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‘Handling two cyclones, massive deluge during pandemic was not easy… working tirelessly’

I can only say that these are very difficult times and handling two cyclones and a massive deluge during the pandemic was not easy. It takes a toll on the physical and emotional health of the entire team.

Written by Vallabh Ozarkar | Mumbai |
August 9, 2021 1:24:56 am
Raigad District Collector Nidhi Chaudhari

In a conversation with The Indian Express, Raigad District Collector Nidhi Chaudhari, who has been literally in the eye of the storm over the last year, said the district administration was planning to have Disaster Management Committees in every village and train local residents for rescue work, which will help to save lives during the “golden hour” that is critical to every rescue operation. Excerpts:

Within a year, the district has been hit by two cyclones and a major flood last month. What has been the impact of this on the administration of the district?

I can only say that these are very difficult times and handling two cyclones and a massive deluge during the pandemic was not easy. It takes a toll on the physical and emotional health of the entire team. We were working tirelessly day and night to tackle the pandemic, migrants’ crisis during the first lockdown, the second Covid-19 wave and amid all this, the natural disasters have tested our mettle again and again.

Is there a combined assessment of the damage of the last three disasters in terms of lives lost, houses and infrastructure destroyed, and the financial cost of compensating and repairing all the damage?

Yes, we do detailed damage assessment exercises after natural disasters and submit our proposals to the government. For Nisarga Cyclone, we had disbursed a total of Rs 348 crore to those affected, including ex gratia compensation, grants for damaged houses, loss of agriculture, fishing nets, death of poultry/animals, cattle shed, shops etc. Likewise, SDRF/CMRF compensation to an extent of Rs 23.56 crore was paid to citizens impacted by Tauktae Cyclone.

During the recent floods, the administration has immediately done a damage assessment and sent its demand to the state government. The government had released grants for the ex-gratia compensation, which was given to the families of the deceased according to the regulations. We are also giving free ration to all the affected people.

The loss of public infrastructure especially in schools, anganwadis, government buildings and electricity infrastructure were immense and we have attempted to rebuild the same.

Why is reaching assistance to the people at the mercy of natural disasters still so tough in these times of proliferation of technology-enabled rescues, social media apps, artificial intelligence, etc?

India is a vast country and most of its population still lives in villages, which are far away from the power generation centres. Access to modern technological tools in rescue and relief is most often post-disaster and not before a disaster. In disaster-affected rural areas, telecommunication facilities get adversely impacted. In the recent landslide at Taliye, which happened around 5 pm, we got the information but due to inclement weather, no helicopters could fly.

Our efforts of sending Navy, Coast Guard and NDRF team through boats also failed because of flooding in the Savitri river. The teams were stranded for 10 hours due to flooding and massive landslides on multiple locations. In such unprecedented floods and landslides, the administration couldn’t reach in time.

Nevertheless, compare our response with the most technologically advanced nations like Germany and China, which had massive casualties due to floods in recent times. Somewhere, it is not just technology but compassion and empathy, which plays a more critical role in disaster handling.

As the government’s top representative in the district, what lessons have you learnt from the last year?

I always believed in leading from the front and doing the right thing. I knew that my team will be as strong and committed as I am. One has to shed off all fears while handling disasters and try every possible opportunity to help people, provide relief and plan well even during chaotic times. It wouldn’t have been possible for us to tackle large-scale evacuation during Cyclone Nisarga and Tauktae if the teams were afraid of contracting Covid.

Besides, I learnt that true character is tested during calamities and that people share and care when it is most needed. There are amazing people in the ground putting their lives at risk to save others. There are houses, which open their doors for sheltering evacuated people, there are women who cook for the entire community, there are doctors/nurses who go to remotest areas walking miles to treat people, there are talathi/police constables performing beyond the call of duty. Also, I learnt that natural disasters cannot be stopped or predicted but we can arm ourselves with knowledge and make attempts to save lives. For example, the district administration has sent detailed proposals for cyclone shelters, measures for landslide prevention, lightning arresters, desilting of rivers etc.

We are also planning to have Village Disaster Management Committees in every village and train local people on rescue work. This will certainly enable in saving lives during the golden hour of a rescue operation.

Even after being such a big district, Raigad still has no multi-speciality hospital. What are the plans for improving the health infrastructure and facilities?

