Amid gloom and doom, Odisha shows 'can do' spirit
By Amulya Ganguli
At a time when the daily perusal of Indian newspapers can be a disheartening experience because of the reports of rapes, riots, sleaze and the sliding rupee, the remarkable performance of the Odisha government in staving off the challenge posed by Cyclone Phailin on the country's eastern coastline stands out in shining contrast.
It isn't often that a state government gives such a creditable account of itself. On most occasions, theirs is a litany of failures with the administration barely being able to cope with the ever deteriorating civic services, particularly in areas where the underprivileged live, and a rising crime graph made all the more unacceptable by the lack of faith of the ordinary people in the police force.
In the midst of such universal cynicism, the Odisha government's accomplishment underlines the excellence of which the country is capable of if everyone high and low put their minds to it. In this particular case, what was needed was to arrange for the evacuation of the people in coastal regions and for their shelter in inland locations. It was no easy task given the density of the population and the usual reluctance of the people to leave their hearths and homes.
Yet, the temporary resettlement was accomplished with exemplary efficiency. Nearly a million people were moved inland before the cyclone hit the coastline. As a result of the government's pre-emptive move, there were no more than 43 deaths compared to the shamefully high figure of 10,000 who perished in the 1999 cyclone.
The credit for an achievement of such magnitude goes to the local administration, whose functionaries evidently worked with zeal and dedication to ensure that virtually no one was left behind in the areas which were expected to bear the brunt of the cyclone's fury. Their feat was all the more creditable considering that Phailin has been compared with the Hurricane Katrina which devastated New Orleans in the United States in 2005, killing nearly 2,000 people.
Apart from the commitment of the official staff to their duties, however onerous, a round of applause is due to Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, who facilitated the promptness of decision-making from his office and home in Bhubaneswar. Under him, the state government's able handing of the situation was in sharp contrast to the failures noted earlier in the year in Uttarakhand, where the administration did not seem to know how to deal with the raging floods.
True, Uttarakhand experienced a flash flood which could not have been anticipated unlike the highly precise tracking of the cyclone's path in the Bay of Bengal by the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), which, too, deserves hearty approbation. Its weather forecasting capabilities have improved by leaps and bounds in the last few years, no doubt because of the recent technological advances, including satellite imagery.
But, irrespective of whether a warning is available in time or not, what Odisha's response to Phailin shows is that a state administration must always be ready to cope with disaster since either a flash flood, caused by a sudden cloudburst of unusual intensity, or an earthquake can take place without prior notice.
Along with Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, too, was hit by the cyclone, though the blow was less severe. Even then, an estimated 200,000 people had to be removed to safer places and there have been no reports of casualties.
Considering that Andhra Pradesh is in the throes of an agitation because of the proposed division of the state with the creation of Telangana, the government of Chief Minister Kiran Kumar Reddy can be said to have acquitted itself satisfactorily.
The same cannot be said, however, of the deaths of more than 100 pilgrims in a stampede near a temple in Madhya Pradesh on October 13. Considering that such tragedies have been occurring at regular intervals, it is strange that state governments have been unable to evolve foolproof strategies of crowd control in a country where tens of thousands of devotees, mostly the poor, congregate at holy sites.
Yet, there have been no less than six incidents of mass deaths of people being trampled under foot in a moment of panic in five states in the last eight years in addition to the 49 deaths that took place in 2006 at the very site where the Datia stampede occurred. In that year, the victims were swept away by a flooded river.
This dismal record makes the Odisha government's achievement appear all the more admirable. There is little doubt that it learnt the right lessons from the 1999 tragedy whereas the other states have been unable to do so from their past experiences.
It goes without saying that the centre, too, must share the responsibility for preparing blueprints for dealing with disasters - a start has been made in the shape of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) that was established after the 2004 tsunami and acquitted itself well by preparing well for Phailin - including those which can be predicted, such as cyclones, as well as those which can be anticipated, such as stampedes, and those which take place suddenly, such as earthquakes and flash floods.
Unfortunately, on most occasions, the centre and the states have been caught on the wrong foot when tragedy strikes.
(Amulya Ganguli is a writer on national affairs. The views expressed are personal.)