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Disasters : Background & Perspective

By Vinod C Menon and Shirish Kavad

India is the worst-affected theatre of disaster in the South Asian region. Drought, floods, earthquakes and cyclones devastate the country with grim regularity. More than 11,000 lives were lost in the December 2004 tsunami, 10,000 were killed in the Orissa supercyclone of 1999, and 16,000 died in the earthquake that hit Kutch in January 2001. Are these natural disasters caused by nature's fury? Or are they man-made in large measure? Is the country equipped to manage the disasters that affect 25 million people every year?

A country prone to natural calamities/ The cost and consequences of disasters/ The poor are worst-affected/ The scale of disasters in India/ Development and natural disasters/ Floods/ Drought/ Cyclones/ Earthquakes/ Disaster management in India 

A country prone to natural calamities 

The Asia-Pacific region experiences nearly 60% of the world's natural disasters. India, on account of its geographical position, climate and geological setting, is the worst affected theatre of disaster in the South Asian region. Drought and floods, earthquakes and cyclones devastate the country with grim regularity year after year. They are spiralling out of control, increasing in frequency, causing more and more injury, disability, disease and death, adding to the health, economic and social burden of an already impoverished nation.  

The statistics are alarming:

* Of the 35 states and union territories, 22 are disaster-prone.
* Between 1988 and 1997, disasters claimed 5,116 lives and affected a colossal 24.79 million people every year.
* In 1998, 9,846 people died and 34.11 million were affected by disasters.
* In the Orissa supercyclone of 1999, over 10,000 people were killed and thousands left homeless.
* In January 2001, over 16,000 lives were lost in the earthquake that struck Kutch and other areas in the state of Gujarat. Thousands are still homeless. Thousands more have lost their precarious means of livelihood.
* In the December 2004 tsunami, approximately 11,000 people lost their lives, with about 650,000 displaced.
* The Jammu and Kashmir earthquake in October 2005 claimed 1,400 lives and left 1,50,000 people homeless in India.
* The August 2008 Bihar floods, the most devastating one in the history of the state took over 2000 lives and affected over 2.3 million people in the northern part of Bihar.

Other Statistics

  • Total cultivable land has declined to 182.57 million hectares in 2005-06 from 185.09 million hectares in 1980-81. During the same period, land under non-agricultural purpose went up to 24.94 million hectares from 19.66 million hectares, resulting in a marginal fall in cultivable land.
  • 28% of the country's total ‘cultivable’ area is drought-prone.
  • 65% of India is earthquake-prone, according to figures from the Bureau of Indian Standards, and National Disaster Management, MoHA. The fragile Himalayan mountain ranges are extremely vulnerable to earthquakes (and landslides and avalanches). Western and central India are equally unsafe.
  • 76 lakh hectares of land are flooded every year. Over 1,300 lives are lost to floods every year. Worse, the areas affected by flood are rapidly extending beyond the basins of the Himalayan rivers to other parts of the country as well.
  • India is the worst cyclone-affected part of the world. Five to six tropical cyclones form in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea every year, of which two or three are severe and lash the densely populated coastal areas of India, causing indescribable damage.

The cost and consequences of disasters 

The cost of natural disasters in India, in terms of human life, loss of property and assets and loss of shelter and livelihoods, is immense. 

Between 1980 and 1999 the total number of people killed in disasters was 110,131. Between 1988-1997 disasters affected 24.79 million every year in India. In 1998, 9,846 people died and 34.11 million people were affected by disasters. Between 1985-95, disasters caused an annual economic loss of around US$ 1,883.93 million. A World Bank Study in 2003 reported that India lost US$13.8 billion between 1996-2001 in natural disaters. Experience and studies show that the actual figures greatly exceed the documented ones. 

The average damage to crops, houses and public utilities from floods during the period 1953-95 was estimated at Rs 972 crore every year, while the maximum damage was Rs 4,630 crore in 1988. 

In 1998, floods inundated 37% of the country.  

In 1987, one of the worst droughts of the century affected 285 million people and 58-60% of cropped area. In India, with its large tribal and rural population and people still engaged in traditional occupations such as agriculture, this is a major calamity. 

In 2000, floods took a toll of 1,262 lives in West Bengal, 400 lives in Uttar Pradesh and 258 lives in Bihar. And drought affected 94 lakh people in Chhattisgarh, 291 lakh in Gujarat, 127 lakh in Madhya Pradesh and 119 lakh in Orissa, where almost 30 starvation deaths were reported in the month of August 2001 alone. In recent years, Bihar has been repeatedly hit by floods- in 2002, then again in 2004. In August 2007, 11 million people were believed to be affected in what was termed “unprecedent flooding”. Despite several measures being documented for avoiding this in future, in 2008, 2000 lives were lost and 2.3 million people were displaced as the Kosi river broke its embankments.  

