Given the Will, Any Disaster can be Tackled
A strong lesson emerges from how the cyclone Phailin was handled — when there is a will to do something, India has the competence, capability and resources. Clearly, the Odisha government and administration did not forget to learn from the 1999 incident when a super cyclone left over 10,000 people dead. Since then, the government has built cyclone shelters with a week’s supply of ration for each shelter. 9 lakh people were evacuated from the coastal areas and moved inland into the shelters. This was made possible because of accurate forecasts from the Indian meteorological department.
As opposed to the experts in the west, including the US Navy’s Typhoon warning centre which predicted stronger wind force and classified Phalin as a category-5 hurricane, our IMD scientists, maintained their different stand firmly. In the end, not only the Indian prediction on the strength of the cyclone proved right, but also the cyclone path was accurately predicted. The IMD proved that it can’t be underestimated compared with international agencies. In fact, since 2009, all major cyclones to hit the east coast – Aila, Thane, and Nilam – have been predicted well in advance, minimizing the loss to human life. The Indian Meteorological Department and other agencies are now equipped with latest advance warning equipment.
The prompt response from the National Disaster Management Authority and the National Disaster Response Force closely matched the accuracy of IMD inputs. They constantly monitored the advance of cyclone Phailin and sent thousands of rescue and relief workers to help the state government. Within hours of the cyclone striking Odisha, relief workers were in action. Not only did they help contain damage to property and life, they also ensured that the evacuated people were returned to their homes after the cyclone had passed. What is heartening is that the loss of life was minimal against the fury of the terrible storm.
For once, even media played a positive role. It has often been criticized for being disruptive and self-serving, but in this case, it did a commendable job. Bulletins from the interiors of Odisha kept people informed as reporters went into the remotest areas. Focus moved from city-centric debates and drama to reporting news that mattered, aptly playing the watchdog role in ensuring that disaster operations did not become slack.
The special representative of the UN secretary general for disaster risk reduction said, “Odisha’s handling of the very severe cyclone will be a landmark success story in disaster management”. The UN highlighted Odisha’s efforts in dealing with cyclone Phailin as a successful case study globally.
But the unglamorous work of reconstruction is yet to show the same level of will and promptness as the rescue operations. Houses have been destroyed and boats have broken down taking away the livelihood of thousands of people. Farms have been flooded with saline water, there is a power crisis in a number of districts, food is scarce and prices of essential commodities have soared while people have little or no money to buy necessities.
The real success of the Odisha government will be judged by how fast it brings normalcy in people’s life. That will be true victory.
A Lot Needs to be Done
If Phailin cyclone hammered the coastal areas of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh on Oct 12 this year, few days later a man-made disaster in the form of temple stampede also took place in Madhya Pradesh. If the mighty Phailin could kill less than 60 people, the Ratangarh temple tragedy took more than 100 lives. The stark contrast points to the importance of disaster preparedness that should acquire more importance now in the era of climate change calamities.
Just months earlier in Uttarakhand, the government machinery was caught off guard by flash floods and landslides that put the NDMA to shame. The widespread ridicule of disaster management machinery perhaps prompted it to act when Phailin arrived – and the alertness paid.
However, the stampede in a Madhya Pradesh temple tells us that we should not celebrate success too soon. There is need to build on the success of Phailin story and institutionalize the system. While this should be treated as a benchmark, there is also need to set high standards for what the Government can and should do. The science has advanced so much that more investment should be made in disaster management, perhaps, taking a leaf from countries like Japan.
According to a recent review, while all States are supposed to have a disaster management plan ready to meet any eventuality, some States including Madhya Pradesh were still not ready. While the Tsunami in 2004 woke the authorities towards natural disasters, skills are still inadequate to handle man-made calamities. Stampede near Ratangarh temple in Madhya Pradesh was an avoidable tragedy. The district administration never anticipated such a disaster and, therefore, was unprepared. The judicial inquiry may bring out the truth about various conflicting claims.
The National Disaster Management Authority has recently released a study on crowd management. This includes a snake like approach, getting more administrative reinforcement for regulating the crowds and formulating plans for the dignitaries. It also suggested that the emergency exits should not be blocked and VIP entry should be refused if it hindered the safety concerns. Devotees throng temples on auspicious occasions and there should be a system to ensure orderly darshan for all. These should be enforced by all States in crowded places.
Some Positive After-Effects of Cyclone Phailin
A host of agencies have decided to put in place mechanisms to ensure they are not taken by surprise the next time.
Himalayan Lakes to be Mapped
The Geological Survey of India (GSI) has decided to map all moraine-dammed lakes in the Himalayan catchments and assess their geotechnical stability, after the Gandhi Sarovar Lake breached earlier this June leading to the devastation in Kedarnath.
As per a presentation given to the National Disaster Management Authority last week by A Sundaramoorthy, the director general of GSI, the lakes like Gandhi Sarovar are vulnerable to lakeburst or breach during heavy rains. It is believed that melting of ice and glaciers due to high temperatures in May and June in Uttarakhand, coupled with record high rainfall, swelled the Sarovar.
IMD to Improve Weather Forecast
The IMD will improve its forecast mechanism in the landslide prone areas by installing more state-of-the-art Automatic Weather Stations and ‘closely spaced’ Doppler instruments for monitoring and developing an Early Warning System, NDMA officials say. GSI has started preparing an ‘inventory’ of landslides in five worst-affected districts of Uttarakhand by stationing 20 geologists.
Arctic Sea Ice Connection
The government is also considering another presentation by the Earth System Sciences Organization, which suggests a ‘physical link between intense monsoon convection over north-west India in Uttarakhand and melting of Arctic Sea Ice.
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