumulative effect of coastal erosion due to reduction of sediment supply and the sea level rise could lead to large scale sea transgressions into the coastal areas.
  1. The floodplains allow the rivers to store store the excess water in these floodplains and deltas during monsoons and release it during dry periods to maintain the minimum flow and to sustain agriculture. The floodplain formation will stop once the rivers are linked.
  2. Whenever water goes through any living body, the chemistry of its dissolved solute changes. The entire ecosystem along a river and at its mouth has evolved in response to the natural and dynamic changes in the chemistry of flowing water as well as small-scale physiographic changes along the river and its adjacent region. This chemistry will change in case of river linking.
  3. There is a strong symbiosis between marine and land life systems on earth. The hydrologic cycle provides fresh water to the land from the oceans. Water, fallen on land either as rainfall on snowfall, weathers rocks on land and picks up the nutrient elements as dissolved solutes, and carries them through surface run-off (rivers) as well as subsurface flows to the sea. The linking of rivers would cause little water to be returned back to sea. If only little water is returned to the oceans there are at least two major consequences.
  • Marine life is deprived of nutrient supply and marine productivity could get adversely affected.
  • The Bay of Bengal (BoB) is uniquely characterised by the presence of a less-dense and low-saline layer of water. The presence of this low-salinity layer helps in the maintenance of high sea-surface temperatures (greater than 28°C), a requirement though to be responsible for the intensification of summer monsoon in the BoB. A very large part of the Indian subcontinent gets summer monsoon rainfall because of the development and maintenance of a low-pressure system in the Bay of Bengal. Monsoons can get adversely affected if floods dont take place.
  • Once reservoirs and virtually a country-wide network of canals are created, this will play havoc with this ecological role. It will not only impoverish river valleys and the prosperity, it will lead to systained displacement of local communities.
  • As one sees in Punjab and Haryana, it will lead to waterlogging and salinity in the absence of proper drainage that rivers provide.
  • It will fragment wildlife habitats: Animals require corridors to connect them to far-flung forests, and these will be severed by the construction of reservoirs and canals.
  1. Political: Moreover, this river-linking plan can become a potential source of perennial conflicts at various level: centre versus state, state versus state, state versus people, urban versus rural etc.
  2. Constitutional: The National River-Linking Plan is a blatant violation of constitutional provisions, especially in two areas.
  • First, it is a cryptic effort to circumvent states’ control over water and placing it in the hands of the centre, de facto.
  • Second, it wipes out all the ambiguous and unresolved issues or rights over water, forest, and land, in just one stroke. This second aspect poses a great threat to the functioning of thousands of field-based smaller action groups engaged in empowering local communities, mostly rural, voiceless and marginalized. It therefore becomes pertinent that such groups have adequate information of the river-linking plan and keep updating it from time to time in the future, as and when the complete picture begins to unravel, especially those groups working in the areas falling under these 30 river links.
  1. The plan may also lead to greater conflict at the international level. Cooperation of neighbouring countries, is crucial for the success of the river-linking project.
  2. Economic-Socio-Environmental Considerations
  • It has been claimed in the official documents that no new reservoirs are planned for construction under this river network plan in Peninsular India but it seems that it is merely a technical jargon. It implies that various dam projects, pending with the government owing to various reasons, will be brought under the fold of this plan and will be put on fast track in the name of national interest. Many of these projects are delayed because of environmental and financial reasons, which mean that now these parameters will be swept away.
  1. Macro-Economic and Financial Factors

The two components of inter-linking, the Himalayan and the Peninsular Rivers Development will cost Rs. 560,000 crores (US $112 billion), at 2003 rates. The enormity of this can be gauged from the fact that this amount is:

  • More than the total debt incurred in last 50 years
  • It is equal to 25% of the national GDP
  • It is 2.5 times more than the tax revenue
  • More than the total market capitalization of India’s 500 biggest companies

The inter-linking of rivers can only be completed by taking massive foreign loans, as many of the current ongoing water development projects are being completed with similar loans. It is really essential to push the country into yet another debt cycle? Why are other successful alternatives not being given priority and tried? In this context it becomes pertinent to look at the performance of the dams.

