This Thursday my column is not on what the government did not do, could have done or was able to do. It is about the impact of diverted governance and irresponsible leadership on the lives of citizens. Responsible governance is currently needed to manage the Covid-19 crisis and gigantic forest fires. And as I write this, the high magnitude earthquake at Dhekiajuli and Tezpur in Assam further strengthens this demand. It is a wakeup call for the government, primarily at the Centre, but States cannot be exonerated too.
As the Centre rants in support of its derailed disaster preparedness and procuring of life-saving medical supplies in this second wave of Covid-19, there has been uninhibited advancement of its pet projects such as election rallies, the IPL, the Kumbh Mela, the Central Vista development or highway and rail projects cutting through heritage sites and precious biodiversity-rich protected sanctuaries and national parks. This is what has angered the courts of the country as they come down heavily on the government with their scathing criticism for its diverted priorities in blatant defiance of Covid-19 norms and the Epidemic Disease Act, 1897 (amended 2020), which it brutally enforced upon others. The Madras High Court in an unencumbered expression stated that the government has acted irresponsibly to the extent of being ‘murderous’. There is yet another jolt to the government for its irresponsibility towards nature by pushing anti-environmental projects. The Supreme Court’s Central Empowerment Committee (CEC) has red-flagged the Central Government’s key projects in the Western Ghats. With a hegemonic presence in the Parliament and trussing bureaucracy and media up its sleeves, the government has been pushing to achieve what it wants notwithstanding the ‘public trust’ which should be guiding its actions. Such reprimanding of the Central Government by seven High Courts of the country followed by suo moto cognisance by the Supreme Court to issue notice to the Centre on supplies of Covid care essentials is an unprecedented judicial guillotining of any government since Independence. A heightened self-conceitedness encouraging irresponsible governance has put ‘India on notice’ as much damage was preventable. Where did we go wrong?
There are institutions which are responsible for managing their assigned duties, e.g. the Election Commission manages elections and the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), with the Prime Minister as its Chairman, manages disasters like the Covid-19 pandemic. In the case of the former, courts have fired scathing criticism on its highly irresponsible functioning of ‘being on another planet’ while Covid-19 protocols were being violated. The Madras High Court has gone to the extent of levelling murder charges on the EC for its blatant neglect. The NDMA has been at the core of all circulars, orders and office memorandums issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to manage the situation emerging out of Covid-19 under the Disaster Management Act, 2005 (DMA 2005). The MHA is the parent Ministry of the NDMA and the Home Minister under its Border Management Department regulates financing, funding and personnel at NDMA and its training wing, the National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM). With both the Prime Minister and the Home Minister out in political rallies with their political colleagues and no backend planning to look forward to even in February, when the second wave was already visible, citizens were pushed into the inferno.
As per the DMA 2005, the Prime Minister is the Chairman of NDMA and a Cabinet rank minister holds the post of the Vice Chairman in order to overcome discontinuities in disaster management due to the Prime Minister’s busy schedules. The post of the Vice Chairman has been vacant since 2014. Moreover, the number of independent Members of the NDMA has been reduced from nine to just four and the status of these members has also been demoted from the Minister of State to that of ‘Secretary equivalent’. There are generally 75-plus Secretaries in the Government of India’s various Ministries, out of which not more than 10-15 actually get a real Secretary rank while the rest either end up as ‘Secretary equivalent’ or as Joint Secretaries. So the demotion is fairly grave and this makes the task of these Members more difficult as they are not effective in managing state-based planning and decision-making. In most situations, the state governments fail to even take cognizance of their visits or official instructions and suggestions.
