The photographs that Uttarkashi Aapda Prabandh Samiti sent me a few days back are still fresh in memory. When I showed them to a relative, I was asked in a tone of disbelief, “Are you sure these are fresh photographs? The collapsing building looks like what we saw last year in the aftermath of the flash flood.” In these days of 24x7 news channels bringing the footage of unfolding disasters to our drawing rooms, very few journalists would look at a totally unlikely source to write a disaster related story. Yet, once again, while not rushing to ground zero to file a disaster-related human interest story, I have decided to browse through a source that friends often accuse me of being addicted to: Performance Audits by CAG of India on the working of institutions and implementation of Acts.

It has been more than seven years since India passed a Disaster Management Act, 2005 (NDMA) and clearly these cannot be said to be early years of institutions that came into being to facilitate disaster management and preparedness. But when it comes to CAG’s performance audit of the functioning of the NDMA, which entered public domain on 15 March 2013, what lines do we get to read? The performance audit noted that the National Plan for Disaster Management had not been formulated even after six years of enactment of the DM Act. Similarly, it was found that the national guidelines on disaster preparedness and risk reduction developed by NDMA were not adopted and applied by either nodal agencies or the state governments themselves.

Uttarakhand floods. Pic: Screen shot from Youtube

Warning signs in Uttarakhand

In the wake of massive floods in Uttarakhand, let’s revisit what the Performance Audit report said in its chapter titled ‘State specific observation on disaster preparedness and risk reduction plans in Uttarakhand.’ The audit noticed that while the State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA) was constituted in October 2007, it had not formulated any rules, regulations, policies and guidelines. Worse still, as on September 2012, the SDMA in Uttarakhand had never met since its constitution for the five year period! Similarly, the State Advisory Committee on Disaster Management met only once after it was constituted in February 2008. The State Executive Committee was formed in January 2008 but had not met even once since its creation!

The state government did not sanction any post for the SDMA, which affected the establishment of the Management Information Service. In 13 districts, for District Emergency Operations Centre, as against the requirement of 117, only 66 posts were filled. The State Disaster Management Plan (SDMP) was still under preparation at the time of the performance audit and it was found that no actionable programmes were prepared for various disasters, even though NDMA guidelines for preparation of SDMP were issued in July 2007.

The Audit found that no plan was prepared in the state for early warning and the communication system was inadequate. Requisite tools and mechanism for providing early warning of impending disaster were also not in place. This had clearly led to situations when critical information reached vulnerable populations after considerable delay. Test check of records indicated that due to inadequacy of reliable communication system, sharing of disaster information was delayed by more than three hours in 50 to 86 per cent of cases.

In order to strengthen early warning indicators related to disasters in Uttarakhand, the Government of India had sanctioned two Doppler Radars in June 2008. The Doppler Radars were to be purchased, installed and manned by Indian Meteorology Department and the state government was to make available land for this purpose. Auditors must have felt immensely sad reporting to fellow countrymen that these radars couldn’t be installed as of August 2012 due to non-availability of land in Nainital and Mussoorie!

Similarly, while procurement of equipment for the Airborne Laser Terrain Mapping and Digital Camera System took place in the year 2004 and expenditure worth Rs 23.75 crore had been incurred till June 2012, the survey covered just less than 10 per cent of flood prone areas and no survey was conducted after August 2010.

In Uttarakhand, there were delays in submission of State Disaster Response Funds (SDRF) utilisation, which in turn led to delays ranging from 80 days to 184 days in the release of central share during 2007-2011. Uttarakhand being a special category state gets 90 per cent share of its SDRF in the form of central release while the state government contributes the remaining 10 per cent. The state department of disaster management stated to the audit team that district authorities were responsible for late submission of utilisation certificates and the GoI had not released funds for the year 2011-12 for want of utilisation certificates and other requisite documents.

The Audit found that no plan was prepared in the state for early warning and the communication system was inadequate. Requisite tools and mechanism for providing early warning over impending disaster were also not in place. This clearly led to situations when critical information reached vulnerable populations after considerable delay.

