Sunday, November 02, 2008

Sparring with Nature

Until man appeared, Nature had Earth all to herself to play with; it was Man who coined the term ‘Natural Disaster’. Natural Disasters are nothing new to Humanity; they’ve been around longer than Man has. History records the destruction of whole cities Pompeii, Elba, Tannis, perhaps even a place as well planned as Mohenjodaro.

It is only in recent times that the Population Explosion has made it impossible for Nature to even breathe without hurting Man; The effect is impressive.

India is no stranger to Natural Disasters; as recently as the last few years there have been drought, and extreme floods. The most recent this year in Maharasthra, and before that in Bihar. The impact is extreme; both in terms of damage to human life, livestock, and property. Any disaster is augmented by the infectious panic that follows as all flee leaving all but their most prized possession behind.

It is almost impossible to provide adequate warning to all before Nature strikes. Even Nature’s smallest sneeze is liable to affect at least thousands of human lives; therefore it becomes that much more important to have a decent response mechanism in place. Here, on the sub-continent, a knee-jerk reaction is to press the armed forces into service. The armed forces have an impressive record in providing succour in cases of Natural Disasters; be it Bhuj in Gujarat, Morvi & Mowad in Maharashtra, Orissa, or most recently Bihar. Natural Disaster Relief is not the charter of the Defence Forces; albeit they do the job with aplomb. But, Destiny Forbid, what if a Natural Disaster should coincide with any attempt to violate the territorial integrity of our Nation?

Before we can address the question ‘If not the Army, then who should we call?’ it is important to recognize what makes the army so effective in dealing with these situations. After all, the army is comprised of Humans too; what makes them immune to Panic?

Panic rises from the thought- There is nothing I can do that will help improve the situation I am in. A soldier is conditioned to react to survive; he does not have the time to formulate this thought.

How can the army continue to function in scenes of Natural disasters? The answers, I believe, are these

  1. Communication – This provides the means to revert for advice, definition of priorities when required.

  2. Defined Chain of Command – Without a chain of command, all the ability to communicate, is meaningless. The soldier on the spot knows exactly whom his instructions should come from.

  3. Broadly defined instructions – Broadly defined instructions leave the Soldier on the spot the freedom to act on his initiative where required. He does not need to be told how to achieve an objective; only what the objective is. Thereafter he is free to act upon his initiative.

The next question is – Who, if not the Army?

The army is comprised of trained men, equipped with the necessary tools required to do their job. The answer therefore must be an alternate group of people similarly trained, and with access to the necessary tools required. Possible candidates, in my opinion, are – Police, RAF, NCC, Home Guard [taken in order]. In addition, it would help to have a volunteer group defined for each mohalla who may liaise with the disaster relief agency. Such a volunteer group will be aware of potentially hazardous areas, and may prevent needless casualties. In addition, the presence of a volunteer cadre will free up resources to be utilized elsewhere.

Each year hundreds of people lose their lives to the vagaries of Nature. Losses in terms of livestock, and property is incalculable; but it cannot stand against the value of Human Life. There may be those who argue that the capital expenditure in setting up a dedicated Rescue&Relief unit to respond to Natural Expenditures may be huge. Can we afford to not make this investment to save Human Lives, to mitigate the loss to property & to livestock?