When passengers boarded the Delhi bound Rajdhani Express at Howrah in the evening of September 9, 2002, India they had no idea of the impending nightmare the night had in store. At around 10 PM, while crossing a bridge near a station Rafiganj in Bihar, the train derailed and several coaches fell into the river. The accident had over 100 causalities and many injured. For many it was a blow to life, to dreams, to hopes, to emotions… Thereafter there was a saga of dead and the agony of those who did not die. With the split of a second, people got new identities – orphans, widows, handicapped persons, and many more. The ritual started. Disaster became an issue of urgency. Enquiry was set up. Relief was rushed in and politicians engaged in exchanging allegations and abuses. And just after a few days, not many remember the accident. Life is fast and memories are short, unless somebody close to one was a victim. Who cares? Who bothers? And who has time?
When disaster hits, it generally hits at the time when there is least preparedness. In India, this continues surprisingly, inspite of frequent reminders from nature (refer box in pg 28). Why it is so? Perhaps at inception, we need to revisit the whole concept of disasters and calamities and comprehend its link to vulnerability.
A question of vulnerability
While it is impossible to totally stop sudden accidents or avert calamities of natural origin, measures to reduce their impact can definitely form a sensible approach to reduce vulnerability. An understanding of the stark distinction between the concepts of a ‘calamity’ and a ‘disaster’ is the first step towards a coherent approach of disaster reduction or the use of GIS in this field. A calamity is a sudden natural occurrence of relatively high intensity that disrupts normal eco-systems to a considerable degree. A disaster is a calamity or an event of manmade cause, that leads to sudden disruption of normalcy within society within a short span of time, causing damage to life and property to such an extent that regular mechanisms available become inadequate to restore normalcy (Alexander, 1993). Hence a disaster can be addressed or averted if the ‘impact of calamities’ are reduced.
Vulnerability of a society is a key concept, which if addressed can have positive effects on disaster reduction. Misunderstanding of the vulnerability levels or its condoning exaggerates the damage. The vulnerability of societies to disasters in India or in any developing nation is ascertained by a number of factors inherent in the characteristics of the place. Three key factors that directly ascertain the disaster-vulnerability of a society are as follows;
- Population density is the first key factor. It is understandable that an uninhabited area experiences no loss in case of a calamity. Population of an area actually gives an estimate of the risk of damage. Population of India has crossed 1 billion and a large number of people densely inhabit various disaster prone areas enhancing risk in the first place. Increased utilization of resources, rampant unplanned development and faulty environmental management practices such as deforestation, shifting cultivation and others add to vulnerability.
- Lack of a system in the form of a proper ‘disaster management framework’ is the second factor behind increased vulnerability. The need for focussed and relevant research, a management system and a proper institutional set-up that is accountable for disaster reduction and management is necessary to ensure reduction of disaster impact (Carter, 1992). Its absence thus adds to the risk of increased damage.
- The last key factor is awareness. Lack of awareness about disaster preparedness in any community forms a prime reason behind undesirable forms of development and living style that can increase the risk of damage. Disaster awareness starting from grassroots (households) and moving up to the highest power structures (politicians) needs to be internalised in the daily livelihood patterns and development efforts.
At this point a relevant question that surfaces is - how to translate the above concepts into implementable strategies.