31 January 2024


Behind Community Cheer, Lies Vigilance - Insights from India's Disaster Management Maestro

Rajendra Ratnoo, IAS, Executive Director, National Institute of Disaster Management, unveils strategies to promote safety during crowd pullers, harnessing contemporary solutions. A candid interaction with Yogesh Mudras, Managing Director, Informa Markets in India.

Yogesh Mudras: As a policy-maker of repute, you have served in various capacities pertaining to crisis. Through personal experience, which occurrence had been the toughest to experience, manage, and then overcome? What is the central learning from them?

Rajendra Ratnoo:My first posting as an IAS officer was to work as Sub-Collector and Sub-Divisional Magistrate at Chidambaram division (coastal region) in Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu in 2003. During this time, I faced the toughest experience of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami which badly affected coastal areas of Tamil Nadu among many other areas. The most difficult part while managing the situation as soon as the information came, was to identify the injured and dead, so that help could be reached on time. I positioned myself near PHC hospital where the victims were rushed. The decisions were taken to identify teams for identification of injured and dead, so that the dead bodies can be transferred to another safe location, not close to habitation, to reduce the carrying capacity of the hospitals and avoid spread of diseases.

Many parallel actions and decisions were taken where community was integral in supporting the Government actions such as search and rescue, bringing injured to hospitals even before special forces arrived, providing food, shelter and vehicle for transportation etc.

The major learning in this process was the communal harmony seen during the Tsunami, where a small habitation of fishermen came forward to not only provide the food from their marriage gathering but also volunteered in mobilizing the food.

We started the concept of ‘Community Kitchen’ where rations were provided by the Government, while utensils and other logistics were given by the community. This brought forward the new model of management where Government and volunteers from the community worked together to face the aftermath of Tsunami.

YM: Large crowds gathering for celebrations or other purposes is common in India, and at these moments, the public may not be inclined to discuss 'disaster.' How challenging is it then to raise awareness about disaster preparedness and encourage them to prioritize safety over complacency?

RR: During Indian festivals, large crowds tend to attend religious events, visit markets and shopping malls. These gatherings, while potentially risky, offer opportunities for disaster preparedness promotions as well. Market and malls can arrange promotional events with free information, IEC material and awards that support disaster education. Digital campaigns can be launched with the use of internet and social media can also effectively educate the public. Further, engaging religious groups, Self Help Groups, Apda Mitra youth volunteers, local political parties, and charitable organisations such as the Red Cross, for community awareness and participation, can help spread safety information during festivals.

YM: Can you tell us about your role and responsibilities as the Executive Director of the National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM)? What are some of the notable achievements or initiatives undertaken by NIDM during your tenure as Executive Director?

RR: The position as an Executive Director of National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM) involves working as the administrative head of the institute. I coordinate with academic and administration divisions to streamline actions to achieve the long-term vision of the institute and promote team building. In the recent past, NIDM has successfully organised and participated in major platforms of disaster management such as the 3rd Session of National Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction (NPDRR), and G20 Disaster Risk Reduction Working Group Meetings, with the aim of building the capacity of the nation. NIDM continuously works towards mainstreaming DRR with all ministries and departments and facilitate the integration of disaster risk reduction training into various government departments and higher education.

YM: Given your experience in disaster management, can you highlight some of the key challenges that India faces in this area and the policies/strategies needed to address them? Conversely, what are some of the most vital emerging trends and technologies that can enhance disaster management and response in India?

RR: India has a diverse geographical ecosystem where the impact of hazards and climate change is varied which brings new challenges among many existing vulnerabilities to disasters. Majorly, integrating structural resilience, particularly in housing and infrastructure, is hampered by limited awareness and lack of strict policies. There is a need to strike a balance between economic growth and sustainable development. For example, the recent incidents of Sikkim GLOF and Joshimath subsidence highlight the sensitivity of Himalayan environment to climate change and rapid development on exposed areas.

The Government is seriously addressing the emerging challenges both natural and manmade through policies and tools. NIDM is also working to build capacity of the community till last mile connectivity with help of state Government and other organizations. However, due to large population with varied socio-cultural and economic factors disseminating the messages often becomes challenging. Improving disaster management in disaster-prone India is essential, given its susceptibility to various natural and human-made disasters. Emerging technologies offer invaluable tools for enhancing disaster management and response, including AI and machine learning for predictive analysis, geospatial technology for mapping and real-time tracking, UAVs for assessment and rescue operations. Other technologies like IoT for environmental data, big data analytics for trend identification, blockchain for transparent relief distribution, crowdsourcing for real-time information gathering, satellite communication for remote connectivity, mobile apps for alerts and reporting, and robotics for safe search and rescue are also beneficial.

These innovations have revolutionized disaster management, but it's crucial to ensure their accessibility to all, including vulnerable communities.

