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February 15, 2012

India Holds Large-Scale Drill for a Potential Disaster

India's capital has held its first ever large-scale drill for a potential disaster. The drill highlights some of the public awareness and logistical challenges India faces as its economy expands.

By the time the sirens sounded all around New Delhi, two months planning had been completed.

In nine different parts of the city, rescue workers simulated a 7.2 magnitude earthquake 275 kilometers northeast of the capital.

At this high-rise government building, volunteers fanned out to get shopkeepers away from the building.

Firefighters and paramedics practiced moving simulated casualties to emergency vehicles.

Deputy District Commissioner D.K. Mishra says the drill was aimed at teaching people the basic mantra of earthquake preparedness - drop, cover and hold on - but also to evaluate professional rescuers.

"Different emergency responders - those who have to rescue people, to move the people to the hospital, to provide different kinds of facilities to the people, relief material - we have to test their capacities," said Mishra. "How swiftly they operate, they come to the point, and handle the situation."

India comes late to the process of disaster preparation.  Its National Disaster Management Agency was inaugurated only in 2005, soon after the Asian tsunami.  Although this week's drill was a significant beginning, the country still has plenty of work to do.

Angeli Qwatra is an internationally recognized emergency management specialist.  She observed a drill in one of Delhi's underground subway stations.

"It was supposed to last for half an hour. It lasted only five to seven minutes," said  Qwatra. "The passengers had to be detained because the scenario was a crack had developed in the track."

Qwatra says subway staff failed to manage the commuting crowds, many of whom re-boarded trains long before the half hour drill was complete.  She says professionals and ordinary citizens alike need to take such drills far more seriously.

"I think it starts with attitude and also the awareness levels," she said. "The officials are not aware of the risks.  If they were aware, they would realize the loss of life, and property and economic loss that can happen.  So this kind of training has to happen."

But researchers say New Delhi - and nearly every Indian city - face a much deeper danger than a deficit of awareness about first response.

They say decades of corruption have permitted many contractors to bribe their way out of ensuring the city's building are up to code in standing up to earthquakes.

With the Indian capital situated in a seismically active zone, the ramshackle state of many structures here could dramatically increase the casualty count in a city of more than 16 million people.