Most injuries such as lacerations that occur during cyclones or fractures during earthquakes occur during or immediately after the catastrophe. In developing countries, the number of injured are estimated only by the number admitted to hospital, but there are hundreds more who never get to a hospital, and many thousands more suffering psycho-social and post-traumatic stress disorders who go completely unrecorded and untreated. 

Further, the death or disability of a family's earning member during a disaster could mean a lifetime of loss of income and possible destitution for the entire family. Suicides by indebted farmers in the country since 1997 now total 182,936.  

The death of livestock, or the loss of capital or the tools of one’s trade can likewise lead to a complete devastation of earning capacity. During floods, salt-water contamination of land can lead to the loss of not one, but several, harvests. For an already malnourished people, this could mean a rise in mortality as a secondary result of disasters. 

Epidemics resulting from disasters are also a major worry in South Asia, where poor sanitation and the prevalence of many communicable diseases keep disease rates inordinately high. Typhoid, malaria and gastrointestinal diseases are constant threats in disaster-hit zones where even clean drinking water can become unavailable for days or even weeks, as was the case after the Orissa supercyclone. The sardine-can population density in urban areas and certain coastal regions multiplies the number of disaster victims. 

The poor are worst affected 

The worst affected and vulnerable are the poor and marginalised sections and communities of India. They suffer the most in terms of human and property loss. Unfortunately, poverty is most widespread in areas that are more vulnerable to natural disasters - the flood-prone regions of north Bihar, east Uttar Pradesh and north Bengal, and the drought-prone regions of Rajasthan, Marathwada in Maharashtra and north Karnataka. 

Not only are the poor the worst hit, but their capacity to recover from a disaster is also limited by their social, economic and political situation. In India, the vulnerabilities are inextricably linked to certain processes of marginalisation that protect the interests of particular groups and areas at the cost of others. The nature and direction of economic development followed over the past 50 years has been unsuccessful in expanding, or even distributing, social opportunity across the country. 

The basic needs of a large population are not satisfied. Nearly one-third of India's people live in poverty, one-third of adult males and two-thirds of adult females are illiterate and two-thirds of India's children aged 0-4 years are malnourished.  

Women are particularly vulnerable by virtue of their lower economic, social and political status. Reports reveal that even when women have had access to cyclone (or community) shelters, men occupy these with self-centred alacrity while female householders are slowed down by their responsibilities for essential cyclone preparedness activities. Their special health needs, especially those of pregnant and lactating women, are ignored. 

During floods, an inordinately large number of drowning deaths tend to occur amongst women and children. During cyclones women are often put at risk when their long hair gets entangled in bushes and flotsam, and their sarees restrict their movements. A full 80% of the deaths in the 1991 cyclone were those of women and children. In the 1993 Marathwada earthquake, more women than men died, largely because they, in line with patriarchal conventions, were sleeping indoors. 

The scale of disasters in India  

Natural calamities have a more devastating impact in India because of inadequate policies relating to disaster management and no institutional support systems. 

The 1993 earthquake in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra killed over 10,000 and destroyed the houses and properties of nearly 200,000 households. However, the much more powerful Los Angeles earthquake of 1971 killed just 55 people. The cyclone along the east coast of Andhra Pradesh in south India killed 1,077 people in 1996 and damaged public buildings worth over US $139 million. In contrast, the powerful Hurricane Andrew that struck Southern Florida in 1992 killed 41 people and caused damage worth $20 million.  

Effective rehabilitation is part of good disaster management. But in India while the Marathwada earthquake resulted in a rehabilitation policy, the same was not true of the Uttarkashi (Uttar Pradesh, 1991) or the Jabalpur (Madhya Pradesh, 1997) earthquakes. It showed up the dismal inadequacy of administrative response to a natural disaster. 

In 1996, flashfloods intruded into the desert state of Rajasthan in western India. The floods killed about 100 people. But in subsequent months more than 1,000 lives were lost due to a malaria epidemic, as the flood-accumulated waters became an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes. Amplified by a systemic failure, the epidemic took a heavy toll, far more than the flood itself, in a region not known for water-borne diseases. 

Nature of development and development policies 

The actual reason for the flooding in Rajasthan was not the quantum of rainfall but the way in which civic structures had come up in the past two decades, violating basic laws. Experts blamed the floods on faulty development planning. A similar pattern can be seen in many ‘natural’ disaters. 

In drought-affected pockets of Orissa, hunger deaths occurred in 2001 because of acute food shortage and malnutrition despite a relatively good harvest and buffer stocks of 60 million tonnes of foodgrain in the Food Corporation of India godowns. The food shortages have a lot to do with the nature of people's interaction with the market, and exploitative work conditions. But perhaps it has a lot more to do with the inadequacies of the public distribution system, the corruption in the system, the exploitation of an illiterate population, political indifference and red tapeism. 

