On 26 December 2004, a 9.1 magnitude earthquake struck of the coast of Indonesia; it caused a vast tsunami that raked the east coast of India and Sr Lanka. I wrote this piece about it in Business World of 29 December 2004.
Caring for survivors
The scale and the horror of the disaster that has struck the people along the east coast of India – and of Sri Lanka – are unimaginable. The toll of people swallowed by the wave itself runs into thousands. They have left behind on the coast many more people who have been injured, whose families have been shattered, whose homes have collapsed, and whose livelihood has been washed away.
Fingers have been pointed at the meteorological department. The underwater earthquake, it is said, occurred two hours before the tsunami hit the east coast; there was time for a warning, it has been alleged. This is pointless. Governments set up agencies to watch for disasters that may happen once in a blue moon. But such agencies can never have enough practice in spotting events that seldom happen. That is how the US missed all signs of the Indian nuclear ceremony; that is how Chernobyl and the Three Mile incident happened. Rather than try to predict the unpredictable, it would be wiser to invest effort in dealing with the aftermath of unpredictable events.
India is supposed to be doing precisely that, with considerable assistance from the World Bank. The home ministry has set up a natural disaster management division, which in turn has asked the thirteen coastal states to set up steering committees under the chief secretary and to formulate a disaster management policy. Stirred by the imminent arrival of an appraisal mission from the World Bank, the home ministry had urgently called a meeting of state representatives just five days before the wave hit India. The state governments were also asked to put forward projects such as cyclone shelters, shelterbelt plantations, regeneration of mangrove swamps, construction of embankments and of missing road links. It is sobering that while a good argument can be made for each of these measures, none would have really helped in the aftermath of the tidal wave.
What would have helped are certain selected elements of the general development process. For instance, the casualties of a catastrophe land up in public hospitals. To cope with unexpected disasters, hospitals need excess capacity. But far from excess capacity, they are always besieged by excess demand for their facilities. Free treatment will always attract demand; and the state governments can never have enough money to meet all the demand. There is a case, therefore, for public funding of private medical facilities. It may take the form of subsidies to doctors, or sharing of capital costs; it should be conditional on the government having free access to a certain proportion of the hospitals’ services.
Another crucial element is capacity to build houses cheaply and quickly. Again, this is not the speciality of public works departments. The Gujarat government was largely absent as provider of shelter after the Kutch earthquake. But a great many private and public agencies built houses there. One of the most remarkable ones was the People’s Science Institute which, as a part of its resolve to apply science to rural life, has been building earthquake-proof houses with local materials in the Himalayas. Its houses took four days to build; and although they were meant to be temporary, their occupants are perfectly happy to live in them forever. Indian cities are strewn with slums for lack of such a technology, but even more because local authorities do not allow slumdwellers to build. If they were permitted to do so with a modicum of technology, we would create enormous emergency building capacity which would be of use after weather disasters.
The same is true of decentralized power. By subsidizing centrally generated power, we have ensured two things: that there is never enough power and what there is reaches only a privileged minority; and that decentralized power technologies, based for instance on solar power or biomass, can never be viable. One consequence of removing power subsidies would be that there would be a level playing field for competition amongst various power technologies; from amongst them would also arise technologies that can applied quickly in emergencies.
Governments like to think of solutions which require expenditure and which create work for their bureaucracies; and that is liable to happen with natural disaster management as well. But if a little imagination were used, a little freedom were allowed, a little care went into finding solutions that can be adopted quickly by many, it would be possible to create privately run disaster management mechanisms that would help many more people quickly. The disaster whose consequences we are suffering right now should make us rethink the government’s snail paced programmes of disaster management, and look for nimbler alternatives.