Turning point Phailin

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.

While Odisha's preparations for cyclone Phailin seem to have come as a pleasant surprise to many around the country, the people of Odisha had come to expect it. During several major, middling, and minor natural disasters during the last 14 years, Naveen Patnaik has not only led by example, but has gradually honed the state administration's disaster management capabilities to a very high standard.

Take, for instance, the flooding of August and September of 2011. While not as devastating as Phailin, it was nevertheless very major, causing immense damage in 19 districts, with about 100 casualties. Yet, flooding of a similar magnitude in the early 1980s had killed thousands, and that too on a much smaller denominator of the total population.

The reasons behind the dramatic drop in casualties in 2011 will be familiar to anyone who has followed Odisha's efforts now for Phailin: constant monitoring of weather patterns and warnings, early reviews with and instructions to district authorities, positioning of relief materials and teams well in advance, coordination with the Central government for defence and other agencies' assistance, and most important of all, evacuation of large numbers of vulnerable citizens to safe locations.

In the past decade, several regional political leaders have turned upside down the old conventional wisdom that anti-incumbency invariably causes ruling parties to lose elections. This has primarily been linked to a corresponding improvement in governance, measured both by widespread acclaim as well as corroborated by socio-economic indicators.

Odisha has been one of the prime examples of this phenomenon, with a three-time chief minister looking poised to lead his party to yet another electoral victory, going by opinion polls over many months and urban election results a few weeks ago. It should come as no surprise that during this time the state has been making unprecedented progress, as measured by both economic growth, as well as by indicators such as poverty reduction and infant and maternal mortality.

And there is no question that disaster management is where Odisha has shone. That is something that has been known for some time not only to its citizens but also to experts, and is only now getting widespread national public attention.

Of course, the efforts and contribution of various other national authorities must also be acknowledged, including the Indian Meteorological Department, the National Disaster Rapid Action Force, and the defence forces, which positioned and kept ready helicopters and other resources for deployment as necessary.

This experience could well prove to be a turning point. The successful containment of casualties, and the attention and all round kudos that the preparations for Phailin received, have set a high standard for what governmental authorities can do when they apply themselves. Even more importantly, it serves as a benchmark for what citizens throughout the country can, and indeed should, expect of their government.

But it must be recognised that systemic capability to deal with such disasters is not like a switch that can just be turned on at will. It takes sustained prioritisation and effort. In a sense, Odisha's manner of dealing with this particular crisis is a 14-year-long "overnight success" story.

Also, much more investment is needed in infrastructure and resources. Countries like Japan, which earned kudos for their management of the so-called triple disaster in 2011, have very sophisticated centralised disaster monitoring and management agencies. Those have round-the-clock real time information from across the country through webcams, helicopters, satellites and weather sensors.

India needs to further upgrade its monitoring and response capabilities. But the most important upgradation necessary is that of political will.

The writer is a BJD MP from Odisha in Lok Sabha

express@expressindia.com

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