Disasters in India have essentially stemmed from natural hazards such as cyclones or floods as the country is situated centrally in the Indian Ocean region-often referred to as the ‘World Hazard Belt’. Now at the outbreak of the novel Corona Virus Disease (COVID 19) across the globe, it is for the first time that a pandemic has been recognised as a ‘notified disaster’ in the country by the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India. Subsequently the Disaster Management (DM) Act has also been invoked for the first time in India to effectively manage this crisis. As authorities try hard to keep the mounting panic in the country under control, the return of this Act into the limelight has drawn attention particularly to one of its many sections that had hitherto remained relatively overlooked since the Act was passed in 2005.
This is Chapter 10 of the Act on ‘Offences and Penalties’ which from Article 51 to 58 enlists activities that would be deemed as criminal offences in the event of a disaster. Off these, Article 52 which guarantees imprisonment for almost two years and a fine on any person making false claims to gain relief benefits and Article 54 which enforces imprisonment of one year or a fine on anyone circulating false alarms about the severity of a disaster have gained importance in the context of COVID 19. This is because since the last one and a half months, news and updates about this new disease has flooded the various social media platforms which lacks any mechanism to check the credibility of the news.
Across the nation there has been a deluge of Whatssap forwards, Facebook posts and Instagram stories sharing fantastical narratives about COVID 19, its spread and ways of its mitigation. Many of these messages have been falsely attributed to designated district, state and national disaster management authorities to lend it a connotation of authenticity. As a result of this, miscommunications have been trending on social media and have been circulated en-masse. In a country where any person aged seven and above who has the ability to read and write is considered literate and even by that measure 26 per cent of the population still suffers from illiteracy, the circulation on any false alerts or claims can prove to be fatal as it is unlikely that most would have the capability to judge the source of an update before accepting it as bonafide.
Around the beginning of March, WhatsApp messages were being forwarded requesting people to stay indoors between 10pm to 5am, as ‘disinfectant spraying procedure’ was underway. In yet another instance, it was rumoured that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was likely to declare ‘Financial Emergency in India’ under Article 360. Claims have also been made that the ‘Indian Government has announced deductions in the salary/pension of government employees.’ Misinformation on ‘chicken as a carrier of Coronavirus’ was widely disseminated across India through social media. Consequently the poultry industry suffered an estimated loss of almost 1.6 billion per day according to the All India Poultry Breeders’ Association. Although subsequently a clarification was issued by Indian Council of Medical Research allaying fears, people continued to hesitate in consuming poultry and the world’s fourth largest producer of chicken now faces its worst crisis in a decade.
It must therefore be realised that the circulation of such fake news can not only worsen the crisis at hand, in this case increase the chance of spread of COVID 19, but can also in its wake create potential crisis situations as is the case with the poultry industry. The access to social media has now increased by leaps and bounds in recent years and India alone is the biggest market for WhatsApp with more than 400 million users in a country which had 468 million smartphones in 2017. Witnessing this surge in the spread of fake news the Government of India has issued an advisory to top social media companies stating that it is essential for them to control the spread of misinformation on their platforms.
Such developments in the ambit of a ‘novel’ disaster highlights a new dimension that needs to be emphasised in India’s approach towards disaster management. According to the DM Act of 2005, Disaster Management is defined as, “A continuous and integrated process of planning, organising, coordinating and implementing measures which are necessary or expedient" for the following: 1) Prevention of danger or threat of any disaster, 2) Mitigation or reduction of risk of any disaster or its severity or consequences, 3) Capacity-building, 4) Preparedness to deal with any disaster, 5) Prompt response to any threatening disaster situation or disaster, 6) Assessing the severity or magnitude of effects of any disaster 7) Evacuation, rescue and relief, and 8) Rehabilitation and reconstruction.”
However in the subsequent documents that have been published by the Government of India in this domain, such as the National Policy on Disaster Management 2009, the National Disaster Management Plan 2016 and the National Disaster Management Guidelines on Community Based Disaster Risk Resilience- (draft) 2019, the focus of disaster management has been primarily on what one must do to abate a crisis. Accordingly, the emphasis has been on the three ‘R’s of disaster management- ‘Rescue, Relief and Recovery’ and the role of institutions and community in these contexts are well articulated. Unfortunately, these documents have not given due prominence to what one must not do to effectively mitigate a calamity, which present circumstances prove is also a significant part of disaster management. Hence there is need for the incorporation of two more R’s in disaster management which stands for ‘Restriction’ and ‘Refrain’.
The inclusion of ‘Restriction’ is necessary not only to highlight the importance of the legal prohibitions which exist in the DM Act against such criminal offences but also to caution people of possible legal action, which will deter them from spreading fake news. It is also to be noted that under Article 60 of the DM Act, no court shall take cognizance of an offence under this Act unless the complaint is made by those authorised by designated authorities. Herein it must be remembered that this Act was formulated fifteen years ago and then social media had not been as accessible or as available as it is now. In present times given the widespread use of social media, a more efficient means of ensuring a legal check would be to invoke the right of filing Public Interest Litigation cases in this regard rather than confining the authority to only designated Government offices.
Apart from legal restrictions it is also necessary to instil a culture of ‘Refrain’ false warnings at the community level. The role of the community in disaster management cannot be over-emphasised as in a situation of crisis they are the worst affected and also the first to respond. Hence, an important aspect of creating community disaster risk resilience is to inculcate in the people a value of what not to do to ensure effective disaster management. Accordingly, aside of imposing regulations to curb fake news, people must be trained to realise the authenticity of the news that they receive and filter awareness raising alerts from false warnings.
It has taken a pandemic to bestow this realisation that the time is now ripe to re-examine the notion of disaster management and make it more holistic with the incorporation of ‘Restriction’ and ‘Refrain’ under its ambit. Otherwise a pandemic can easily transform into a nation-wide pandemonium simply under the catalytic effect of panic that is spread through fake news.
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Sohini Bose is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Kolkata with the Strategic Studies Programme. Her area of research is India’s eastern maritime ...Read More +