Manu Gupta, co-founder of SEEDS, talks about challenges and imperatives of disaster management in India
Praggya Guptaa | August 24, 2020 | New Delhi
SEEDS, a not-for-profit organization, enables community resilience in the areas of disaster readiness, response and rehabilitation. Manu Gupta, co-founder of the organization, is a doctorate in community-based disaster management and the current Chair of the Asian Disaster Reduction and Response Network, an active network of NGOs from over 20 countries in Asia. He is part of the Leadership Council of NEAR, a newly formed global network of local and national NGOs who have come together in an attempt to restructure the global response to economic, human and environmental threats.
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed disaster preparedness of the country. In conversation with Praggya Guptaa, Manu Gupta shares his perspective on various challenges and governance issues in managing disasters.
Tell us about the journey of SEEDS over these years.
SEEDS is working extensively on every major disaster in the Indian subcontinent – grafting innovative technology on to traditional wisdom since 1994. But 2001 when the Gujarat Earthquake happened, we geared ourselves from explorer to anchor. So our motive has been how affected communities become self-resilient, what kind of tools and technologies and enabling mechanism we can provide to them. We have reached out to families affected by disasters and climate stresses and strengthened and rebuilt schools and homes. After that, we have travelled to various geographies and have invariably put ourselves into in skill-building, planning and communications to foster long-term resilience. That was the seeding process.
SEEDS is the first agency to be certified for the global Core Humanitarian Standards – an international certification system for quality and accountability in humanitarian response.
What are the challenges in the disaster management mechanism in India?
More than the policy, it is a lack of knowledge among people that is a big challenge. The other problem is we have response centric system, where an emergency happens, and we quickly crumble ourselves and respond to that. This has been a pattern so far, and by large it will continue. We have the Disaster Management Act, 2005 which speaks about the entire disaster management cycle, including disaster prevention, disaster preparedness, disaster response and then long-term recovery and rehabilitation. But the whole attention is given to 'response' part of it. The thrust is given to preparedness to respond to the disaster. Of course, this is required. But my question is, why should a disaster happen in the first place. Some countries have invested in infrastructure, in systems to prevent disaster. Japan is the world’s best case, and many other countries are also doing it. Though there is some awareness about prevention, still we are centric to response and preparedness to response.
Similarly, there is a problem with long term recovery that we have seen after Amphan and other cyclones. Beyond the initial two weeks of action, government washes the hands of the problem. Communities are left to handle themselves. There is no recovery and investing in long-term recovery that ensures that they are protected against future disasters. Barring the big ones like Gujarat Earthquake, Tsunami, etc, most of the natural disaster incidents go unnoticed. This is the primary reason that other custodian problems we face. Migrant population do not only leave their habitat for just jobs but also due to these disasters. While studies are not done to that level, I wish it could have been done, but there are enough pieces of evidence to suggest that there is a large number of migrants leave their habitat for environment extremities. A large portion is climate refuges and escaping the rash climate in their own habitat like recurring floods in Bihar you find. There is a very strong correlation between environment extremities, disasters and patterns of migrant movement in our country.
Further, there are a lot of issues in terms of the governance structure. Until 2005 there was no act or law. The Disaster Management Act brought in after 2005 after the Tsunami. That was a wakeup call for the country. In the Act, there is a National Disaster Management Authority, and there is a state disaster management authority and then at the district level. Even now, most of the district management authorities are on paper. Very few of them have formed an institution, and among those very few have provided any strength to those institutions to face or address the disaster proactively. We need to strengthen the disaster management infrastructure in the country, and we must have a strong government structure like food safety Authority (FSSAI) in disaster management too whose role is to do more than just issuing guidelines and telephone numbers for emergency response. There should be a whole lot of action plans and protocols in place. There is some district where you find good plans and activities have happened.
How should we respond to these challenges?
After all, a disaster is about the loss of life. Nothing is as essential as saving lives. With better action plan, authorities can save life loss to a great extent not just life but the economic loss too. As a country, the credit goes to the proactive response teams that we can save a lot more lives now. Now we have much better forecasting systems, and we know which cyclone will hit which place at what time which. It helps authorities prepare to save lives. But preparedness in economic loss it still has to happen. Prevention is a key challenge that needs to be addressed by investing in more in recovery and prevention. The third challenge that needs to be addressed is how to empower local leaders and local people. With the Covid-19 pandemic, disaster management response agencies alone cannot cater to this kind of large-scale needs. So the role of people and participation should not limit just as a victim. In the disaster management cycle, they have to underscore now. This community-based preparedness and community-based response, local leadership, how can we prepare a charter of local informing leaders to manage crisis matter. These do not cost much. Except for the investment in infrastructure, all other things are low cost or low hanging fruits to take on. As far as infrastructure is concerned, last year the prime minister announced in the GM climate action meet, new collation which is a national action plan on climate change. The intent is there, but execution at the ground level is what is needed.