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Disaster management unpreparedness

The NDMA, which was conceived as the apex planning and supervising body, was, in general, found to be ineffective in its functioning in most of the core areas, states CAG. The audit findings highlighted that NDMA neither had information and control over the progress of work at the state level, nor was it successful in implementation of various projects. As on 31 March, 2012, 33 per cent of posts were lying vacant in the NDMA. The National Executive Committee (NEC), which is headed by the Union Home Secretary, had not met after May 2008, and since May 2010 there had been no meeting of the Advisory Committee of NDMA, although the country has witnessed many disasters since that date. NEC Rules 2006 specify that the committee was supposed to meet at least once every three months and as often as necessary in the times of crisis.

The audit also observed that none of the mitigation and vulnerability mapping projects of NDMA had been completed. Its internal systems also needed strengthening as the business rules were yet to be finalised and manpower issues remained unresolved. Audit scrutiny revealed that a National Database for Emergency Management which should have been completed by August 2011, was yet to be operationalised.

Audit scrutiny also revealed that the National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF) was utilised for various purposes other than those stated in the guidelines from the Government of India. ‘On account’ (i.e. interim releases pending processing of proposal and subject to adjustment against further assistance under NDRF) releases of Rs 654.04 crore in case of Gujarat, Assam and Goa, from NCCF (now renamed NDRF) were lying unspent with these states; instead of asking the states to restore the unspent balance in the national fund, these amounts were deemed adjusted against further future assistance.

This decision clearly results in the loss of the timely disbursement of this money to other states in the dire crisis from national fund. Gujarat, for example, has been sitting on the unspent balance amounting to Rs 350 crore since the year 2006-07 and Assam accounting for the unspent balance of another Rs 300 crores ever since the year 2008-09. One cannot help wonder if this should not make us question the propaganda from PM enthusiast Narendra Modi, who has been showing off the United Nations Sasakawa Award in 2003 to Gujarat for “outstanding work in the field of disaster management and risk reduction”!

Chart from CAG Audit Report.

Sleeping authorities

On any issue of flood, the primary responsibility lies with the state governments and to this date, no state government, except Manipur, has enacted a suitable legislation for Flood Plain Zoning. NDMA guidelines for management of floods issued in January 2008 desired that Union Ministry of Water Resources will prepare a detailed Action Plan for Management of Floods. Replying to an audit observation, the ministry wrote in June 2012 that “the activities and their timeliness mentioned in the said guidelines were yet to be finally decided in consultation with state governments and other concerned agencies”.

Similarly, even as the Central Water Commission (CWC) had issued guidelines for development and implementation of Emergency Action Plan for large dams in the states, audit scrutiny revealed that only eight states had prepared such plans for 192 large dams out of 4728 large dams in 29 states, as on September 2011. Audit raised concern that of these 4728 reservoirs and barrages, CWC monitors inflow forecasts in case of only 28 reservoirs and barrages.

CAG audit also talked about an evaluation study of Plan Schemes on Flood Control that was conducted for the Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR) by Indian Institute of Public Administration and was submitted in November 2009. The study highlighted various deficiencies such as, non-functional telemetry stations, temporary gauge sites during the flood period, flood forecasting stations not having dedicated communication facilities etc. Having noted this, the Audit report observes that these shortcomings had not been rectified by MoWR till July 2012. In fact, when the audit pointed this out, a hollow sounding assurance came as a response from CWC in July 2012 that “necessary directions had been issued to address these issues”.

The performance audit also reviewed agencies such as the India Meteorology Department, Indian Space Research Organisation and others that have established early warning systems for disasters. During scrutiny it was found that due to lack of monitoring and timely inputs from all participants, most of these projects regarding data dissemination to stakeholders were still incomplete and in many cases the equipments procured for these projects were lying uninstalled.

Media in Uttarakhand might have failed to ask some tough questions to its leaders in March 2013 when the audit report became public, but today as the massive tragedy is unfolding, would the present and past governments explain why they failed to find land for Doppler Radars in Mussoorie and Nainital, for four long years after the equipments were sanctioned by GoI? Undoubtedly, what is unfolding in the hill state is a human tragedy of abominable proportion, but even in its midst, it is important to ask systemic questions on the issue of disaster preparedness and risk reduction. In case we fail to perform that duty today, we might be confronted with the same questions next year too.