Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Best of Polio Rounds

Reports have come in! The polio vaccination round that started on 18 Nov, and extended till 24 Nov is the best of rounds so far in our working areas. More than 22,000 children have been vaccinated through the community mobilization activities of nearly 300 staff involved in the task. Resistance has come down from nearly 600 in last round and over 700 in previous round to 471 this month, and for the first time it is below 500! The children reporting not vaccinated due to reasons of sickness also came down from 757 in last round to 510.  Excellent job has been done through children's groups who were involved in bringing children for vaccination on booth day (the first day of vaccination drive) and high number of conversion of resistant families into accepting polio vaccine through health camps and excellent interpersonal communication skills.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Disaster Management Plans

I had the opportunity to study through at least eight disaster management plans from one of the districts in the last 25 days. I have also had the opportunity of studying more plans in the past year, specially while undertaking a study with colleagues in Unicef and State Inter Agency Group of West Bengal. As I get in deeper into them, I can identify the following positive points that are emerging over the period :

a) There is a lot more appreciation of integration of plans by various departments, although not all relevant departments submit their departmental plans.
b) There is a move to view emerging disaster risks, albeit the fact that these are mostly geophysical or infrastructure related risks. For example, a block has identified train accidents as a risk after a new rail line has come up in the block.
c) Good amount of data / information is being added into the plans in most blocks and districts.

Where do they lack in making a good plan?

a) All these plans are mostly response plans, and not risk reduction plans. Therefore, the plans have a life time of just one year, and need annual revision.
b) Tools are not used to identify and link the broader line of stakeholders into the plan. Therefore vital support services are not mapped into most of the plans. Critical services cannot run effectively without support service systems. For example, if a plan identifies hospitals for managing rail accidents, it has not mapped blood banks, ambulance services, crowd and transport management into the plan itself.
c) Disaster risks with emerging from external elements or elements with long-term impact are not planned for, and they are left as international issues or health hazards etc. For example, a block that has serious problem with floride contamination in water has not brought it into the plan as it is a "health hazard". Similarly, a block that has seen civilians dying in fire between Indian and Bangladeshi border security forces has not mapped any plan for civilian evacuation in such emergencies. Increasing deficiency in drinking water availability in a block has been  left as a drinking water problem, and not seen from the perspective of climate change issues merged with environmental exploitation that will lead to long term impact on the community.

What do we need to do immediately?

a) The disaster management plans must have two sections : one for emergency response and another for identification of long term risks and planning -- say for 30 years or 50 years.
b) Officers and elected representatives involved need to be seriously trained in long term risk reduction planning and risk assessment.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Assessor and Giver

In Kumarganj block of South Dinajpur district, West Bengal, while giving a training on disaster management to the government officials and local elected representatives of the block, during the discussion on relief management, an interesting issue came up. The issue raised was how to ensure damage and needs assessments are realistic and point towards immediate steps that need to be taken for relief in periods immediately after a disaster, with minimum coloring of political or other sectoral manipulation. The officers in Kumarganj said, "The current system of engaging the same group of people for assessment and response, although they may not be personally the same, but come from the same category, is equal to a examinee correcting his own paper, with no reference to any question or answer at the time of correction! The suggestion is, therefore, segregate the officers doing the assessment from those who give the relief." It can be done in two ways: (a) Let relief be given by the elected representatives with minimum supervision by the administration. But all damage and need assessment must be done by the executive staff only. No elected representatives or political class in it. (b) To strengthen the system further let executive officers from outside the affected area or specially designated persons with appropriate knowledge and skills at the state and district level be entrusted with the task of assessment and the local executive and political class take care of relief distribution. This would minimize the controversies surrounding too much demand for too little relief.

Does someone have any data on, actually what percentage of tarpaulins out of those distributed have been used for setting up temporary shelters ? All such critical data will help re-plan emergency response strategies. Are some of our relief materials really feeding into the "wants" of people rather than "needs of people?

