Turning point Phailin
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India must upgrade disaster monitoring and response systems. It could learn from Odisha
In October 1999, Naveen Patnaik had been an MP for two and a half years, and a minister in Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's cabinet for a year and a half, when the so-called Super Cyclone hit Odisha. Though not even remotely connected with politics earlier, he had not only replaced his late, legendary father Biju Patnaik in Parliament, but had subsequently founded the Biju Janata Dal and led it to success in the 1998 and 1999 Lok Sabha elections.
The Super Cyclone was the worst ever in the Northern Indian Ocean since records had been kept, and ripped through Odisha, killing thousands. It not only laid waste to vast swathes of the state, but also cut it off from the rest of the world for three days, before communication and transport links could be restored.
What stood out in the public mind in the midst of that devastation was the ineptitude of the state government, which appeared unprepared and taken mostly by surprise. Senior political figures of the ruling party were seen to be squabbling, there were widespread allegations of corruption in the procurement of relief materials, and it was visible for all to see that many lives could have been saved if only the preparations had been more than cursory.
Alongwith the then defence minister, George Fernandes, Naveen Patnaik was on the first Air Force flight to Odisha, though it had to turn back due to the weather. Nevertheless, as a Union minister, he mobilised central support for relief and rehabilitation and earned widespread admiration for his efforts. It was no surprise that in Odisha's assembly elections four months later, he swept into office as chief minister.
That certainly left a lasting impression on the then neophyte politician, for since then, there has never been a calamity in Odisha, major or minor, that he has not personally monitored and ensured government responsiveness to. And Odisha, with a nearly 500 km coastline, has a propensity for several minor floods and cyclones every year, with bigger ones every other year or so.