Had the National Disaster Management Authority not been rendered largely inactive after the NDA government came to power last year, Nepal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh would probably have been better prepared to deal with the earthquake.
Like in the three previous years, the NDMA had planned a multi-state exercise and awareness campaign in February this year to assess and improve preparedness of local authorities to deal with earthquakes. It had held similar exercises in Delhi in 2012, northwestern states in 2013, and the northeastern region last year.
This year, it was the turn of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and Nepal was supposed to be invited to participate in the exercise. But that never happened.
All eight members and the vice-chairman of the NDMA were asked to resign when the NDA government came to power last May.
All, except one, resigned by the end of June. It was left like that till December, when the last member, Muzaffar Ahmad, left. In January this year, the government appointed three members to the NDMA, which is headed by the Prime Minister. A vice-chairman is yet to be appointed.
The result was that all activities of the NDMA, including planned exercises, came to a halt after June.
“The exercises are very useful. They had received a very good response. It would not have prevented all the damage and loss of lives in Nepal, but maybe a few lives could have been saved,” said M Shashidhar Reddy, NDMA’s previous vice-chairman.
The exercises, which involved mock drills, evacuation and relief operations, and awareness campaigns, were started by the NDMA in the wake of 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, on the suggestion of the then PM Manmohan Singh.
In February 2012, the NDMA conducted a mock drill in Delhi at 400 locations and later at 80 schools and colleges.
The next year, a more elaborate exercise was held in Mandi in which Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh tested their preparedness for a magnitude 8 earthquake.
The subsequent year, eight northeastern states were involved in a simultaneous exercise at 80 locations, where the great Shillong earthquake of 1897 was simulated.
“It was then the turn of central Himalayas and we wanted to replicate the 1934 Bihar-Nepal earthquake scenario. We were planning to invite Nepal to join. Its now a very eerie feeling that the earthquake has struck in the same region where the exercise was planned,” Reddy said.
“I feel the government should have maintained continuity. It should have immediately appointed new people in our place. A response to earthquake or any other disaster has to become second nature. Everyone needs to know what is to be done and how,” he added.
K Saleem Ali, a former NDMA member, said the first and best response to a natural disaster comes from the local community, but it needs to be made aware and equipped properly.
“The NDRF would reach the spot only after 24-36 hours. The first response has to come from the community and local authorities. But they have to be trained,” he said.
Ali said Nepal had a very strong network of NGOs with excellent training in landslide and earthquake mitigation.
“I am sure they would play a strong role in relief and rescue operations now,” he said.