February 2023 | 1466 words | 4-minute read
The 2022 floods in Assam were some of the most devastating that the state has ever seen. With over 5.5 million people affected, the beleaguered community was struggling to cope.
While the state government and NGOs tried to help the distressed populace, there were many areas where relief support was required. In keeping with the Tata philosophy of supporting the community, Tata Sustainability Group (TSG) sprang into action. Explaining the belief that underpins the group’s disaster response framework, Siddharth Sharma, group chief sustainability officer, Tata Sons says, “When the community is in distress, it is our duty to be with the community.”
One of TSG’s key mandates is to develop and deploy the Tata Disaster response framework. The framework allows the organisation to determine whether to formulate a disaster response programme, based on disaster response guidelines relating to the severity and magnitude of the disaster, its impact on life and property etc. Since its inception, TSG has coordinated over 15 disaster responses.
The bulwark of TSG’s response effort in the emergency response and relief phase rests on its twin cadres of project managers, who lead the response effort, and procurement officers, and on the standard operating procedures it has instituted. The cadres are supported by core volunteers with linguistic and functional skills, and physical and mental tenacity, who opt to serve in a difficult situation.
Shaping the response
In July, a team from TSG began a preliminary assessment in two districts: Barpeta, affected by the Brahmaputra, and Cachar, in the Barak Valley of southern Assam. With the roads destroyed, the team had to take boats to visit the worst affected areas. In several places, the floods had forced people out of their homes, into transit camps and tents in the middle of highways, with their cooking equipment and animals. They could return to their homes only when the water began receding.
The assessment revealed that Barpeta, though badly affected, recovered as it was accustomed to the floods that Assam witnesses annually. But Cachar was much worse off. Returning to Mumbai with the findings of their preliminary assessment, the team put up a case for Cachar.
TSG and Amalgamated Plantations Pvt Ltd (APPL), an associate company of Tata Consumer Products, with a significant presence in the Northeast, agreed on the shape of the response and appealed to companies for resources. Guided by TSG, APPL led the disaster response programme. Seven Tata companies pooled in funds, totalling ₹1.2crore, to finance the response effort.
Sanjay Kumar Dutta, GM, APPL; Jayanta Das, area director Northeast, Kathmandu, Bhutan and Darjeeling, and GM, Vivanta Guwahati, Indian Hotels Company, and Shrirang Dhavale, cluster head, Community Services Cluster – Volunteering, CSR, Business and Human Rights and Disaster Response, TSG, formed the core committee. Sumedh Patil, manager, TSG, was named project manager and Tileswar Majhi, executive -Materials, APPL, was named procurement officer.
Back in Assam, Mr Patil met the district administration and the state disaster management authority. The authorities assigned members of Apada Mitra, local volunteers trained as first responders in times of disasters, to help the team reach the affected areas.
For 20 days, Mr Patil and his team of core volunteers and Apada Mitras trudged across 43 villages, visiting over 3,000 households in unreached areas. The team would painstakingly visit each home to assess the family’s needs. The effort was exhausting.
For 20 days, the team of core volunteers and Apada Mitras trudged across 43 villages, visiting over 3,000 households in unreached areas
Mr Patil says, “Approaching families, one at a time, was tedious, but necessary. Given our resources, we could only reach a limited number of people. We wanted to ensure that our efforts reached the most vulnerable and worst affected.”
The effort focused on finding families below the poverty line, those who would never be able to get back on their feet without assistance. The most vulnerable families included those headed by single women or by children, families with pregnant or lactating women, physically challenged or terminally ill persons etc.
Mr Dutta says, “Reaching out to the worst affected villages was an uphill task for our volunteers. But they stood up to the challenge and did a commendable job.”
The process of identifying beneficiaries was fraught with tension and needed to be handled delicately. The team explained their selection process to the community to ensure that no one felt shortchanged.
