Kerala has been reeling under the worst floods it has experienced in a century. On Saturday, the toll since May 29 stood at 357. On August 18, Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in the state to take stock of the situation and granted it financial aid of Rs 500 crore. On the same day, the Congress demanded that the floods in Kerala be declared a “national disaster”.

Party president Rahul Gandhi said on Twitter: “Dear PM, increasing funds allocated for Kerala relief to Rs 500 crore is a good step but nowhere near enough. It is critical you declare the floods as a National Disaster. Please do not vacillate as the people of Kerala are suffering.” Gandhi wasn’t the only one. On social media, the call to declare the Kerala floods a national disaster has received widespread support.

However, the term “national disaster” has no legal definition in India. The Union government is already helping out in terms of personnel as well as funds. Any notional declaration of the Kerala floods as a “national disaster” will make no difference to relief efforts on the ground.

State responsibility

India’s disaster planning is governed by the Disaster Management Act of 2005. The law, however, does not have a provision to declare any calamity a “national disaster”. In fact, there is no clear distinction between disasters that are of national, state or local level. The Act only defines a disaster as:

“A catastrophe, mishap, calamity or grave occurrence in any area, arising from natural or man made causes, or by accident or negligence which results in substantial loss of life or human suffering or damage to, and destruction of, property, or damage to, or degradation of, environment, and is of such nature or magnitude, as to be beyond the coping capacity of the community of the affected area.”

Anil Gupta, head of climatic disaster risk division at the National Institute of Disaster Management, explained why there is no legal category called “national disaster”: “Disaster management is a state responsibility. The role of the Central government when there is no disaster is only advisory. And when a calamity occurs it can only provide assistance to the state government.”

Rather than having the power to declare a “national disaster”, the Union government requires a demand from a state government to provide assistance. “The Centre can only move on the state’s request,” explained Gupta. “In the 2011 Sikkim earthquake, the Centre wanted to deploy the NDRF [National Disaster Response Force] but had to wait for a state government requisition.”

Erratic approach

In spite of the term having no legal or administrative significant, politicians have over the years used the term in their communication ­– but with little consistency. The 2017 floods which occurred in Gujarat, Bihar, Assam and West Bengal were not termed “national disasters”. However, when floods occurred in Jammu and Kashmir in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did use the term “national-level disaster” even though the death toll was significantly lower than, say, the 2017 Bihar floods.

A social media campaign to get the Kerala floods declared a "national disaster".

The National Disaster Management Plan 2016 that was published by the National Disaster Management Authority does have a methodical categorisation of disasters. If a “disaster can be managed within the capabilities and resources at the district level”, that’s a Level 1 disaster. Disasters falling under the Level 2 category are those where the state needs to mobilise its resources and deploy state-level agencies for assistance. Disasters in Level 3 are defined as a “nearly catastrophic situation” or a “very large-scale disaster”, which are beyond the capabilities of the state government and are the closest approximation to the popular meaning of a “national disaster”.

However, there seems to be little specific use of these levels on the ground and they do not seem to have progressed beyond the conceptual state. “These levels are not declared in actual practice,” explained Surya Prakash, Head of the Knowledge Management and Communication Division at the National Institute of Disaster Management. Instead, relief efforts are often ad hoc and driven by political factors. “If the prime minister has already visited [Kerala], then it is clear that the Central government is making efforts,” said Prakash.

This lack of structure also extends to monetary assistance from the Union government. The 2013 Uttarakhand floods saw the Manmohan Singh government declare assistance of Rs 1,000 crore in a calamity that killed 5,700 people. However, Tamil Nadu got nearly as much (Rs 939.6 crore) in 2015 although the floods had a significantly lower death toll. For Kerala, the Union government released Rs 100 crore on August 13 while pointing out that the state had enough funds in its State Disaster Relief Fund. In spite of this, however, within five days, the Union government announced another Rs 500 crore, clearly reacting to rising political criticism that Delhi was ignoring Kerala.

Anger against the perceived neglect of Kerala by Delhi has swept social media