Development and natural disasters 

'Natural' disasters are often described as the wrath of God. In fact, they are the wrath of nature. And increasingly, the wrath of nature that has been tampered with. Thus, 'natural' disasters are human-made to a startling degree. 

Recurring floods and droughts are precipitated by the unrestricted felling of forests, serious damage to mountain ecology, overuse of groundwater and changing patterns of cultivation. When forests are destroyed, rainwater runs off, causing floods and diminishing the recharging of groundwater. The spate of landslides in the Himalayas in recent years can be directly traced to the rampant deforestation and network of roads that have been indiscriminately laid in the name of development. 

It is by now a well-established fact that human-made structures, including canals, dams and embankments, have worsened the flood situation in the country as the repeated flooding of the Kosi river in Bihar shows. 

Big dams also pose a seismic threat. Despite this, numerous dams, vulnerable to seismic activity, are being built in the Himalayan foothills. The Tehri dam, a major hydroelectric project faced stiff opposition from environmental organisations and local people because it is located in the Central Himalayan Seismic Gap, a geologic fault zone. A major earthquake in the region could cause severe havoc in Hardwar, Rishikesh and other mountain towns.  

This apart, the dam poses a serious threat to the fragile ecosystem of the Himalayas. In spite of all this, the Tehri dam continues to operate; in June 2006, it generated its first unit of electricity.  

India has learnt no lessons from the world's most devastating reservoir-induced earthquake on December 10, 1967, measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale, which struck Koynagar in Maharashtra, killing 200 people and injuring 1,500. The epicentre and aftershocks all occurred near the 103m-high dam or under its reservoir. 

Land degradation, which today affects 175 million of India's 329 million hectares, is also increasing because of human intervention. Natural grasslands are disappearing because of overgrazing. Waterlogging, salinisation, overfertilisation and mining are degrading huge tracts of land. The effect of this on people's lives can be seen in western Orissa where deforestation, mining and the decline of traditional irrigation and agricultural systems has caused land degradation on a large scale, leading to one of the worst drought conditions in the country. This in turn leads to large-scale seasonal and permanent migration to urban slums. Some 33 million people have been displaced by 'development projects' in India, according to the State of the World’s Refugees 2006 report, a figure that is a third higher than the number of conflict-induced Internally Displaced People worldwide. 

The fell hand of man can be seen in what is now regarded as a fact – global warming – which has changed weather patterns and will asacerbate natural disasters and the scale and frequency with which they occur.  Findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has been established by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), show that the global average surface temperature increased by 0.6ºC over the course of the 20th century. Scientists have recorded the 1990s as the hottest decade in the world since the industrial revolution began. As a result of global warming, snow extent has decreased by about 10% since the 1960s, while mountain glaciers have retreated rapidly. The global average sea level rose by 10 to 20cm during the 20th century, and the amount of heat stored in the ocean has measurably increased since observations began in the 1950s.  

Natural disasters in India  


Nearly 75% of the total rainfall is concentrated over a short monsoon season of four months (June-September). As a result the rivers witness a heavy discharge during these months, leading to widespread floods.

Floods are a regular feature of Eastern India where the Himalayan rivers inundate large parts of its catchment areas, uprooting houses, disrupting livelihoods and damaging infrastructure. The fragility of the settlements in the Himalayan mountain ranges are a continuing source of concern because they are highly vulnerable to earthquakes, landslides, floods and avalanches. The flood hazard is compounded by the problems of sediment deposition, drainage congestion and synchronisation of river floods with storm surges in the coastal plains. The rivers originating in the Himalayas carry a lot of sediment and cause erosion of the banks in the upper reaches and over-topping in the lower segments. The most flood-prone areas are the Brahmaputra and Gangetic basins in the Indo-Gangetic plains. The other flood-prone areas are the north-west region with the rivers Narmada and Tapti, Central India and the Deccan region with rivers like the Mahanadi, Krishna and Kauveri. While the area liable to floods is 40 million hectares, the average area affected by floods annually is about 8 million hectares. The annual average cropped area affected is approximately 3.7 million hectares. 

Notwithstanding flood policy and flood control schemes, flood damage is increasing, with larger populations subjected to distress in increasing flood-prone areas. The locus has shifted away from the Gangetic belt. The distribution of damage is widespread, with the worst hit being Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu in the south, Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Rajasthan in the west, Uttar Pradesh in the north, and Bihar and West Bengal in the east. 

The floods in Bihar in 2008 were one of the worst the country has seen. It occurred due to a breach in the embankment of the Kosi river near the Indo-Nepal border on August 18, 2008. This caused the river to change its course inundating hundreds of villages in the state. Nearly 2000 people died, over 2.3 million people were rendered homeless in the northern part of Bihar.  

