An anxious nation was expecting the worst when Cyclone Phailin struck the coast. After all, the super cyclone that had battered Odisha in 1999 took away 10,000 lives. The inept handling of that natural disaster had played a role in the then-Congress government losing the State election, which was barely a few months away.
Ironically, this time too, as the fierce and furious Phailin devastated mainly Odisha and a part of Andhra Pradesh, elections are just a few months away — to some State assemblies and the Lok Sabha.
But thanks to timely and efficient steps taken by the Odisha government before Phailin’s landfall, , 21 lives were lost in the State and 23 on the whole. The other hero is our own India Meteorological Department, which had forecast wind speed of around 200-210 km an hour, against several Western agencies that had predicted a much more ferocious 300 km an hour. Once again Odisha was bang in the path of the super cyclone, with Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh also expecting a battering.
We’ve seen hundreds and thousands of lives lost to nature’s fury over the decades. But thanks to excellent, timely and remarkably accurate weather forecasts by our meteorological department, good communication between the Odisha government and the IMD, and impeccable efforts by the State administration, which vacated as many as nine lakh people — many of them forcibly — Phailin passed leaving behind a massive trail of destruction, but largely sparing lives.
Phailin crossed the Odisha coast near Gopalpur in Ganjam district late on Saturday evening and probably for the first time in our history, thanks to efficient management and timely evacuation of people, a natural calamity of this scale claimed such few lives. The deaths were mainly due to wall collapse, uprooting of trees and flooding.
Finally, it seems, we have learnt the meaning of disaster preparedness and placing a value on human life. Of course, lakhs of people have lost their homes and crops worth a whopping Rs 2,400 crore have been destroyed. So it will take a long while before normalcy returns to the lives of the homeless and the farmers whose fields stand ravaged.
One man who stands tall in the aftermath of the cyclone is the low-key and comparatively low-decibel Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. His State machinery organised, without much fuss, the transfer of nine lakh people from the vulnerable coastal region to safer ground. Small wonder there is praise all around — including in the social media — for him.
In media interviews, a relieved Patnaik said the damage had been minimal and he was personally monitoring the relief work, clearing of roads and resuming of essential services. Like a true leader he gave credit to the district administrations of Ganjam, Brahmapur (formerly known as Berhampur), Puri, Kendrapara and neighbouring areas for doing whatever it took to avert a massive tragedy. “The district collectors led the evacuation operation and arranged temporary shelters in a record time. The use of media to alert the people was also very effective,” he said.
But preparing for a calamity of this magnitude requires planning and firm resolve. For instance, for five days, as the system built up and intensified, the Met Department kept issuing detailed warnings. It wasn’t easy to cancel the leave of civil servants during Dasara, but this was done and, more important, disaster response teams with the necessary equipment for rescue and relief operations and control rooms were put in place, and telephone helplines assigned. Packaged drinking water and food supplies were moved to pre-determined relief areas; fishermen were asked not to venture out to sea and farmers advised to harvest as much of their crop as possible. As always, the armed forces did us proud in overseeing relief and rescue work.
Odisha officials have explained how power and telecom companies were asked to be in standby mode to restore disrupted services as quickly as possible.
Reuters quoted Tom Mitchell, head of climate change at the Overseas Development Institute in London, as saying, “Credit is due to those who have been involved in efforts to reduce the scale of vulnerability to disasters across India. The low loss of life, following the strongest storm ever measured in the Bay of Bengal, would almost certainly not have been possible without learning lessons from previous cyclones and tsunamis that have hit this coastline.”
The valuable takeaway from the Patnaik government’s admirable disaster preparedness is that where there is resolve, tenacity and clear leadership, it is possible to survive natural calamities with minimal loss of life. The Odisha Chief Minister has been one of the quietest when it comes to the 2014 elections. While other leaders from the so-called Third Front have been shouting from the rooftops, co-opting him in their group, he has kept his cards close to his chest. The only thing he said, in a recent interview, was that the Third Front was a “healthy alternative” to both the Congress and the BJP — and he remains equidistant from both.
Patnaik, who had shrewdly parted company with the BJP before the 2009 polls and swept his State, also said that he was not “comfortable” with the idea of Narendra Modi as the next prime minister of India. While the BJP pounced on him for this comment and accused him of having a “secret understanding” with the Congress, Patnaik also said that neither Modi nor Rahul Gandhi had pan-India acceptance. His inclination is clearly towards the Third Front.
Right now, all his energies are required to put the lives and fortunes of the affected people back on track. If Patnaik continues to ensure similar efficiency in the relief and rehabilitation operations for the homeless and distressed, the electoral rewards will come automatically.
Once he has the State Assembly under his belt and a strong contingent of Biju Janata Dal MPs, there will be time enough to talk, and talk firmly. Till then he has enough work to do in this underdeveloped State which comes on the nation’s radar, unfortunately, only during such disasters.