Sunday, October 19, 2014

Disaster Management in India

October 12 is the date of my birth. So by the standards propounded by the bourgeois and elites worldwide, I am supposed to celebrate it in a pomp and spectacular way, at least on a personal note. However, this year and the last, two of the hardest disasters India has faced in her recent past have chosen to hit the land on that very (in)auspicious day – Cyclone Phailin in 2013 and Cyclone Hudhud in 2014. Both of them, categorized by the India Meteorological Department (IMD) as “Very Severe Cyclonic Storm” as they made landfall along the Coromandel coastline in south-eastern India.

India is a densely populated country and thus, any natural (or man-made) disaster is, bound to impact several thousands of people by simple arithmetic logic. More so in case of cyclones because their direct zone of impact generally tends to span tens of kilometers into hinterland. Yet what stands out impressive, if I may be permitted to use the word, is the casualty figures. Fewer than 50 people were reported dead in the state of Odisha due to Cyclone Phailin, of which more than half was a result of floods which were a result of the cyclone. The number of deaths caused by Cyclone Hudhud has also been significantly low so far, it stands at 41. Of these 38 were in the state of Andhra Pradesh, which was where Cyclone Hudhud made landfall and 3 were in the neighboring state of Odisha.

The lessons for this success started in the failure that accompanied the Super Cyclone which hit Odisha in 1999. Official figures put the death toll in that cyclone to be around 10,000.It seems that the governments of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh learnt, in a bitter way, about what could go wrong in that instance. It is a combination of that which resulted in better preparedness of the state government machinery, plus the advancements in climatic monitoring technologies and smooth co-ordination of the multitude of bodies like the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and the Indian armed forces. For over a week before Cyclone Hudhud struck the eastern coast of India, IMD started putting out bulletins related to the various aspects of the impending storm – the movement, the speeds and other related information. The IMD, which had issued warning of the 1999 Super Cyclone only about 24 hours prior to it making the landfall, started issuing detailed and accurate warning about Hudhud five days before Cyclone Hudhud struck. And this data was used very productively by governments of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh in pre-emptively relocating populace from the impact zone. The preparedness was phenomenal, and commendable. The prompt predictions from IMD ensured that Odisha administration shifted over 9,00,000 people to safer places before Cyclone Phailin hit the Indian coast. The figure was over 7,00,000 in the state of Andhra Pradesh in case of Cyclone Hudhud this year.

While it is agonizing that it took a super cyclone which cost the lives of over 10,000 people and crores of rupees in terms of economic losses for us to learn the lesson for better preparedness and better disaster management system, the gratifying part is indeed the fact that the lessons have certainly been imbibed. We are much more used to sedentary responses from state governments and their general reluctance to imbibe lessons from the past and inculcate a healthy way of preparedness, the government and bureaucratic machineries of governments of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, along with agencies such as IMD and NDRF have shown us a bright spot indeed worthy of emulation. The other federations in India and the union government itself must take a leaf out of these incidents and replicate it across the country. In a country like India, natural disasters consistently wreak great havoc and it is incumbent upon us to learn the lessons from what happened yesterday so that if the same things happen tomorrow, the impact will be much lesser. The recent floods in Jammu Kashmir, floods in North Eastern states in India, 2013 Uttarakhand Floods and several other incidents in recent and distant past point to a dismal fact, that our levels of preparedness is often caught short. True, quite often it is not possible to predict natural disasters. But disaster is something we need to be prepared for. Every ounce of extra preparedness can make the difference in the life or lives of an individual or a family, a humongous price that justifies the extra preparedness. We now have a rock solid example of how Andhra Pradesh and Odisha did it, clinically. Maybe we should take some time and imbibe that.

In our natural tendency to criticize governments for what they more often than not fail to do, let us warm ourselves to congratulate the governments and the personnel involved for all the efforts they put in to minimize the impact in terms of casualties these cyclonic storms had. The kudos goes to every single known and unknown individual who did their two cents for the country, from that unknown electricity lineman who struggled to restore electricity in some remote colony or village, to those secretaries, ministers and other functionaries of the governments who oversaw the planning and implementation before and after the disaster. Kudos, my fellow countrymen.

Afterthought: For anyone interested in the naming convention of (past and future) cyclonic storms around the northern Indian Ocean, this document provides an interesting insight into the naming convention, so to speak.

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