In an ongoing tussle between the NDMA and the MHA for controlling disaster management, the post-2014 period witnessed many changes. Former members, which included the NDMA’s former Vice Chairman Gen. N.C. Vij and founder member K.M. Singh, had suggested that the Home Guards-Civil Defence and firefighting services should appropriately come under the NDMA as per the DMA 2005. It would be improper to employ NDRF for firefighting when the country has committed firefighting specialized services available and this led members to claim NDMA’s jurisdiction over fire services. This demand appeared more valid once the internal management weaknesses of the fire services were investigated. As per the International Fire Safety Standards Common Principles (IFSS-CP), a departmental person shared in anonymity that the vacancies are above 60% in manpower and equipment requirements. The MHA is overloaded with multifarious diversified responsibilities and fails to see disasters as an event that nibbles out all investments into development. There is lack of coordination and also enormous information deficit as what principally belongs to the NDMA is unnecessarily kept by the MHA. This Ministry harbours the biggest load of 20 Joint Secretaries, some from the IAS and some promotees of the CSS. They become a power unto themselves as they delay, withhold or reject disaster management and training needs as they belong to an entirely different discourse of offices. One could recollect the former Minister of Home P Chidambaram to have identified just three areas where the focus of the MHA should be and the rest be returned to where it belongs but the battalion of MHA bureaucracy shot it down. So the MHA has the greatest reason to celebrate post-2014 in upgrading itself from a service ministry to the NDMA to an uncrowned centralized government enjoying an overload of power while the NDMA becomes anaemic and starved in its legitimate initiatives.
Institutional controls of disaster management have played havoc in many other areas. Covid mismanagement is just one slippage of diverted priorities. The other is an ecological devastation rapidly razing vulnerable forest and biodiversity areas over the hills. The election rallies coincided with the fire season and decisions were slower than the speed of the fires. The communities of Uttarakhand, Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur are highly vulnerable to perpetual forest fires which consume village after village as the government continues to remain ill-equipped and unskilled to douse it. The Uttarakhand fire burnt green trees into charcoal over more than 1300 hectares while there is no data available on the inhabiting animals and biodiverse species as the fire is still not over. The latest devastation is an unprecedented forest fire in Mizoram, starting from Saisih to Lunglei, burning down at least ten villages, as reported by the local research group on disaster management coordinated by Vualzhong Mung. The Dzukou Hills, Shirui Peak in Nagaland-Manipur areas, specifically the Ukhrul district of Manipur, has been witnessing severe fires since the beginning of this year yet the NDMA has not held a single meeting on the problem. Emissions from forest fires are three times higher than the usual in current times. In some calculations a general estimation is that forest fires may currently produce as much or more emissions than industrial emissions. Are we ready to bear the calamitous prospect of this neglect?
A single mature tree can absorb carbon dioxide at a rate of 48 lbs per year and release oxygen which can sustain two human beings for the same time span. A tree with an 18-inch diameter and a height of 100 ft produces 6000 lbs of oxygen but an average young tree gives out only 260 lbs. I still recollect my botany teacher’s prophetic words that two old trees give away oxygen to sustain one big family. On the other hand, we are carrying pockets full of paper notes to buy oxygen cylinders today for a dying loved one: a cylinder that contains only 660 litres of oxygen and lasts for not more than 5-6 hours if used continuously at a rate of 2 litres per minute. The National Green Tribunal in 2013, on a petition by a Vasant Kunj resident Sonya Ghosh, had estimated the cost of 267 trees on a conservative side for Rs.75 lacs. This cost was imposed upon the PWD for felling them in a road widening project. The cost auditing was done by the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE) on NGT orders. Can such a cost be imposed on the government for the lives lost in the miscalculation of vaccines, ventilators and oxygen supplies, and its unbridled election rallies?
While releasing the Global Assessment Report 2020 on species extinction, UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay had remarked that the ‘world is on notice’ as a million species are already at risk of extinction. As natural and man-made disasters in the form of forest fires, viral attacks and species extinction are consuming all life forms across the country and political leadership nurtures diverted priorities, ‘India is on notice’.
The writer is former Professor of Law & Governance, JNU, and president of Asia-Pacific Disaster Research Group (NDRG). The views expressed are personal.