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A woman carries her child and milk packets as she wades through a flooded street in Chennai, India, December 5, 2015. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee/File Photo

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By Nita Bhalla

NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - India's new plan to tackle disasters fails to address the needs of vulnerable groups, which could lead to millions of women, children, disabled and elderly people as well as lower caste and tribal communities being put at further risk, aid workers said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled India's first National Disaster Management Plan (NDMP) last week. The plan aims to boost resilience to earthquakes, cyclones and floods and reduce deaths by focusing on early warning, response and recovery.

While the United Nations and relief agencies have generally welcomed the plan, some aid groups say there are serious gaps.

"The NDMP document should have included guidelines and systems to ensure that the government's disaster response, mitigation and recovery especially target most vulnerable sections amongst the disaster-impacted population," said Sandeep Chachra, ActionAid India's executive director.

Disasters affect people to varying degrees, and the government should identify the specific needs of different groups to respond effectively, aid workers say.

For example, adolescent girls and women face many problems - from a lack of sanitary towels during menstruation to sexual violence in camps and poor healthcare for expectant mothers.

As a result, maternal and infant mortality rates, infectious diseases fuelled by poor sanitation, sexual abuse and unsafe abortions tend to rise in the chaos following a disaster.

Disabled people are also disproportionately affected by disasters, say aid workers. Many cannot physically access buildings or transport, relief camps or aid distribution points.

EXCLUDED

Another vulnerable group are people from lower-caste communities, or Dalits, who often live on the outskirts of settlements, in poor quality housing with little protection against natural hazards.

A 2013 report found many Dalits do not get the same access to emergency aid such as clean water, dry food rations or shelter as their higher-caste neighbours.

It said lower-caste communities were refused food at a relief camp in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami, while during the same disaster in India, Dalits were exploited for their labour to remove corpses and debris.

"We are disappointed with the National Disaster Management Plan, as it fails to consider the specific needs of Dalits and other vulnerable groups," said Rikke Nöhrlind, Executive Director of the International Dalit Solidarity Network.

"The Indian government is undoubtedly aware of this, and it seems incomprehensible to us that it fails to address the issue. The fact that more attention is paid to animals than vulnerable humans in this important plan is very telling indeed."

"ONE OF THE FIRST"

India is likely to be hit hard by climate change. It is already one of the most disaster-prone nations in the world and many of its 1.3 billion people live in areas vulnerable to hazards such as floods, cyclones, earthquakes and droughts.

Floods - like those sparked by unprecedented rainfall in the financial capital Mumbai in 2005, or in the Himalayan city of Srinagar in 2014 – will become commonplace, experts say.

The NDMP covers all aspects of disaster management - prevention, mitigation, response and recovery - and provides for better coordination among government agencies and departments.

The plan also identifies tasks such as early warning, information dissemination, provision of medical care, fuel and transportation, search and rescue and evacuations.

The United Nations said India was one of the first countries to present a plan to implement the four priorities for action of the Sendai Framework, a U.N. plan agreed in Japan in 2015 to reduce disaster losses.

"The challenges of reducing disaster risk in a country the size of India are formidable but the Indian government is demonstrating that where there is a will there is a way," said Robert Glasser, head of the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNSIDR), in a statement.

"The country faces a formidable range of both man-made and natural hazards as evidenced by the drought which is currently affecting over 300 million people."

(Reporting by Nita Bhalla. Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)

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