The Kosi embankment has always been a problem as the river has breached its embankments seven times in the past. Despite this, maintenance of the embankments has been very poor. The Department of Water Resources in Bihar is responsible for the maintenance of the embankments of the Kosi river in both India and Nepal, where it originates. The embankment is inspected every year in the month of February, and recommendations made to strengthen the embankments are supposed to be carried out by the month of June. Despite knowing the risks the department delayed repair work till August. 

Floods in urban areas are rare. Streets do fill up with water, but drainage systems are usually in place to take care of excessive waterlogging. However, in July 2006, the county’s business hub, the city of Mumbai, was rendered completely chaotic for several days as 942mm of rain lashed down, disabling communication and electricity lines, causing traffic on arterial roads and the city’s famed commuter trains to come to a grinding halt, stranding thousands of commuters. Homes not just in slums but also in more affluent neighbourhoods were under water, schools and offices were shut for several days and the emergency services found it impossible to cope.  

As with most ‘natural’ disasters, in this one too, man had a role to play. The rapid and constant development of the city and the flouting of rules and regulations caused blockage and choking of the Mithi river that flows through a part of the city and used to carry off excess water to the sea. Violations of coastal regulation zone rules, development on green and no-development zones, building on areas marked for parks and open spaces all of this ensured that what little open space the city now had was not enough to absorb heavy rain. An ancient and badly maintained drainage system added to the problem.

Average annual loss due to Floods
S.No. Items Loss
1. Area affected 7.351 million hectare
2. Population affected 40.967 million
3. Human lives lost 1793 number
4. Cattle lost 85599 number
5. Houses damaged 1452904 number
6. Houses damaged 370.607crore
7. Crop area damaged 3.725 million hectare
8. Crop damaged 1095.132crore
9. Public Utilities damaged 1186.456crore
10. Total losses 2706.243crore
Source: Central Water Commission, Ministry of Water Resources, Government of India.


The heavy concentration of rainfall within a span of three months in most areas causes heavy run-off and heavy flooding. On the other hand dry conditions prevailing during the rest of the year, particularly in the arid and semi-arid regions, renders 68% of the landmass vulnerable to drought. 

In 2001, more than eight states suffered the impact of severe drought. Analysis of rainfall behaviour in the past 100 years reveals that the frequency of below-normal rainfall in arid, semi-arid, and sub-humid areas is 54 to 57%, while severe and rare droughts occur once every eight to nine years in arid and semi-arid zones. In semi-arid and arid zones, about 50% of severe droughts cover 76 % of the area. In this region, almost every third year was a drought year. The impact of drought varies from year to year in various parts of the country. 

The 1987 drought, which was one of the worst droughts of the 20th century, with overall rainfall deficiency of 19 %, affected 58-60% of cropped area and a population of 285 million. Over 267 districts and 166 million people were recorded drought-affected. 

The drought of 2002 was officially acknowledged by the India Meteorological Department (IMD) as the “first-ever all-India drought year”, since 1987. The aggregate rainfall received by the country as a whole during the year's monsoon season from June to September 2002, at 735.9 mm, was 19.35 % below the historical long period average (LPA) of 912.5 mm for this period. In July 2002, rainfall deficiency dropped to 51%, surpassing all previous droughts. 

The drought impacted 56% of the land mass and threatened the livelihoods of 300 million people across 18 states. (  


The states most exposed to cyclone-related hazards, including strong winds, floods and storm surges, are West Bengal, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu along the Bay of Bengal. Along the Arabian Sea on the west coast, the Gujarat and Maharashtra coasts are most vulnerable. 

On an average, about five to six tropical cyclones form in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea every year, of which two to three may be severe. More cyclones form in the Bay of Bengal than in the Arabian Sea: the ratio is 4:1. Cyclones are most deadly when crossing the coastal areas of Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, West Bengal and Bangladesh, mainly because of the serious storm surge problem in this area. 

The impact of these cyclones is confined to the coastal districts, the maximum destruction being within 100 km from the centre of the cyclone and on either side of the storm track. 

The worst devastation takes place when and where the peak surge occurs at the time of the high tide. 

Stretches along the Bay of Bengal coastline have the world's shallowest waters but the relatively dense population and poor economic condition complicate the situation. The population density in some of the coastal districts is as high as 670 persons per square km. 

The Orissa supercyclone of October 1999 left the state virtually paralysed, with its communication and infrastructure totally wrecked. The cyclone severely affected around 13 million people in 97 blocks and 28 urban areas in 12 districts, including the capital, Bhubaneswar, and the city of Cuttack. Sea waves seven metres high rushed 15 km inland. Ten thousand people died, and one-third of the total population of the state was affected.  