YM: With experience in both state and central government roles, how do you perceive the coordination and synergy between state and central agencies in disaster management as well as with govt. agencies.

RR: Effective disaster management necessitates seamless coordination among state and central agencies and government bodies, especially during major disasters. Collaboration across various government levels and organisations is vital for disaster risk reduction (DRR), enhancing response, reducing risks, and safeguarding lives and property. One such example of synergy seen between centre, state and other government agencies is the exemplary preparedness work done by Government along with community during Biparjoy Cyclone of June last year, which resulted in zero causality. This involves establishing clear authority, standardizing procedures, improving communication and information sharing, conducting joint training, and fostering a culture of cooperation.

YM: Could you provide insights into international collaborations and partnerships that India has established to learn from global best practices in disaster management? Are they doing something better than us?

RR: As India progresses towards becoming one of the world's top two economies by 2047, it recognizes the importance of international partnerships for strengthening disaster management capabilities. These collaborations have historically provided financial aid, technical expertise, and resources for disaster relief and recovery, enhancing India's emergency response. Learning from global best practices is imperative given the frequency of natural and man-made disasters and the impact of climate change. India's G-20 presidency under the motto "One Earth, One Future," reflects a broader focus on global development and sustainability. India actively participates in global agreements like the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and collaborates with organizations such as the UNDRR, ADRC, and SAARC to exchange knowledge and experiences in the AsiaPacific region and beyond.

Alongside education and research cooperation, Indian officials, experts, scientists, and students engage in international training programs and conferences related to disaster management, facilitating knowledge exchange. India has also adopted global best practices in disaster management, including the Incident Command System (ICS) and technology-driven early warning systems. India is commitment to international sustainability goals through initiatives like the International Solar Alliance (ISA), and the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI), emphasizing its dedication to addressing climate challenges, promoting sustainable development, and resilient infrastructure. India is leading example of certain technologies like the first ever concept of digital financial inclusion and use of smart phones for digital transactions through UPIs.

Indian Government has also taken the game changing initiative namely Open Network for Digital Commerce (ONDC), a consortium of merchants and brands that have established an interconnected digital commerce platform for small merchants. These initiatives will benefit in providing sustainable livelihood options to small traders and merchants whose livelihoods are most affected during any major disaster. However, some of the new technologies for emergency and disaster management is better evolved in resilient cities like Japan for its excellent earthquake early warnings where India may need to look towards them.

YM: Can you share some of the initiatives and strategies employed to raise awareness about disaster management among various stakeholders, including teachers, students, technical personnel, and others?

RR: NIDM is a key player in disaster preparedness, offering many trainings related programs in various disaster management fields to master trainers and other stakeholders. Collaborating with government agencies, NGOs, and international partners, NIDM strengthens the collective efforts in building capacities and mainstreaming disaster preparedness. NIDM also forges MOUs with ministries, departments, and universities, while also motivating youths through launching its first Brand Ambassador and Youth Icon this year. NIDM's responsibilities encompass organizing courses, crafting training modules and guidelines, and organizing and supporting international and national events. It has been entrusted to establish the IUINDRR-NIDM platform for the networking of universities towards disaster risk reduction and managing of IDRN platform which is a digital platform of resource inventories. NIDM also hosts many specialized Projects in collaboration such as NIDM - UNICEF Collaboration for building Capacity on Social and Behavioural Change Communication (SBCC) Initiative; Climate Adaptive Planning for Resilience and Sustainability Development in Multi-Hazard Environment (CAP-RES) in collaboration with DST and many other international organizations and ministries. Additionally, NIDM offers e-learning courses with the World Bank to promote disaster preparedness education for all.

YM: NIDM has been actively engaged in integrating climate change with disaster risk reduction (DRR). As India faces increasing climate-related challenges, how do you envision its role in promoting sustainable and resilient development in the face of changing climate patterns?

RR: NIDM's Environment and Climate Disaster Risk Management division (ECDRM) spearheads capacity building, research, and projects for climate-resilient sustainable development in India. They've developed manuals like 'Green Growth and Resource Efficiency for DRR' in 2022, emphasizing the shift to a green economy, and many others like 'Climate Change and Extreme Events Risk Reduction,'; 'Climate and Disaster Resilient Agriculture Management,' and 'Health Adaptation and Resilience to Climate Risks,' illustrating NIDM's dedication to integrate climate and disaster management. NIDM also provides training to governmental and non-governmental entities, guiding policymakers, civil servants, and other stakeholders on climate-resilient policies and the adoption of cleaner technologies for reducing emissions and environmental impact.

For sustainable urban planning and development, NIDM's Resilient Infrastructure division promotes training and capacity building towards disaster-safe and environmentally friendly practices through the adoption of nature-based solutions, net-zero buildings, and blue-green infrastructure to enhance community and infrastructure resilience in the face of climate-related hazards, ultimately supporting overall sustainability and development.

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