In Times of Distress: Disaster Management Committee of IIT Madras

By  Sharanya Menon and Shweta Venkatesh

 

The Disaster Management Committee, more commonly known as the DMC, was begun by Chirag Jain (DoMS/MBA/2012). While attending an event at Saarang, it occurred to him that there were no provisions or measures in place should there be an emergency of any sort. That’s when the idea of DMC popped up in his mind.

The DMC essentially plans out and strategizes for if and when disaster strikes, and ensures that the campus is well-prepared to handle such disasters. The DMC team comprises of three cores and a few coordinators who are selected through a round of tests and interviews. The numbers vary depending upon the number of applicants, who are also assessed and graded at the end of the year. The team conducts several activities in the course of the academic year, such as self-defence classes and fire drills in the hostels and messes.

“We’re probably like the army”, grins Harshad Mishra (ApMech/MS/2016), one of the cores of the last academic year (2015-2016). “We are not here for the publicity, we are here to help.” Akshit Choudhary (ME/PhD/2013), another core (2015-2016), agrees with him, saying that the purpose of working for the team is not for the certificate but for the purpose of making oneself useful in times of distress.

DMC team members with children during Chennai Floods
DMC team members with children during Chennai Floods

This was evident from their account of the Chennai Floods in which they played an active role in the relief work. From delivering an enormous number of food packets (close to 600 of them) to dealing with government officials who wanted to put Amma stickers on the water cans provided by the institute, the DMC has done more for the people than anyone will ever know.

As the campus was not as badly affected by the first spate of rains as the rest of the city was, the DMC began their relief work in the affected low-lying areas and villages located on the outskirts of the city. The initial phase of relief work involved distributing water supplies and packets of food to completely inundated areas such as Ennore. The Institute messes, Gurunath Stores, Andavar Fruit Stall and Leo Confectionary contributed loaves of bread, packets of biscuits and crates of bananas generously. Bubble top cans of water were sent in tankers to those who needed it.

Food packets prepared in messes.
Food packets prepared in messes.

On the seventh day of the floods, when the water levels had begun to recede and food was more easily available for the people than before, the relief work continued with increased supplies of drinking water and basic medicines being provided. Medical camps were also set up, with two doctors from the institute hospital- Major Dr. Gowri Shankar and Dr. Shiva, serving along with other doctors. Akshit and Harshad also lauded the efforts (and subsequent success) of a PhD scholar of the Civil engineering department and two other volunteers, who preferred to remain unnamed, to prevent government officials from pasting Amma stickers on the water tankers sent by the institute. They also managed to pacify hostile villagers who had mistaken institute help for government assistance, and thought that the former was responsible for worsening their plight by releasing excess water from the lake into the streets, though there was no evidence to confirm this claim.

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Doctor doing checkup in Medical Camp

Meanwhile, in the institute, the CCW Office and the messes issued coupons for food to students who had not registered for the mess for the vacation. The Administrative Block was the only building with power for the first few days and hence managed to serve as a source of power for students to charge their mobile phones. Money was also loaned to students who were stranded and wished to return home.

“There should be more involvement from everyone in the campus,” suggests Akshit when asked about students’ involvement in relief measures. It was a small team that monitored the operation, running from one end of the campus to another. Most of the team had left the campus for home, as the end semester examinations had concluded and vacations had began for almost everyone. Harshad suggested Ham radios as a means of communication during emergencies, when there is no power because they work on batteries. The institute can provide basic training on how to operate it. This would have been a very useful apparatus as there was no power to charge mobile phones which effectively cut off communication between the team members. This also led them to rely on the Indian Navy for providing them with exact coordinates of the locations of people who were in dire need of aid. Despite efforts made in the previous years, it has not been possible to introduce them by DMC due to licensing issues involved in permitting its use.

Moving on to talking about Shaastra and Saarang, both cores agree that there is high possibility of a stampede due to the large numbers of people present at this time. This leads to a necessity for people being trained in providing first aid.

The committee was also involved in relief work for the Jammu and Kashmir floods (2014)  and the Nepal earthquake (2015). They managed to raise around two and a half lakh rupees for the victims of the earthquake and directly wire-transfered it to the Nepal Embassy in Kolkata. With regard to the Jammu and Kashmir floods, they collaborated with the NGO Goonj and managed to collect money, convert it into goods and send it through them.

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Avinash (ME/PhD/2012), the DMC core this year, states that right after the Chennai floods, they collaborated with NGOs and the CRV (Crisis Response Volunteer) team of the organization Survival Instincts. During the workshop, it was explained that there are four stages to handling a disaster, namely: prevention, rescue, relief and rehabilitation. Prevention does not always work, as disasters do occur despite these measures, in which case the next step would be that of rescue. As civilians, devoid of professional training that actual rescuers have, volunteers would be more of a hindrance and liability rather than a help. Therefore, DMC being a student body, it primarily focuses on relief and rehabilitation.

“It’s not exactly prevention, or even precautions.” says Avinash. “ But it’s the best we can do. We’re a small team and it’s hard for us to train people full-time.” When asked about the measures taken in case the floods should occur once more this year, Avinash is skeptical of this happening. They have been in touch with the National Disaster Response Force, who have termed the probability of the city being flooded again this year as unlikely. Another source, who wished to remain anonymous, did say that unobtrusive signs of preparation were happening around campus, such as clearing away the dead leaves and leaf litter from the ditches and gutters so as not to obstruct the flow of water. The maximum flood level of the lake has also been marked. Relief work appears to be the only way to prepare the campus for a flood, one that might not happen. The campus was not as badly affected as other parts of the city and this is attributed to the large amount of vegetation present. Indeed, it appears that one will have to wait and watch the events unfold in the coming months to be able to say with any certainty that the waters will affect the city once more or not.

 

Disclaimer: The views are not to be construed in any manner as the official views of IIT Madras.
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