This district indeed has weak health infrastructure and it was the biggest worry factor while handling Covid. We had brought a lot of private facilities onboard for the Covid management. To strengthen public health infrastructure land was granted for a medical college in Alibag. The district administration has also given land for 66 sub-centres/PHCs, which were approved in 2013 but could not be started due to land issues.

Additionally, the district administration is working on identifying suitable land for women’s hospital, ayush hospital, trauma centre in Pen and Mangaon areas. During the pandemic, the administration attempted to improve public health facilities like SDH/RH and PHCs also. Necessary diagnostic facilities, testing facilities were created but any sustainable and quality work on public health would require continuous efforts and adequate funding in the long run.

It was revealed that Taliye village was not on the list of the landslide-prone villages. When was the last geological survey done in the district and are you planning to do it now?

Yes. Since the 2005 floods and landslides in Raigad, the GSI survey has been conducted on different occasions. According to the recent GSI report of 2018, we have 103 landslide-prone villages, 9 in Class I, 11 in Class II and 83 in Class III category.

Taliye village was not on this list hence, it couldn’t be imagined that such a massive landslide would occur here. Unfortunately, science has not advanced so much on the prediction of landslides.

We can only get surveys of GSI conducted on recurring intervals. In this regard, the district administration had intimated GSI to send its team for a survey of Taliye and other recently landslide-affected villages. Accordingly, the survey was done. We have also requested them to do a survey of Mahad & Poladpur taluka.

What kind of relief and rehabilitation plan is there for all the families who are currently living in landslide-prone areas like in Mahad and Poladpur?

For landslide-affected people of Taliye, MHADA has come forward with a rehabilitation plan. It is paramount to find a suitable location, which is agreeable to affected people. In the case of Taliye, Kevanale and Sakhar Sutarvadi where houses got damaged, suitable government land is not available and therefore, private land is being identified. In the case of private lands, a detailed proposal of land acquisition is to be prepared by the sub-district officer, which will be submitted to the state government for approval of funds.

After the land identification, a layout with necessary amenities as per R&R Act is to be planned. Once rehabilitation layout is approved, work gets commenced following due process.

As an immediate relief, the district administration approached the affected citizens and suggested container-based accommodation to which they agreed principally. We are placing such 24 containers in Taliye and 4 each in Kevnale and Sakhar Sutarwadi. This is only a temporary measure and permanent rehabilitation will be done according to the R&R norms. The Chief Minister has directed the administration to make best efforts for a model rehabilitation in the landslide-affected areas and we are working on the same.

What are your preparations for the third wave? How many Covid care centres were affected due to the recent flood?

To tackle the third wave, we have planned three jumbo facilities through CSR. Around 200 beds with oxygen facilities were set up by JSW and Reliance each in Wadkhal and Nagothane. Likewise, CIDCO is building a large 680 beds oxygen-supported facility with adequate paediatric and general ICU in Kalamboli, which is nearing completion.

Additionally, the district has commissioned two PSA plants from government funds at Alibag and Panvel, while eight are in progress. Of the eight, two PSA plants at Karjat and Pen are sanctioned from the PM CARES Fund and are being monitored by NHAI while six other plants will come up at Chowk, Kashele, Uran, JNPT, SDH Panvel and MMA Mahad. These six plants are commissioned from CSR funds.

We have made adequate paediatric wards in all government facilities like RH/SDH/DH besides creating village-level isolation facilities. Raigad is a hub of LMO manufacturing in Maharashtra as JSW, Linde and INOX have their biggest LMO plants in Raigad. We have directed them to keep their buffer stock full and increase their capacities to the maximum. During the recent flood, seven Covid care facilities were disrupted. As of now, most of them are restored on priority by sending generators and necessary medicines and equipment.

How much disaster response force is with the district currently and how important is a permanent base camp of NDRF in Raigad and where?

We have a team of NGOs, which work during different natural disasters. Their mapping is complete and most often these local rescue NGOs are first respondents. For example, as a precautionary measure, Mahesh Sanap and his team were sent to Mahad city before the flood and his team helped in rescuing several stranded people. Likewise, the Salunkhe rescue team was the first respondent in the Mahad building collapse incident in 2020.

Last year, the administration submitted a proposal to SDMA for a permanent NDRF basecamp in Raigad district because of its high vulnerability to natural disasters. Our recent experience tells that arrival of NDRF from Pune or Mumbai to Mahad takes time and therefore having a permanent camp at a conspicuous location in Raigad district is of utmost need. This camp can cater to Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg as well. At present, the proposal was sent for Mahad but a final decision in this regard from NDRF is still awaited.

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