In last two decades of the past century, very strong anti-dam, mass-based, people’s movements have emerged throughout the country, drawing worldwide attention on some fundamental issues related to water management.

  • As per government claims, overall 79,292 hectares of forest land, will come under the submergence of this project.
  • Secondly, there are 24 river basins in India, as per the MOER, GOI. Even a cursory look at the boundaries of each river basin is enough to tell a common man that a large number of lifts will be involved in the river linking.
  • Thirdly, each river regime is unique in its own way within its own ecosystem. Which will be disrupted
  • Engineering limitations
  • The most important of these pertains to the difficulty of lifting water from the north up to the Deccan. This will entail enormous amounts of energy much of which has to be produced by hydropower to begin with and renders the scheme infructuous from the start.
  • It has been suggested that a Central authority should construct huge reservoirs on the Ganga and Brahmaputra and link these two mighty rivers with canals, thereby diverting surplus waters south-eastwards into the Mahanadi. Any scheme that smacks of gigantomania of this kind ought to be questioned.
Big Picture, GS-3, Uncategorized

Crowd management in temples: Lessons from Kollam fire

Summary:

The recent fireworks accident at Puttingal Devi temple in the southern district of Kollam in Kerala was the deadliest in the state’s history. More than 100 people died and nearly 400 injured. While hundreds of families are struggling to come to grips with the enormity of the tragedy, a blame game is being played out on the sidelines.

Background:

Fireworks and accidents are part of Kerala’s temple festivities and they are only likely to increase because the number of temples and the scale of festivals are rising fast. As the Kollam tragedy and many other fireworks accidents show, it’s not just the people who are directly involved in them or those who are in the vicinity who get killed. Instead, people in the entire area are at risk.

Factors that intensified the impact:

  • First, the temple and the surrounding were not disaster-proof. In Kollam, a lot of people died from heavy concrete debris that fell on them because the fireworks ignited a warehouse of explosives. If the devotees and people are to be protected from such disasters, the temples and their surroundings should be disaster-proofed, which in effect means that their scale and intensity have to be rationalised. The use of fireworks has to be either stopped or have to be managed with extreme safeguards.
  • There was no permission for the fireworks for the Kollam temple as well. The situation could have been mitigated had the local authorities and festival organisers abided by the law. Both the fireworks manufacturers and the organisers need appropriate permissions according to the rules laid out by the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation of the central government. There are also guidelines on where the fireworks can be held, how people should be evacuated from such sites, and what are the safe distances to be kept. Certain chemicals and combinations (e.g. sulphur and potassium chlorates) are banned across the country, and the Kerala high court has banned the production of certain types of native explosives because they are really dangerous. These things were not taken care of.
  • The contractors in charge of the fireworks did not provide an adequate buffer zone between the area where the explosives were lit and the assembled crowd. Firework was staged in cramped space and people got as close as they can.
  • The most dangerous part was that different groups were competing with one another and made the event a test of their financial muscle and fire power. Banned substances were freely used and guidelines were flouted with impunity.
  • The district administration is also to be blamed. The district administration, with the help of the local police, could have taken action, but either they ignored the risks or were overcome by the popular interest. Had they inspected the sites, read the rules to the organisers and prevented unlawful manufacture of the explosives, the loss of lives and properties could have been avoided.

Way ahead:

Banning fireworks is an unpopular, and perhaps impractical, decision. The Kollam tragedy should be a reminder to all temple managements that the space available for holding events should be the primary concern while allowing crowds into festival venues. It is true that safety and health fears are not deterring many people from joining the swelling number of pilgrims to temple towns and festivals. Good sense would dictate that authorities then come up with ways to ensure that large crowds don’t concentrate in risk-prone areas.

The government should also come out with new and more robust disaster management plans in which prominent public spaces where people congregate in large numbers are mapped and all threats to them are identified.

The Kollam fire tragedy is a warning to officials and the citizenry that public safety must take precedence over all other interests.

Conclusion:

There are clear guidelines on the use and storage of crackers and other fireworks. But by all accounts, the administration is unable to enforce the rules. Powerful custodians of religious centres, aided and abetted by a political class that bypasses the local administration and due process, are to blame. Public safety must be a non-negotiable imperative but for that it is crucial that the process of the progressive emasculation of the local authority is reversed.