It started with a severe cyclonic storm that struck on October 18-19 with wind speeds of 180-200 km per hour accompanied by torrential rain that precipitated 400 mm of rain water. The floods that followed devastated four coastal districts of the state -- Ganjam, Gajapati, Puri and Khurda. Ganjam was the worst-affected district. An estimated 205 people died, while more than 400 were injured. Standing crops on 3.32 lakh hectares of land were destroyed and 10,516 animals died. Extensive damage was caused to public infrastructure and buildings and private properties; 78,213 houses were completely destroyed and 2,55,661 houses were partly damaged. 

A supercyclonic storm of much greater intensity then followed. On October 29 and 30, it hit the Orissa coast, ravaging 12 coastal districts. The supercyclone had a wind velocity of 270-300 kmph. The cyclone was followed by torrential rains ranging from 447 to 995 mm leading to severe floods in the Baitarani, Budhabalanga and Salandi basins which severely affected the districts of Jajpur, Bhadrak, Balasore and Mayurbhanj. After hitting the Paradeep coast, the cyclonic storm with tidal waves of  five to seven metres in height ravaged the coastal districts of Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapara, Puri , Khurda and Cuttack. 

A population of 1.26 crore in 14,000 villages and 28 urban areas across 12 districts -- namely Balasore, Bhadrak, Cuttack, Dhenkanal, Jagatsinghpur, Jajpur, Kendrapara, Keonjhar, Khurda, Mayurbhanj, Nayagarh and Puri -- was severely affected. Human casualties were estimated at 9,885, of which 8,119 lives were lost in Jagatsingpur district alone. The loss of animal lives was also very high with 6.32 lakh animals and 18.83 lakh poultry perishing. A total of 17.33 lakh hectares of agricultural land were affected. As many as 16.50 lakh houses were damaged of which 0.23 lakh were washed away, 7.46 lakh completely destroyed and 8.80 lakh were partly damaged. 

The two cyclones had a devastating effect on the economy and lives of the people in the affected districts. A very large population in these districts lost its source of livelihood. Public infrastructure suffered extensive damage. The economy of the state suffered a serious setback. This has had an adverse impact on the development of the state. 


Fifty-six per cent of India is prone to seismic activity. During the International Decade of Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR), India suffered the adverse impact of several earthquakes, the most significant being in Uttarkashi, Latur and Jabalpur. Some of the most devastating earthquakes in India in the past include the Kashmir earthquake in 2005, the Kutch earthquakes 1819 and 2001, the Shillong earthquake of 1897, the Kangra earthquake of 1905, the Bihar-Nepal earthquake of 1934, the North-East and Assam earthquake of 1950, the Anjar earthquake in Gujarat of 1956, etc. The Seismic Zonation Map of India shows the north-eastern states, the Kutch region of Gujarat and Uttaranchal as most vulnerable. 

Both the Kutch earthquake that occurred on January 26, 2001 and the Kashmir earthquake in 2005 underlined, yet again, the lack of preparedness to respond to a natural disaster of such severity.  

On January 26, 2001 around 8.45 am an earthquake of great intensity hit the state of Gujarat in Western India. The earthquake was one of the worst to hit India in recent years. It was estimated that around 250 villages and a population of approximately 40 lakh people were affected. Among the worst hit was the Kutch region. 

The district of Kutch occupies 50,000 sq km with a population of 12.85 lakh (1991 census). It was, however, in the urban centres of Bhuj, the district headquarters of Kutch (population 1.35 lakh), Bhachau (population 70,000), Anjar (population 65,000) and Rapar (population 25,000) that the intensity and concentration of devastation of homes, commercial property and life was the greatest. 

The number of deaths reported for Kutch was 15,000 while the official figure for the whole state was 16,488. 

What made the earthquake more tragic was that many parts of the state were reeling under a drought for the second successive year. Kutch was facing drinking water and fodder scarcity. Men had migrated for work leaving women and children behind. Thus it was the poorest and the most vulnerable who were affected. 

The region has a history of earthquakes. Between 1845 and 1956 Kutch experienced 66 moderate earthquakes. There are no records of lives lost. Five of the earthquakes were severe and one very severe earthquake occurred on June 19, 1845. In this quake the northern town of Lakhpur was ruined. During its occurrence 66 shocks were counted over a week. 

There was, however, one earthquake, which was even more devastating in magnitude. It occurred on June 6, 1819. Its magnitude was estimated to be 7.7 on the Richter scale and it killed 2,000 people. According to experts this earthquake shaped the future of Kutch. The region's desert-like conditions owe its origin to that earthquake. It also threw up a 100 km ridge and created what is known as the Allah Bund, now in Sind (Pakistan). The bund effectively diverted the course of the Sindhu river, which till then flowed into Kutch. 

The economic loss from the January 2001 earthquake was huge. According to estimates of the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) and Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), the damage to buildings and construction and related costs was Rs 120,000 to 150,000 million. The loss of infrastructure amounted to Rs 30,000 million. The damage to big factories was valued at Rs 15,000 million. 

