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How will declaring COVID-19 a ‘notified disaster’ help tackle the situation?

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The SDRF is constituted under the Disaster Management Act, 2005 and is the primary fund available with state governments for responses to notified disasters.

On Saturday, the Ministry of Home Affairs decided to treat COVID-19 as a notified disaster for the purpose of providing assistance under the State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF). Till now, 83 have tested positive for COVID-19 in India, while two deaths have been reported.

In a similar move, US President Donald Trump declared a national emergency in the country on Friday invoking the Stafford Act, as per which, the federal government contributes about 75 percent to the cost of relief for states. The Stafford Act authorises the President to provide financial and other assistance to local and state governments, certain private nonprofit organisations, and individuals following declaration as a Stafford Act Emergency (limited) or Major Disaster (more severe).

What is the State Disaster Response Fund?

The SDRF is constituted under the Disaster Management Act, 2005 and is the primary fund available with state governments for responses to notified disasters. The Central government contributes 75 per cent towards the SDRF allocation for general category states and UTs, and over 90 per cent for special category states/UTs, which includes northeastern states, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand). For SDRF, the Centre releases funds in two equal installments as per the recommendation of the Finance Commission. On the other hand, the National Disaster Response Fund, which is also constituted under the Disaster Management Act, 2005 supplements the SDRF of a state, in case of a disaster of severe nature, provided adequate funds are not available in the SDRF.

The disasters covered under the SDRF include cyclones, droughts, tsunamis, hailstorms, landslides, avalanches and pest attacks among others.

What is a disaster?

In a notification released by the Ministry of Home Affairs on Saturday, it said the items and norms of assistance under SDRF include a compensation of Rs 4 lakh per deceased, including those involved in relief work and for COVID-19 positive people requiring hospitalisation, the costs will be in accordance to rates fixed by the state governments.

According to the Disaster Management Act, a disaster is defined as the following, “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 a nature or magnitude as to be beyond the coping capacity of the community of the affected area”.

In its document titled, “Disaster Management in India”, the Ministry of Home Affairs has defined a disaster as an “extreme disruption of the functioning of a society that causes widespread human, material, or environmental losses that exceed the ability of the affected society to cope with its own resources.” Further, citing the High Power Committee on Disaster Management, which was constituted in 1999, it identified 31 disaster categories organised into five major sub-groups, which are: water and climate related disasters, geological related disasters, chemical, industrial and nuclear related disasters and biological related disasters, which includes biological disasters and epidemics.

Have there been such instances in the past?

In 2018, in view of the devastation caused by the Kerala floods, political leaders in Kerala demanded that the floods be declared a “national calamity”. As of now, there is no executive or legal provision to declare a national calamity. In 2001, the National Committee on Disaster Management under then Prime Minister was mandated to look into the parameters that should define a national calamity. However, the committee did not suggest any fixed criterion. In the past, there have been demands from states to declare certain events as natural disasters, such as the Uttarakhand flood in 2013, Cyclone Hudhud in Andhra Pradesh in 2014, and the Assam floods of 2015.