India : Information Technology and Disasters

Reema Nanavaty
General Secretary

The critical situation that has tragically arisen in the state of Gujarat India, due to the major earthquake, 7.9 on the Richter scale, centered near the city of Bhuj, on the morning of 26 January 2001.

The most severely affected districts in Gujarat are:

1.      Kutch

2.      Patan

3.      Surendranagar

4.      Ahmedabad

Kutch , of course, has sustained heavier losses of people and property with the epicenter 20 km from city which is the main population center in the district.

The intensity of the earthquake in Ahmedabad city was 6.9 on the Richter scale, with a duration of 1.5 minutes.

All the means of communication telephones, T.V. were non-functional immediately after the earthquake, atleast for half a day. The telephones were not working for almost 10 days.

However, it was very important to get the latest information on the extent of damage, the casualties, the injuries to the affected. The emergency requirements in terms of Medical aid, food, shelter and water.

Unless and until, the relief and rescue teams physically went in the field, on site, it was impossible to get the latest information. Therefore mobilising relief became difficult.

The mobile phones started working only from the fifth day. However, having access to mobile phones is not common in towns and villages.

Having realised the need for speedy communication to mobilise need based, adequate relief measures, what was needed was access to information technology tools.

  1.      The Disaster Mitigation Institute (DMI) was the first to establish communication at Kutch and Surendranagar with the help of a satellite phone and a set of mobile phones. Later it also set up Communication Centre with relief from corporate sector. The Communication Centre comprised of email and internet connections, satellite phones and VSAT equipments.

As a result of this DMI Communication Centre, it was possible to establish regular communication from Bhuj to the affected villages and vice a versa. Forward, informations onward to Ahmedabad SEWAs headquarters, contact the state authorities, the district authorities.

          Access to information, two-way flow of relief and damage information made a lot of work effective.

Hence, timely access to and proper use of Information Technology, enabled SEWA to mobilise the needed relief material and make relief effective. Data from the affected interior villages was collected by the field teams on daily basis. 

This data every evening was forwarded to SEWA Headquarters through internet. The data available at the headquarters, then was analysed and forwarded to the Government. This was a two way flow. 

Similarly through the Communication Centre the distribution of material to the affected villages was monitored and supplies maintained accordingly at the block level.  

Also, the data and information related to the assessment being done by the Government on the damage in the villages was maintained, updated and accordingly, coordination with the district and state administration was maintained.

Thus the Communication Centre proved extremely useful. It is proposed to document this experience.

 2.      The next stage was of mid term relief and planning for rehabilitation. Here it was extremely important to have direct communication with the field centres and the affected communities themselves. It was necessary to involve them in the planning process on a regular basis and at each and every stage. Also recheck the draft plans with the affected communities, get their feed back and modify and finalise the plans accordingly. However speed and urgency were of essence, looking at the large scale of planning. Also large number of villages and communities had to be involved in limited time. 

SEWA therefore, used the satellite communication Satcom mode, for interactive talk back sessions for planning with the communities.

 Twice a week, talk-back sessions of Satcom are held, where the villagers from the affected blocks participated at the village and block level in interactive dialogue with Panel of Engineers, Planners, Architects and Government officials based at Ahmedabad. This medium of IT communication proved very fast and effective for first hand participatory planning. 

During the sessions, the concerned Government authorities also remained present. Hence, the coordination to be done with the concerned Government departments and officials is also met with.

Thus within a short span of 15 days, SEWA was able to complete village level micro plans for integrated village rehabilitation for more than 100 villages.

The day to day situation of the affected villages, the relief, the health status, the livelihood needs and rehabilitation is all coordinated. Rehabilitation planning, designing, and development becomes more interactive and participative. 

Therefore, in order to have effective disaster preparedness and mitigation, access to Information Technology medium at block and village level is utmost need. 

It is proposed to design and develop Community Control Rooms in the four affected districts and three at-risk districts equipped with mobile phones, sat phones, Satcom facilities, and V-sat to mitigate impact of disasters and enhance community preparedness through Information Technology.