When four coaches of the Diva-Sawantwadi passenger train in Maharashtra derailed on Sunday morning, local villagers were the first to rush to the rescue. At least 21 passengers died and more than a 120 were injured in the accident, but at least some of these lives could have been saved. According to survivors, emergency rescue services arrived on the scene a whole two hours after the accident.

In India, delayed response from rescue services to natural calamities, railway accidents and even road mishaps is routine. In August 2013, when the Rajyarani Express ran over and killed 37 pilgrims on a railway track in Bihar, officials blamed the delay in rescue efforts on the lack of proper roads to reach the site. In the Uttarakhand floods of June 2013, which killed several hundred people, the death toll could have been lower if the state government had paid greater heed to the warnings of the meteorological department.

The deaths are appalling, given that India has had a comprehensive Disaster Management Act since 2005, to provide for the “effective management of disasters” across the country. But like with so many other Indian plans, there’s a huge gap between intention and action.

“The structure seems very effective on paper, but it is not really implemented,” said Rita Savla, founder-director of Radhee Foundation, a Mumbai-based non-profit for advocacy on disaster management. When disaster strikes, there is very little coordination between the control rooms of various government agencies, she noted.

Based on provisions in the Act, the centre has constituted a National Disaster Response Force (for specialised response to calamities) as well as a National Institute of Disaster Management (to build capacity and human resources in the field).

Most importantly, under the Act the central government established the National Disaster Management Authority, chaired by the prime minister, which is responsible for coordinated, technology-driven rescue operations in case of disaster.

The Act requires each state to have a state-level disaster-management authority headed by the chief minister, and a district-level one under the supervision of the collector. The railways, road transport authorities, government and civic hospitals as well as the fire brigade services are to work in coordination with the disaster-management authorities during emergencies.

According to IC Sisodia, a retired civic official in Mumbai and author of 2006 book Are You Prepared for Disaster?, the inadequate coordination is the result of irresponsible appointments to positions of authority in the disaster management bodies. “The NDMA guidelines require these bodies to be headed by qualified people from different paramilitary forces, but appointments are usually arbitrary,” said Sisodia, a former chief of the special intelligence vigilance cell in the Mumbai municipal corporation. “Often, people who don’t know the ABCs of disaster management end up manning control rooms.”

In addition to the NDMA and related organisations, India has also attempted to introduce a one-stop emergency services helpline number – 108 – in a public-private partnership with business conglomerate GVK. It has rolled out special vans that are equipped to handle medical, police and fire emergencies at a short notice. But the scheme is operational only in 14 states and two union territories so far. “Besides, most people are not even aware of the existence of this number,” said Sisodia.

It’s not that emergency services lack the equipment to respond to disasters: it’s more a question of attitude. “The ability to respond quickly comes by repeated training and constant practice of using the equipment, so that one is always prepared,” said Savla. Instead, training and practice sessions are often taken lightly. As a result, frontline staff – such as station masters and guards, in the case of railways – often don’t even know how to perform basic first-aid.

Ultimately, the problem boils down to a lack of political will and accountability. In South Korea, after a ferry capsized on April 16 killing 302 people on board, not only were the captain and 15 crew members arrested for deserting their rescue duties, the nation’s prime minister also resigned, taking responsibility for the disaster.

In India, even the head of the NDMA admits that accountability is a problem. “We will slowly get there,” said Shashidhar Reddy, vice-chairman of the NDMA.

He defended the agency’s performance by pointing that “response is bound to be slow” in case of disasters that occur suddenly and without warning (as if there are any other kind). “There are lessons to be learnt with every case, and there is always scope for improvement,” said Reddy. “We are evolving and trying to improve coordination,” he said.