In the immediate aftermath of the quake most economic activity came to a virtual standstill and production was affected. The loss due to absence of workers at Kandla Port came to Rs 15 million every day. Overall industrial production loss due to lack of workers and thin attendance amounted to Rs 6,000 to 10,000 million every day. Among the prominent industries affected were the diamond trade and gem cutting, salt, handicrafts, jewellery and agro-based units. Entire communities of zari and jewellery workers left their workplace. 

Four years later, a strong earthquake of magnitude 7.4 occurred on October 8, 2005 at 8.50.38 am  (local time) with its epicentre in Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The earthquake killed 85,000 people in Pakistan, and 1,400 people in India. Another 1,50,000 were left homeless in India. 

Uri and Tangdhar in Baramulla and Kupwara districts respectively of Jammu and Kashmir were the worst affected with severe damage caused to life and property. In spite of large-scale rescue efforts, it just didn’t seem enough. Adding to the bad situation was the approaching winter. 

The Himalayas are considered the world's youngest fold mountain ranges. The subterranean Himalayas are, therefore, geologically very active. Four earthquakes exceeding magnitude 8 have occurred in this region in the last 95 years: the Assam earthquakes of 1987 and 1950, the Kangra earthquake of 1905 and the Bihar-Nepal earthquake of 1935. 

The peninsular part of India comprises continental crust regions, which are considered stable as they are far from the tectonic activity of the boundaries. Although these regions were considered seismically least active, an earthquake that occurred in Latur in Maharashtra on September 30, 1993, measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale caused substantial loss of life and damage to infrastructure. 

Recent Indian Earthquakes (M 6.0 +)
Date 20 OCTOBER, 1991 30 SEPT., 1993 22 MAY, 1997 30 MARCH, 1999 26 January, 2001
TIME HRS IST 0253 03747 0422 0030 8:44
MAGNITUDE 6.6 6.4 6.0 6.8 6.9
EPICENTRE Uttarkashi Town Killari Village Kosamghat Village Chamoli town Near Bhuj town
LIVES LOST 723 7943 39 100 13805
70,000 1,32,680      
Source: National Institute of Disaster Management


One of the most devastating disasters of the 21st century was the Asian tsunami that wreaked havoc in 11 countries on December 26. 2004. A tsunami is a series of ocean waves generated by sudden disturbances in the sea floor, landslides, or volcanic activity. In the ocean, the tsunami wave may only be a few inches high (typically 30-60 cm) but as they race onto shallow water regions their speed diminishes which results in increase in the height of the wave. Typical speeds in the open ocean are of the order of 600 to 800 km/hr. The tsunami's energy flux, which is dependent on both its wave speed and wave height, remains nearly constant. When it finally reaches the coast, a tsunami may appear as a series of massive breaking waves. 

The December 2004 tsunami was triggered by an earthquake of magnitude 9.0 on the Richter scale off the coast of Sumatra in the Indonesian archipelago at 06:29 hrs IST (00:59 hrs GMT), impacting several bordering countries. In India, the eastern and southern coastal regions were impacted and 10,749 people are estimated to have died. The total death toll for all countries was more than 2,80,000.

Experts warn that as a consequence of climate change, natural disasters like floods from rising sea levels, droughts and heavy rainfall will increase, impacting peoples and economies more dramatically than before. Developing countries that do not have proper preventive and coping strategies in place will suffer the most. A case study of Orissa and West Bengal (IPCC, 1992) estimates that in the absence of protection, a one-metre sea level rise would inundate 1,700 km of predominantly prime agricultural land. The economic implications of such a rise could be huge – ranging from Rs 2287 billion in the case of Mumbai, to Rs 3.6 billion in the case of Balasore. (TERI, 1996).

Disaster management in India 

Many international organisations, voluntary agencies and national governments have been working towards reducing the impact of disasters and minimise the loss of life and property on account of man-made and natural disasters. These efforts have been directed at identifying the vulnerability of areas and local communities and developing organisational systems and institutional capacity for risk reduction and disaster response programmes. 

In India, the Disaster Management Act, 2005 was enacted on December 26, 2005 to develop plans for prevention and mitigation, and procedures to strengthen capacity building and awareness among people. The Act also permits states to have their own legislation on disaster management. 

Under the Act, a ten-member National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) was constituted with the prime minister as the chairperson. The Authority, with the assistance of the National Executive Committee (NEC) of Secretaries is responsible for: 

  • Preparing national policies, plans and guidelines for disaster management.
  • Approving disaster management plans developed by the states.
  • Coordinate enforcement and implementation of the policy and plan,
  • Arrange for funds and take effective measures for disaster prevention, mitigation, preparedness and capacity management.
  • Provide assistance to countries affected by disasters

Each state has its own disaster management authority, which is chaired by the chief minister. The state authority, assisted by a State Executive Committee, forms policies and plans for disaster management in the state. A district disaster management authority has also been established by every state in each district. The district authority is headed by the district magistrate. 

