India’s unique climate and socio-economic realities make it vulnerable to a number of natural, as well as man-made disasters such as floods, droughts, cyclones, earthquakes, landslides, avalanches and forest fires. Out of 35 states and union territories in the country, 27 —about 77 per cent, are disaster prone. According to a document, ‘Disaster Management in India’, published by the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2011, India has been hit by 431 major disasters over the last three decades, resulting in enormous loss to life and property.
The recent disasters that have struck Uttarakhand, Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha remind us of the need to assign attention to the issue and take necessary steps to deal with the problem in a sustainable manner. In this context, the role of the panchayat and urban local institutions in both disaster risk reduction and post-disaster management is very significant. Unfortunately, these institutions have not been fully operationalised for the handling of disasters either during the preparatory stages or during disaster and post-disaster operations. This essay examines the manner in which the panchayat could address the problem of disasters in the country through enhanced functional, financial and administrative strength.
Paradigm shift from relief-centric to development centric
There is an urgent need for a shift from a risk mitigation cum relief-centric approach in disaster management into an integrated plan for economic development with social justice. The Constitution provides for an institutional arrangement for solving manmade disasters on a sustainable basis under Article 243G, which says that the panchayat shall prepare a plan for economic development and social justice, taking into account the 29 subjects listed in the 11th Schedule of the Constitution. Subjects like agriculture, animal husbandry, construction of roads, poverty alleviation and rural development programmes, education, the welfare of women, children and the disabled, public distribution and the maintenance of community assets feature in the list. In urban areas, urban local bodies such as municipalities or municipal corporations are to strive for economic development and social justice and prepare plans under Article 243W keeping in mind 18 subjects listed in the 12th Schedule of the Constitution. This list, among others, includes urban planning, fire services, the welfare of weaker sections, sanitation, urban forestry, and urban amenities.
Further, Article 243ZD of the Constitution states that a district planning committee (DPC) must be constituted in every state to consolidate plans prepared by the panchayat and municipalities and to prepare a draft development plan for the district as a whole. Not less than four-fifths of the total number of members in such a Committee would be from among the elected representatives of the panchayat and municipalities.
While preparing the draft development plan, the DPC is required to take into account matters of common interest to both the panchayat and municipalities including spatial planning, sharing of water and other physical and natural resources, the integrated development of infrastructure and environmental conservation, while looking into the extent of financial and other resources available.
It is thus clear that the Constitution envisaged a major role to be played by the panchayat and municipalities with the DPC being principally responsible for pre- and post- disaster management activities. It is hence imperative to empower these local bodies to integrate relief measures into development planning for implementation at their respective levels.
Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) can be especially effective in enhancing people’s responses to disasters by forming village-level disaster response committees, organising early warning systems, rescue teams and diversified sources of livelihood. The panchayat can prepare village communities to deal with disasters through:
- Mitigation strategy including reducing vulnerability;
- Risk assessment;
- Identification of vulnerable groups and extent of their vulnerability;
- Preparing for early warning systems;
- Response plan in terms of action strategies to be followed during disaster and in post-disaster periods.
The economic development and social justice plan of the gram panchayat should integrate different types of sectoral vulnerability plans for disaster mitigation at the local level. Broadly, these activities can be grouped into five categories, taking care of almost all types of vulnerabilities (Table 1).
As development and disaster management are inter-linked and inter-dependent, the desired results can be best achieved by addressing vulnerability in a decentralised manner. This can only be accomplished, provided development, social justice and disaster management are managed and manned by a single institution that is the panchayat. Or else, with more than one institution in charge, it is tantamount to a cart drawn by two horses in different directions.
Disasters generally adversely affect the most vulnerable—namely women, the scheduled castes (SC) and scheduled tribes (ST). It is hence ideal to have these sections of the community involved in the decision making at the pre-disaster phase and post-disaster phases of disaster management. The pre-disaster aspects would comprise prevention, mitigation and preparedness while the post-disaster aspects would involve response, rehabilitation, reconstruction and recovery.
The PRI has a three tier structure. The gram panchayat is at the lowest level, panchayat samiti at intermediate level and zila parishad at the district level. The PRIs provide adequate space to the weaker sections at every level, as is evident from the State of the Panchayat Report, 2008-09, conducted by Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA) for the Ministry of Panchayati Raj. At the gram panchayat level, out of the total elected representatives, more than 5 lakh were from the SC category, more than 3 lakh were STs and about 10 lakh were women. At the block level, 32779 were SCs, 11510 were STs and 58112 were women. At the district level, 2699 were SCs, 1691 were STs and 5763 were women. Putting all categories together, about 5.5 lakh were SCs, 3.35 lakh STs and 10.48 lakh were women working as panchayat leaders at different levels of the PRI. Their share in the municipalities is in addition to that mentioned above. These elected representatives who hail from the weaker sections are best equipped to take care of marginalised groups and the entire village community during and after disasters.
Pre-requisites for the panchayat
As cited in the 2011 Disaster Management in India report, statistics by Prevention Web, a project of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), revealed that 143039 people were killed and about 150 crore were affected by various disasters in the country over the last 30 years. The Report estimates the loss to property and other infrastructure at over 4800 crore USD. The Report also cites a World Bank study that computes economic losses due to disasters amounting to 2 per cent of the GDP. In view of the huge cost to the nation involved, it only seems appropriate that the panchayat and urban local bodies be effectively empowered functionally and financially to deal with disasters.
However, as per the report ‘Strengthening of Panchayats in India: Comparing Devolution across States 2012-13’ by The Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA), a dismal picture emerges as regards the status of empowerment of these institutions. Examining the devolution of powers and functions to the panchayat across states based on certain dimensions and indicators, including framework, functions, finance, functionaries, accountability and capacity building, the study found the national composite index to be merely 38.52—revealing that out of the total expectation of devolution envisaged, only 38.52 per cent devolution had been achieved in the country. We need to bring about a total paradigm shift as regards the powers and functions of local bodies if they are to effectively deal with natural or manmade disasters and come up with sustainable solutions.
A sustainable solution to the problem of disasters largely depends on integrating risk management into the development planning of the country with the participation of vulnerable groups at the grassroots level. PRIs provide the best institutional opportunity at the district, block and village levels to operationalise such integration through people’ participation. For this, the panchayat needs to be empowered functionally, financially and administratively to effectively shoulder their responsibilities, while being hand-held to continuously build their capacities for economic development , social justice, and disaster management. In fact, every training programme designed by the National Institute of Rural Development & Panchayati Raj (NIRD&PR), State Institutes of Rural Development (SIRDs), extension training centre and so on, must necessarily include a component on disaster management and the panchayat.