Like it is being said, never waste a good crisis. In this crisis, we must think about how we develop sustainable and resilient pathways for our future. The cities are also at the risk of many disasters due to the unsustainable way of living, which has to be changed now. We must think of bringing the concept of the circular economy and green economy. We look for making the health and education system resilient, and these sustainable and resilient pathways are the way forward. It requires society level effect, and in the new normal we won't get this chance again to go towards that. Empowering people has a significant role to play in here. Technology here plays a vital role in that.
You have worked with migrant workers in Covid-affected areas. What are their sentiments?
We have seen people have gone out of cities and metros. We have seen the influx of people who are coming back because of various needs not having met and not having a job. But there is another side of massive movement taken place. In rural areas there were a lot of stigmas, they were shooed away by their own villagers, they were hiding in fields, they had to go through the quarantine centres, which were set up in hurry by the district administration. They are now dealing with collapsing rural economy, and when we speak to them, they are ready to come back any time, and they will come back as soon as things start becoming operational. In the whole process, the damage has been taken place displacement, dislodging of businesses and many businesses has closed down so they won’t take them back. So the issue of employment will come up, and once they come back, they have to re-skill themselves for new opportunities and skills in demand. All these fears are strong in their mind when we speak to them. There is a lot of uncertainty that is affecting their minds.
With ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat', the focus is on manufacturing in India. As we have seen in past, that economic development and environment always have a trade-off. How do you see this?
I don’t see it as a trade-off. Those (economy and environment) are two parts that need to go alongside. Increasingly we see that until there are understanding and respect for the other, we can’t create an equitable world. Economic development necessarily looked at how it can reach to premier goals known as SDGs like low-carbon economy. They are not a trade-off but a conscious decision that they can make. For example, solar energy was always there, but it was the oil lobby causing them not to come up by keeping the cost high. But now solar energy is very cheap. So it is no trade-off we have to see this as a necessary appealing approach to the future, and that would be the only way forward. Why I am very convinced about this when I look at disaster, it is that time you see how an economy is not taken care of the safety or environment safeguards which are impacted the most. Had they done that we could have avoided many of them. We have examples of resilient and green systems have survived most of the crisis.
You say technology is an important tool. Will you please elaborate?
With disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning, we can address many complex problems. The pattern created by this technology helps us to prepare in advance. Other is, a technology help us to reach out to most unreachable areas in real-time. In partnership with Google (two years ago), we developed a flood forecasting system that would generate information (used by the Central Water Commission). Also, in collaboration with Google maps, we could come up with very hyperlocal warnings. Because of that, we could reach out to the most vulnerable of the community who does not have access to the mobile phone. And they could reach out to the far interior citizens and tell them about the flood warning. The general weather forecast will not give you the hyper-local information. Technology provided much more accurate and real-time information that saved more lives. In 2018 during the Kerala floods, with Facebook’s disaster maps we could track how people are moving and getting displaced after the floods and we could also track when people are coming back once the water recedes. For the external agency providing the aid, it is important to know where those people are and when they are coming back. Technology has many more applications if we look at the satellite point of view. One project we are doing with Microsoft is to identify cities which receives excessive heat and we can aid them and develop a structure to address that. Technology is helping in disaster management and risk reduction in all these areas.
Assam is struggling with massive floods. How do you analyse the situation?
Over 5.5 million people have been affected due to floods in India this year, and the state of Assam has experienced the worst flooding over the last ten years affecting over 3.6 million people till date, as per the recent government reports. This time, affected communities are facing an additional threat given the ongoing Covid crisis that requires healthcare services, health and hygiene safeguards and to maintain social distancing in the relief camps. We stood with Assam in these difficult times and reached out to 1,00,000 affected people with their immediate needs in the districts of Lakhimpur, Dhemaji, Barpeta and Morigaon. Our ground workers told us that the situation at the ground level is worse than ever. There are drinking water, food and hygiene issues. Thousands of families are battling with the intense flood situation coupled with the challenges of the pandemic. They are in need of urgent humanitarian aid. With millions of people displaced by the floods, it has become critical that relief reaches them at the earliest. Our team is working relentlessly to analyse and meet the immediate requirements of the affected people in an effective manner. We are also taking all necessary precautions to mitigate the risk of the Covid pandemic.
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