The local authority trains its officers and employees and maintains the necessary tools and equipments for relief and rescue operations.  It also ensures that all construction projects under it conform to the standards and specifications laid down by the state government.  

Under the Act, several institutions and funds at the state and district levels were set up.

  • National Disaster Response Force, consisting of eight central paramilitary battalions
  • National Institute of Disaster Management: responsible for planning and promoting training and research in the area of disaster management 
  • National Fund for Disaster Response for which the funds are decided by the central government. This is made available to the NEC, which meets the expenses towards emergency response, relief and rehabilitation
  • National Fund for Disaster Mitigation  will be directly managed by the National Disaster Management Authority, and will be used exclusively for the purpose of mitigation.

The Act requires every ministry or department of the Government of India to set aside funds in its annual budget for the activities and programmes set out in its disaster management plan.  

Schemes for financing expenditure on relief and rehabilitation in the wake of natural calamities are governed by the recommendations of Finance Commissions appointed by the Government of India every five years.  

Under the Tenth Finance Commission, in operation for the period 1995-2000, each state had a corpus of funds called the Calamity Relief Fund (CRF), administered by a state level committee, headed by the chief secretary of the state government. The size of the corpus was determined on the basis of the vulnerability of the state to different natural calamities and the magnitude of expenditure normally incurred by the state on relief operations. The corpus was built by annual contributions from the union government and the state governments concerned in the ratio 3:1.  

The Eleventh Finance Commission modified the financial arrangements under the Tenth Finance Commission and recommended the setting up of a National Calamity Contingency Fund (NCCF). 

The Twelfth Finance Commission, for the period 2005-10, has recommended that the Calamity Relief Fund should continue in its present form with contributions from the Centre and states in the ratio of 75:25.  


Disaster management systems


The India Meteorological Department (IMD) is responsible for cyclone tracking and warning to the concerned user agencies. Cyclone tracking is done through the INSAT satellite and 10 cyclone detection radars. Warnings are issued to ports, fisheries and aviation departments. The warning system provides for a cyclone alert of 48 hours, and a cyclone warning of 24 hours. There is a special Disaster Warning System (DWS) for the dissemination of cyclone warning in local languages through INSAT to designated addresses in isolated places in coastal areas. 

A comparison of the Andhra Pradesh cyclones in 1977 and 1990 will illustrate the progress made in the dissemination of cyclone warning. The number of deaths in 1977 was over 10,000 whereas the loss of human lives in 1990 was less than 1,000. Timely warnings issued by the IMD enabled the district administration in the coastal areas of Andhra Pradesh to evacuate over half a million people. 

To monitor the possibility of floods, the Central Water Commission (CWC) has a flood forecasting system covering 62 major rivers in 13 states. There are 55 hydro-meteorological stations also in the 62 river basins. The CWC monitors the water levels of 60 major reservoirs with weekly reports of reservoir levels and the corresponding capacity for the previous year and the average of the previous 10 years. Similar monitoring of smaller reservoirs by the irrigation departments of state governments give advance warnings of hydrological droughts with below-average stream flows, cessation of stream flows and decrease in soil moisture and groundwater levels. 

Based on inputs from the IMD and CWC on the rainfall behaviour and water levels in the reservoirs and the crop situation, the National Crop Weather Watch Group monitors drought conditions. Remote sensing techniques are also used to monitor drought conditions based on vegetative and moisture index status. In the event of severe drought, state governments introduce appropriate policy packages to support vulnerable populations through food for work programmes and other employment-generation and income-generation activities. Most of the food for work programmes will be undertaken to desilt the existing water tanks, deepen the tanks, and carry out the construction of water harvesting structures. Sometimes, the state governments may also include the restoration of public utilities and creation of social infrastructure in such food for work programmes in drought-affected districts. The ambitious Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme launched in 2006 which guarantees 100 days of work to every rural household that asks for it, can also generate such assets, particularly in developing water sources, which is a priority under the scheme  

Multi-purpose dams and reservoirs have been built to reduce the impact of floods. Control of premature siltation of multi-purpose reservoirs and checking degradation of catchment areas is attempted through a scheme of soil conservation and river valley projects in the catchments of major rivers. The scheme covers 581 watersheds in 27 catchments spread over 17 states. 

During 1960s to 1980s there has been a greater reliance on structural measures. As structural measures alone have not yielded the desired results and flood damage continues to increase, non-structural measures such as flood forecasting, flood plain zoning, flood proofing of the civic amenities of the affected villages, changing the cropping pattern and public participation in flood management works are being given greater emphasis. 