Editorials, Environment, GS-3, Uncategorized

Army is the first line in disaster management?

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Indian Army’s active involvement in relief and rescue operations during the recent Chennai floods is praiseworthy. The Army’s heroic efforts were appreciated by many in the country. When it comes to rescue operations, Indian Army has always been at the forefront, no matter what kind of disaster it is.

  • This has given rise to a general feeling that it’s a first-line duty of the armed forces to swim into any disaster and rescue everybody.

However, this is not true. The reality is rather different:

  • The Disaster Management (DM) Act, 2005 does not indicate any primacy for the role of the armed forces and it does not even formalise their role.
  • The Act merely states that the management of disasters could include the “deployment of naval, military and air forces, other armed forces of the Union or any other civilian personnel as may be required for the purposes of this Act”.
  • But, quite often, it has been these forces that are called in during any disaster. This has reinforced the impression that they are only “doing their duty”.

Why should we be worried about this?

  • Being called out so frequently has a negative impact. Each time it happens, their cutting edge is reduced. They pay a heavy price by way of training time, deployment and equipment losses.

Then, whose responsibility is this?

For this purpose, the 2005 Act established the NDMA or National Disaster Management Authority, and theNDRF or National Disaster Response Force.

  • Two national calamities in quick succession in the form of Orissa Super Cyclone (1999) and Gujarat Earthquake (2001) brought about the realization of the need of having a specialist response mechanism at National Level to effectively respond to disasters. This realization led to the enactment of the DM Act on 26 Dec 2005.
  • While the NDMA is the planning and coordinating body, the NDRF has the manpower, equipmentand training to handle relief work.
  • The NDRF, launched in 2006, today has 12 battalions stationed across the country, with men drawn on five-year deputations from the Border Security Force, the Central Reserve Police Force, the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), etc.
  • The men undergo specialised training in relief work for quakes, landslides, biochemical mishaps, mountain rescue, and more.

But, where are they when we need them?

In reality, NDRF forces too, just like armed forces, are actively engaged in relief and rescue operations. But, there low strength often makes them invisible. During the recent Chennai floods, 11 teams (45 men per team) from the NDRF’s Arakkonam unit in Tamil Nadu were mobilised, followed by seven more teams from Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Karnataka.

Why then the armed forces end up being the most visible force at hand?

  • It is due to the sheer shortfall of personnel in NDRF. NDRF has got just around 13,000 men compared to 13 lakh in the Army. For India’s size and population, these numbers are too few.
  • Lack of accountability is another reason. Even with an annual budget of over Rs.350 crore, it has been difficult for NDRF to produce quicker responses, better trained staff and high-end equipment on the ground.
  • According to few experts, bureaucratic failure is equally responsible for such bad state of NDRF. The organisation is plagued by politics and apathy. For instance, in theory the NDMA must ensure that States have response units across districts and blocks. In practice, it can shout itself hoarse but State governments are not obliged to respond.

How can the Disaster Response be made effective?

  • To be truly effective, one national force is not enough; each State must build and maintain its own State- and district-level response units. NDMA guidelines say that States must have a contingency plan that ranges from making vulnerability studies to preparing lists of sources that can be tapped for trucks, food or blankets; lists of doctors who can be called for trauma duty or post-mortems; and even firewood suppliers for mass cremations.
  • Bureaucracies should have the will and intelligence to use available resources optimally.
  • States should be mandated to train personnel from the fire, police, and home guards departments and keep them disaster-ready.
  • The size of the NDRF should be expanded.
  • The National Disaster Management Authority must be empowered, made functionally independent and accountable.

How can the armed forces be used effectively?

  • A clear process under which the armed forces will be deployed should be laid out.
  • Threshold levels must be set for when the armed forces will be called in and pulled out.
  • And last, we must define what a national calamity is, and reserve the armed forces only for those occasions.

When such a process is laid out, the magnitude of a disaster will determine when the armed forces are called in rather than their being used as a default solution. And this process will also ensure that the NDRF functions the way it was designed to.