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Rule by Extortion err.... Subscription

There is a tradition of collecting donation which is equivalent to "subscription" as it is usually equally shared between families or individuals to celebrate the Durga Puja (Festival of Goddess Durga) in West Bengal. However, it is not an uncommon sight to see several youngsters, standing with sticks to collect money forcefully from vehicles that ply on the road that is closer to them. There had been even fights, vehicles running over these extortionists resulting in deaths, and traffic jam that results from this show of muscle power. Things have not changed. Now, practically for every celebration you could be stopped. The other day, my motor cycle was stopped in a village asking for this "extortionist" money for the Kali Puja (festival of Kali, celebrated in Bengal on the same day as Deepawali). I paid 10 rupees couple of days ago for the Muslim festival of Muharram which is still ten days away, and got a bill for five rupees with hardly anything to indicate that this will be used for any social or religious purpose. (I can't understand the reasoning for inheriting a bad tradition from anyone.) I have seen children stopping vehicles to collect money for celebrating Goddess of Wisdom (Saraswati Puja), and have paid three times in the same village at a distance of 200 meters each. How can wisdom dawn on children who bunk school and collect money to make merry at the cost of others! How can West Bengal develop if our youth are found to be splurging in money that is not theirs?  

Are we heading for an anarchist society? Have matters of faith have been transferred into issues of merry-making? Has the concept of donation has been taken away and extortion has replaced it? With the kind of rods and sticks these people wield around, all that one can do it, wait for the next election and press the button against the existing leading political party, and keep silent about all issues, most of the times.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Relief Quota

The training in Disaster Risk Management for Government officials of various departments, municipal departments and local elected bodies started in South Dinajpur district on 01 Nov and the first round of trainings will be over on 12 Nov, and again will restart on 20 Nov, and end on 23 Nov. It has been a very enriching walk back in the district as I had worked in the district through various development, health and disaster management programs. I could meet Mr. Banamali Roy, Block Development Officer (BDO) of Banshihari. He had worked in the Malda floods last year with me. Mr. Jayanta Das, Mrs. Reena, Mr. Subhash Topno, ….. all former colleagues who worked with me in various programs. Many new friends also have come up in all these blocks and in the district.

In Kushmandi block I came across an interesting situation which the block administrative officials shared with me. They said when the block administration saw that there are several people who are extremely poor and are destitute, and they need help, and arranged for the same, not only the political leaders, but even some of the lower level government officers objected to the same saying, “If you are planning to help them you do it yourself, and do all the works by yourselves. Or else, we have a quota, and follow the same!” In other words, each government officer has the “right” to help based on “his personal assessment”, and not on objective parameters. Be it a disaster response or help to any needy person, any objective assessment and assistance is abhorred and resisted. Well, I think, the anti-corruption group India Against Corruption should start working on these fundamental systemic issues rather than wasting their time in targeting individuals.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Needs and Wants

As I am involved as a facilitator in the training of district, block and municipal officials of South Dinajpur district, West Bengal, when we reach the session on Disaster Response and Relief Management, a huge question rises : how do we manage the gap between wants and needs. The Block Development Officer (BDO) of Hilli block was telling an incident. One day a old couple came and pleaded with him so much, almost crying, saying that they need some support by way of old age pension or some allowance as destitute under whichever provision he can provide for. So, the BDO called one of the officials and asked him to arrange for the necessary paperwork so that this old couple can get some support, at least about 200 rupees a month. Just then the BDO's driver dropped in and asked, "Sir, why these two people were here for?" The BDO replied, "They are poor people. They need some help. So, I asked to arrange for their support under the National Old Age Pension Scheme. The driver said, "Sir, these people are cheating you! They have two trucks and a car which they have placed on rent." The BDO immediately called the mentioned official and asked him not to proceed with the case.

This happens in disaster relief times as well, as everyone wants support for food, shelter etc. What do they do with all that? Often sell them off again. And at times they just want to accumulate. As it is said, "earth has enough to provide for every person's needs, but for everyone's wants." Where do we draw the line. It still remains a mystery to me as it becomes extremely difficult in emergency situations.