An Ad Hoc Response | The Indian Express

Written by Kapil Sibal
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Published: April 17, 2020 3:00:13 am


One wonders whether the lockdown announcement by the Prime Minister on March 24 was the decision of the NDMA in the context of a National Plan prepared under the provisions of the Act of 2005.

Parliament enacted the Disaster Management Act, 2005 (Act of 2005) to ensure that the mechanisms to deal with a natural or man-made calamities deliver without delay. But the response from the political system has been sluggish.

The coronavirus pandemic needs to be addressed through the provisions of the Act. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), chaired by the Prime Minister, is responsible for laying down the policies for managing disasters. And what is required is a National Plan for managing this disaster in coordination with the states and district authorities. An advisory committee of experts recommends action plans at the national, state and district levels. In the current context, we are unaware of any such recommendations. A National Executive Committee (NEC) is responsible for preparing the National Plan, which is to be approved by the NDMA.

No National Plan to deal with the pandemic has so far been unveiled. Also, the NDMA alone can recommend restoration of the means of livelihood, relief in repayment of loans or the grant of fresh loans to persons affected, at such concessional terms as it may consider appropriate. All the above is prescribed under the provisions of the Act.

One wonders whether the lockdown announcement by the Prime Minister on March 24 was the decision of the NDMA in the context of a National Plan prepared under the provisions of the Act of 2005. It clearly was not, given the absence of prior consultation with state governments. Had there been a National Plan, it would have catered to the requirements of migrants before such announcements. The fallout is that lakhs of Indians are now without food, and other necessities. Recent protests — both in Bandra and Surat — are evidence of frustrated migrants living in inhuman conditions, desperate to go home. Their livelihoods have been seriously jeopardised and they need ex gratia assistance for the restoration of their livelihood. This requires data collection so that we know exactly how many are affected, how many need assistance. This data is to be collected at the district, state and national level. Only then can the directed relief envisaged under the Act be given. Businesses have been affected across the country, especially in the MSME sector. Loan repayments cannot be made, credit is scarce. These have to be dealt with institutionally, but no such mechanism is in place.

Where is the institutional mechanism to coordinate the actions of ministries of the government of India and state governments with the national authority, the state authorities and NGOs in relation to disaster management? The central government has not put in place any such mechanism. The absence of any institutional mechanism has resulted in the mayhem that we are witnessing across the country. Ad hoc decision-making seems to be the order of the day.

There is also a chapter related to offences and penalties in the Act. Any criminal proceeding can only take place on a complaint made by the National Authority, the State Authority and other entities set out in the Act. For the person to be proceeded against, a notice period of not less than 30 days is required to be given for the alleged offence pursuant to which the complaint can be made. The FIRs that are otherwise lodged are contrary to the provisions of the Act, since the field is occupied by Parliament through this legislation. Section 72 of the Act of 2005 stipulates that the Act shall have effect, notwithstanding anything inconsistencies therewith or contained in any other law for the time being in force or in any instrument having the effect by virtue of any law other than the Act itself. All actions taken by the authorities inconsistent with the provisions of the Act may not be legally sustainable.

Democracy cannot function through ad hoc decisions, and preparedness is only possible when dialogue takes place, when proper systems are put in place. We are functioning without recourse to the law, and it is time for the courts to step in. That is the only way we will ensure that in future, we are ready for such disasters.

The writer, a senior Congress leader, is a former Union minister

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