Friday, Sep 21, 2018 | Last Update : 10:02 AM IST

Balancing act at work

THE ASIAN AGE. | DR PRABHAKARAN PALERI
Published : Aug 26, 2018, 12:20 am IST
Updated : Aug 26, 2018, 4:36 am IST

The balancing act of nature that contains all the things including what life forms create is unremitting.

Army personnel on rescue and evacuation operations in a flood-affected region of Kerala. (Photo: PTI)
 Army personnel on rescue and evacuation operations in a flood-affected region of Kerala. (Photo: PTI)

Disaster security stands sixth in the hierarchy of 15 elements of national security (as of now in my consideration). Modern conception of national security is the wellbeing of people, not just security of the nation. The route is governance in which no government can succeed absolutely. Two fundamental laws checkmate governance: law of invariance (nothing changes beyond design) and law of limitations (everything is constrained by design). Somewhere in this trail of national security lies our question, “Can we dodge a disaster?” Well, I don’t know.

Physics rules the universe and life in it. The basic rule of physics is ‘balance the damn thing’ through four of its omnipotent and omniscient forces. One of the forces that play havoc with everything and everyone even in a career path is gravity with well contoured gradients.

This playful little goblin is all the time busy balancing the gradients like children popping the bubbles of a used bubble wrap. Gravity pops the bubble of imbalance in everything, all the time. Don’t get caught in it. That way, perhaps, you can dodge a disaster. Otherwise you may have to wait for God in the form of a hovering helicopter to pick you up when you can’t go down, literally. Because, when you turn around you find death smiling at you. Frightening, isn’t it, unless you are a soldier.

The balancing act of nature that contains all the things including what life forms create is unremitting. The act fashions incidents. Anyone or anything wedged in it gets cleansed or vacuumed. The effect is disaster. There is damage to life or property and mostly both. If not, an incident remains as it is and attenuates by balancing the system. Humans enter this chaos by their own follies and get hit.  That’s disaster. Earthquake is an incident, not a disaster.

Disaster is the situation when people go under the rubbles in the quake. Earthquakes and smoking volcanoes were there even before we sneaked into this planet. We need to understand it if we have to dodge them.

Disaster is a threat. A threat is perceived through models with respect to the threat attractor. The threat needs to be either prevented or pre-empted. Once the threat hits the target the game is over. Thereafter the only choice is mitigation. Disaster mitigation (rescue, rehabilitation…) cannot be taken as success in disaster management. They are the process of minimising the damage of disaster as cleverly as possible. Mitigation is also using the opportunity to build up. Disasters can also provide opportunities. It’s part of smart governance. Humans invite disasters all the time. Cutting trees, fretful constructions, changing course of rivers, copying in an exam, falling in love… Well, I may be wrong.

Governments make laws and exercise rule of law.  It is a solution. Submitting to the forces of nature is another. In disaster management, mitigation is a choice to respond to a disaster situation. Disaster management is much more than mere response.

Elimination of the need for response is the preferred choice in disaster management (Greatest victory in war is winning without fighting). That means prevention or pre-emption in disaster management. But, of course, we cannot do that all the time. That is when we prepare contingency plan to face an identified disaster.  

Disaster leaves behind trauma and anguish and modifies collective behaviour of people, sometimes permanently. Within the common anatomy, every disaster has a different signature. They need to be managed differently. Every disaster can be forewarned and hence prevented or pre-empted. It is response thereafter. It needs only preparation.  

Behavioural aspects play truant in a disaster scenario that may last long. Phantoms in the brain tickle and rumble everyone — victims and rescuers, individuals and groups, politicians and faith merchants, criminals and charlatans, righteous and exploiters… Leaders, whether on scene or elsewhere, may do well to understand this paradox and exercise rule of law on one side and compassion on the other standing firm on ethical values and civility.

India is a threat attractor for every kind of disaster. But, India is responsible, experienced and salient.

That is its strength. The Disaster Management Act, 2005 sets the definitions and the course with the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) at the helm. The Act clears the ambiguity of semantics which otherwise can disturb governance.

The NDMA was wrapped on the knuckle by the Comptroller and the Auditor General (CAG) of India sometime back for non-performance. This time they showed gust standing with the shaken, but never-say-die officials and people of Kerala in their tryst with destiny.  

The anatomy of a disaster is viewed more from the need for preventive preparedness than the techniques of response. A high degree of preventive and pre-emptive preparedness is essential for a nation in identified disaster areas to deflect them if possible and, if not, to engage them to minimise damage. That is containing the damage associated with a disaster in an enviable manner by effective disaster security management, in other words, by maximising disaster security in national security governance. The incident can occur, but it becomes a disaster only when it affects human system disastrously. Disaster management starts much before the incident.

Disaster means disorder, and disorder can be visualised beforehand. A small change in the calculation can cause a disorder-a disaster per se. There can be disasters whose anatomy is non-linear — an earthquake, for example.

The calculation can take a person to an alternate reality. In a non-linear equation a small change in one variable can have a disproportionate or even catastrophic impact on other variables. The variables may approach linearly till such time a small change can break the critical threshold when the entire system collapses. This happens in an earthquake, flash flood, unruly storm, gas leak... So much for mathematics. Let’s come back to Kerala.

The people of Kerala and their government faced a jolt out of the blue. But they took it head on. They can convert it now to an opportune reality if they play their cards well invoking unprecedented cohesion and professionalism laced with rule of law. “Will they, or won't they?” That is the question.

I believe they will, lest they should return to the sea from where their land rose aeons back.

(Dr Prabhakaran Paleri is former director general of Indian Coast Guard. The opinions expressed here are his own. He can be reached at ppaleri@hotmail.com)

Tags: kerala floods, disaster management