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Poverty Times #3

Disaster management in India

by K. C. Gupta

After independence India began a process of rapid industrialisation. It inevitably lacked some framework conditions, such as an understanding of the risks of chemical hazards. Implementation of safety procedures, including regulatory approaches, soon followed and institutions such as the National Safety Council (NSCI) were created. There was much to do.

The Bhopal disaster (1984) did much to focus more attention on the need for a holistic approach to technology disaster management, and the role of ordinary people in emergencies. The government took several important measures, with major legislative changes and stronger institutional mechanisms. It set up Crisis Groups at central, state, district and local levels. NSCI took the APELL process as a model, promoting awareness and training projects covering both hazardous materials transport and fi xed installations.

India is also vulnerable to natural disasters. While well-established mechanisms for response, relief and rehabilitation were in place, major events such as the Orissa super-cyclone (1999) and the Bhuj earthquake (2001) emphasised the need for a comprehensive approach to mitigation and prevention, for natural and man-made disasters.

NSCI adopted several goals based on the APELL procedures: creating or raising public awareness of possible hazards within a community; stimulating development of co-operative plans to respond to any emergency that might occur; and encouraging accident prevention.

Implementation in this vast country followed a two-track approach of development of awareness at the national level, and in-depth implementation in selected high-risk industrial areas (HRIA – see map). We needed to gain first hand experience through pilot projects in important areas.

A national Advisory Committee and Technical Core Group was set up for periodical review, guidance and technical consultation. In 2002 the fi rst national APELL Centre opened at NSCI headquarters in Mumbai. It was the fi rst centre of this sort in the world.

The fi rst projects started in 1992 in six HRIAs, also drawing on international collaboration from UNEP, USAID and WEC. In 2004 an APELL sub-centre opened in Haldia (see map). A manual on cyclone emergency preparedness was prepared.

Transport issues were becoming urgent and a major new programme was based on UNEP’s TransAPELL. A training module and seminars were developed for traffic police. A HAZMAT emergency van started work on a trial basis in Patalganga-Rasayani, and a broadbased programme for transporters was launched.

Several lessons may be learnt from this process. Widespread industrial development in a country like India requires comprehensive replication of the programme at local level. Sub-centres are essential, with replication programmes involving local partners. Practical experience at local level has facilitated – and has in turn been facilitated by – national legislation such as the law setting up crisis groups and safety management in general. Crisis groups at district and local level require training and support tools (best practice, case studies, etc.) so there is an ongoing role for training organisations such as NSCI and its offshoots like NAC. Finally, the programme has pinpointed the need to treat transport as a priority issue, linking various locations in the hazardous materials chain across the country.

The experience has also aroused much interest0 abroad, notably in China, South Africa, Jordan and Brazil, underlining the need to share experience internationally.

Emergency prevention and preparedness is a complex issue, and industrialising countries need to address the matter as an integral part of a larger sustainable development agenda. Experience in countries such as India can do much to streamline the process elsewhere, with growing pressures to better address disaster issues.

K. C. Gupta is the Director of the National APELL Centre and Director General of the National Safety Council of India (NSCI).