As the Indian Ocean was not previously considered a tsunami zone, the December 2004 tsunami took everybody by surprise. There were no tsunami warning systems in the Indian Ocean to detect tsunamis or to warn the general populace living around the ocean. 

Although a tsunami cannot be prevented, the impact of a tsunami can be reduced through timely warnings, and effective response. Nearly three years after the tsunami, India managed to set up a tsunami warning system in Hyderabad, which is expected to minimise the effect of disasters and reduce loss of lives in the future. It is located at the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS). It receives data via satellite from six ocean buoys — four in the Bay of Bengal and two in the Arabian Sea — equipped with water pressure sensors to detect any rise in water levels. This warning system will issue alerts of high intensity waves within 30 minutes of an earthquake. 

The centre has been established by the Ministry of Earth Sciences at a cost of Rs.125 crore in collaboration with the Department of Science and Technology, the Department of Space and the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. 

This network enables early warning centre to disseminate warnings to the Ministry of Home Affairs, as well as to the state emergency operations centres. 


The Drought Prone Areas Programme (DPAP) is operational since 1973, in 971 blocks of 183 districts in 16 states. The Desert Development Programme  (DDP) has been implemented in 235 blocks of 40 districts in seven states. Seventy per cent of India's cultivated land is in rainfed areas, which often suffer a decline in agricultural production in years of low rainfall, and face drought conditions. 

A programme titled National Watershed Development Project for Rainfed Areas (NWDPRA) which was launched in 1990-91 is under implementation in drought-prone areas of all the states. This programme adopts development measures for all the spatial components of watersheds, that is, arable land, non-arable land and drainage lines as one organic geo-hydrological entity. The objective is to achieve conservation of rain water, control of soil erosion, regeneration of green cover and promotion of dryland farming systems including horticulture, agro-forestry, pasture development and livestock management as well as household production systems. In the first four years of the Tenth Plan, an area of 1.59 million hectares was developed at an expenditure of Rs 793.82 crore. 

There are large areas of degraded land of over 100 million hectares in the country which could be reclaimed. Most of the land needs only basic water and soil conservation measures and some amount of plantation and protection work. By protecting, regenerating and restoring the degraded land the pressure on remaining land, forests and pastures can be reduced. A National Wasteland Development Board has been constituted to promote integrated wasteland development. 

Natural disasters, particularly droughts, result in huge unemployment and under-employment problems in the rural areas. Providing wage employment to the rural poor has been an integral part of rural development efforts. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Jawahar Rozgar Yojana and the Employment Assurance Schemes are all aimed at providing employment and ensuring food security.  

Measures such as building cyclone shelters, afforestation in coastal areas etc have been undertaken to respond to cyclones. Reconstruction projects have been taken up in areas affected by major calamities by designing structural mitigation schemes. The activities consist mainly of housing and public infrastructure, drainage and rural water supply, expansion of road and communication networks, and shelter belt plantations. 

Since much loss of life during the past earthquakes in various parts of the country has occurred due to the collapse of non-engineered traditional buildings of clay, stones and bricks, special emphasis is being placed on the repair and strengthening of such buildings through retrofitting etc in seismically active regions.

Despite these measures, the task is very complex in a country of India's size and diversity. Population pressure, environmental degradation, migration, poverty, illiteracy and unplanned urbanisation are some of the major factors contributing to increased risk and vulnerability. Non-structural disaster mitigation efforts need to be accelerated in the country. It is necessary to emphasise the links between disaster mitigation and development plans, the development of effective communication systems, the application of latest information technology, risk reduction and risk transfer options like insurance, extensive public awareness and education campaigns in vulnerability reduction, legal and legislative support, the involvement of the private sector, the strengthening of the institutional framework for disaster response at the national, state and district levels, the applications of remote sensing, geographical information system, etc. Above all, it is important that civil society initiatives be strengthened and supported to ensure that the existing institutional mechanisms deliver the services they are expected to deliver effectively and efficiently. 

The losses due to natural disasters reduce the pace of sustained economic development in the already resource-scarce states and often lead to a heavy drain on available resources, diverting them from development activities. It is necessary to move away from the relief mode after a disaster to preparedness, prevention and mitigation, as this will be more cost-effective and sustainable. This will have to be implemented through a massive campaign by mobilising the participation of local communities, voluntary organisations, community-based organisations and the private sector. 


Unesco Institute for Statistics:

Ministry of Rural Development:

Ministry for Agriculture and Cooperation:

National Institute of Disaster Managemen:

Indian Meteorological Department:

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies:

UN Office of the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs:


Federal Emergency Management Organisation:

Disaster Relief:

CARE India:

Natural Hazards Information Center, Colorado:

The Disaster Management Act 2005:

PACS programme:

InfoChange News & Features, February 2009