Disaster, or disastrous management?

Bridge the gap: managing people is key to averting mishaps. — PTI

Handling Cyclone Phailin was a success story, but not the temple stampede in Madhya Pradesh.

It is ironic that we read on the same page that a severe storm damaged property but took very few lives, while a stampede at a temple took over a hundred lives. It appears we have learned how to deal with an impending natural disaster but now have to rely on nature to save us from manmade ones.

Cyclone Phailin struck both Odisha and Andhra Pradesh with wind speeds over 200 kmph. Having been warned by the meteorological office, the governments of the respective States undertook massive operations to move over 9,00,000 people into storm shelters, schools, government buildings and temples. Learning from past experience, disaster management and mitigation authorities had been set up at the Central and State levels. There was coordination between various government agencies such as the police, fire department, armed services and so on at the district, State and Central levels Relief agencies stood by to help. And it worked.

The Katrina case

For the first time in recent memory, we can be justly proud that we have learned to cope with such disasters which, although uncertain, we have learned to predict. When Hurricane Katrina struck southern US, and New Orleans in particular, in 2005, it caused widespread disaster.

Much of it was attributed to gross failures in preparing for the disaster at the local, state, and federal levels of government, and poor coordination among the agencies involved. The situation persisted even after the disaster when there was widespread looting and manmade problems prevented agencies from aiding the victims.

Why do we create disasters, or at least facilitate their occurrence? For that is what a stampede usually is: a manmade disaster arising from failure of management. What did we learn to help tame the effects of Phailin that we did not apply in the stampede on the bridge leading to the temple at Ratangarh, Madhya Pradesh?

The fact that we take a partial view of such events shows in how we reacted to the last stampede at the same place. At that time, people drowned in the river trying to cross over to the other side. The authorities figured that the absence of a bridge was the problem and built one. That did not prevent a stampede.

It is too simplistic to say that Madhya Pradesh did not learn from three stampedes that have taken place in the State; such incidents have taken place all over India usually during religious festivals and even at relief centres following natural disasters.

Does this mean the success in dealing with Phailin was accidental and not the result of genuine learning from past experience?

What is needed is to take a systemic view of why these stampedes take place. We must view such major events as being composed of several subsystems, examine each and study their interactions.



Examine the subsystems

There is need for some structural actions, like building the bridge at Ratangarh. But there are several other domains that need attention. Take the social one. Indians are prone to crowd and push when having to wait in a line. Videos released to the media after the Ratangarh incident show people not happy staying on the bridge but climbing over the side walls to get ahead.

This kind of thing happens in front of the bank teller as well as in a line for darshan. Perhaps the behaviour comes from a fear that access with be denied. So regular announcements that everyone in line will get to the sanctum however long it takes, or something like that would help relieve the fear.

Communication with the people to help them make the right decisions is important. In Odisha, we are told NGOs and politicians worked to convince villagers and others affected in the coastal areas to move. Mere announcements about an impending storm would not have done the job.

There are organisational issues too. Several departments under the local administration are usually involved in a public event such as a temple festival.

The fire, police and other governmental agencies would have been required to give their clearance. They probably don’t have checklists to use in such cases. The authorities should have had a fire truck and first aid tent at hand. They should have inspected the site before giving clearances to judge whether there was sufficient space to handle the expected crowd.

Learning to prepare

The emergency service personnel at Odisha are reported to have undergone drills to prepare for the emergency.

If the agencies on the ground in Madhya Pradesh had trained in how to deal with large public events, they would have known that rather than let everyone rush into the temple, there should have been a holding area with appropriate facilities where the crowds could wait before being allowed into the lines leading to the temple in batches.

What was the role of the temple administration? There is usually a trust managing religious places, with local public officials.

No paper has reported on whether they had made sufficient arrangements. Old religious sites are notorious for not having proper emergency exits and railing, and having slippery staircases. The temple authorities probably failed to provide proper estimates of expected attendance and other information.

A judicial commission has been appointed to go into the facts of the incident. In two weeks or so, it will tell us much of what we already know, namely, that some officials failed in their duties. Since some officials have already been suspended due to negligence, the judicial commission is perhaps the legal cover for decisions already taken.

( The author is a professor and dean of the Jindal Global Business School, Sonepat, Haryana.)

Published on October 28, 2013

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