Mr Patil says, “Returning to the hotel after an exhausting day on the field, we would discuss the names on the lists to determine the master list. This master sheet would be put up in public places for 24 hours.
The advantage of this step was that the community was able to cross-validate the selection, often making a case for why a particular name deserved to be on the list, and another did not.”
Once the list was finalised, the team handed out coupons to the beneficiaries a day prior to distribution. The coupons carried their personal details as well as the list of materials in the relief kit.
The household utility kit consisted of Tata Swach water filters, some utensils and pans, two warm blankets and sanitary napkins. While most of the items in the kit were selected based on conversations with the community that revealed what they needed most, the sanitary items were included in response to unvoiced needs.
The shelter kit consisted of nine good quality CGI (corrugated galvanised iron) sheets, each 8x3 feet in dimension. These sheets are valuable as they are used locally to create roofs. A total of 794 families received the household kit, while the shelter kit was given to 842 families. Overall, 6,000 lives were touched.
The distribution was done in community halls and schools that were easily accessible. The relief items were stored in a warehouse that the team got at no charge, courtesy APPL.
The household utility kit consisted of Tata Swach water filters, some utensils and pans, two warm blankets and sanitary napkins
Tata Chemicals and Tata Steel offered good discounts on their products. The team also negotiated good deals for the unbranded items in the kits. The resultant savings enabled the team to reach out to a greater number of beneficiaries.
Core volunteers are a key part of the response effort. Twenty-four volunteers from six companies were selected in response to TSG’s call for Bengali-speaking volunteers with diverse functional skills, as specified by Mr Patil, who could reach Cachar post-haste. Four cycles of volunteers travelled to Cachar, spending a week or more there, and assisting at various stages of the response effort.
The team was also buoyed by the support it received from the Border Security Force (BSF) and Assam Rifles (AR). At every stage, Mr Patil met officials of the district administration, updated them on the progress and called out the glitches. The local government supported the team by deploying BSF and AR personnel during the distribution. The presence of these soldiers discouraged miscreants from causing any disturbance. It also helped as Cachar abuts an international border with Bangladesh. The team too had incorporated risk mitigation strategies into its working.
“Tata, for me, is not just a brand, it is a purpose.” - Col Akash Kumar, Assam Rifles
Colonel Akash Kumar from AR wholeheartedly supported the relief effort, saying, “Tata, for me, is not just a brand, it is a purpose.”
Learning from crises
The 45-day period of intense, frenetic activity has not been without its lessons. Mr Patil says, “The most important lesson was putting effort into identifying the right beneficiaries. The second lesson was that we must keep going. No matter what went wrong yesterday, you must try afresh today. The third learning was having several backup plans and buffer days in place, and to keep volunteers informed about any change in plans.”
These lessons, as also lessons from other relief efforts, are used to strengthen the disaster response machinery. This effort is not limited to times of disaster alone. As Mr Sharma says, “I believe that the more you sweat in peacetime, the less you bleed in war.”
The State Disaster Response Forum, led by the head of the lead Tata company in each region, discusses the vulnerability of the state, learns the individual strengths of Tata colleagues in the region and builds a rapport with the government machinery. These actions help the teams to swing into action faster, in the event of a disaster.
The teams were able to bring commendable spirit and compassion to their task of helping the most impacted and vulnerable people rebuild their lives with dignity.
The success of the effort rests on the partnerships and collaborations built during normal times. Mr Patil and his team discovered the strength of these bonds out on the field.
Amidst the disaster, a situation of chaos and confusion, the teams were able to bring commendable spirit and compassion to their task of helping the most impacted and vulnerable people rebuild their lives with dignity.
Tata entities that contributed to the effort include:
- Taj Public Service Welfare Trust
- Tata Capital
- Tata Communications
- Tata Projects (Employee contribution)
- Tata Steel
- Titan Company
Volunteers came from the following companies:
- Tata Power
- Tata Projects
- Tata Steel
- Cynthia Rodrigues