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Odisha’s cyclone shows India can handle disasters but longer-term action is needed

John Elliott

Naveen Patnaik Oct 13 131 279x300 Odisha’s cyclone shows India can handle disasters but longer term action is neededWhen a massive cyclone hit the eastern Indian state of Odisha (Orissa) at the end of October 1999, at least four district officials abandoned their posts in panic or rushed to their homes, and the chief secretary flew on a private visit to the US a few days later. Some 10,000 people were killed as a result of inefficient administration and a lack of preparation, together with inaccurate weather forecasts and a chief minister who was reportedly told by his astrologers that the cyclone would not be serious. That was typical of the lack of responsibility and preparedness, plus trust in the stars and a belief that everything will work out ok, which accounts for many of India’s dreadful disasters.

As a result of lessons learned in 1999, Odisha successfully protected human life from a serious cyclone that crossed the Bay of Bengal and hit the coast on Saturday night at more than 200kms an hour. Some 950,000 people were evacuated from the area in the previous few days, and fewer than 25 people are believed to have been killed, even though fishing villages, homes, ports, and farming areas were devastated. National and state level disaster management and other services worked well, and the country’s meteorological department accurately predicted Cyclone Phailin’s strength and focus area, dismissing criticisms from American experts who alleged that the storm could have been as serious as New Orleans’ Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Odisha is generally known for being sleepy and ineffectual, but it has shown what can be achieved when someone takes charge with determination to succeed and forces officials and state politicians to carry out their duties. This runs counter to India’s record of badly handled natural disasters – seen most recently in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand where environmental degradation and an indifferent state government led in June to more than 6,000 deaths after devastating floods.  In another disaster yesterday, more than 120 pilgrims were killed during a stampede in Mahya Pradesh at a river where 50 people were killed during the same religious festivities in 2006.

Odisha’s evacuation plans were drawn up in time and infrastructure that was missing in 1999 such as cyclone shelters, satellite telephones and trained rescue staff had been prepared. This was backed up by effective national disaster management arrangements and modern weather forecasting and monitoring technology.

Naveen Patnaik, Odisha’s chief minister (above) who presided over the activity, was elected a few months after the 1999 disaster by a state that wanted change. He had been a dilettante international socialite and author (mixing abroad with people such as Mick Jagger and Jacqueline Onassis, who had been his editor at Doubleday, his publishers) until he fell unexpectedly into politics a few years earlier. That  followed the death of his father, who had also been chief minister. He now lives a semi-reclusive lifestyle in Odisha, relying on a few close advisers and cronies, and has managed to retain a “clean” image despite the state’s widespread corrupt and illegal mining.

Not enough has been done however to protect the coasts of Odisha and the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh that was also hit by Phailin – and there is now a risk of widespread floods. A report on the Wall Street Journal’s blog site suggests that they have failed effectively to implement a Rs14.9bn (about $240m) five-year cyclone disaster management programme that was set up in 2009 after a massive tsunami killed more than 15,000 people on India’s east coast in 2004. Recent government reports (see the project’s website) suggest that the programme is far behind schedule, especially in Andhra Pradesh where the government has been wracked by political crises over deep-rooted corruption and plans to split the state in two.

Patnaik now needs to ensure that his state-level politicians and officials continue to work effectively and honestly on relief, rehabilitation and stronger coastal defences. If he succeeds, he could be re-elected for a record-breaking fourth term in state assembly elections due next year. This will test his ability as a political manager because the usual reaction in India after such a success is to relax and let life takes its course. Moving nearly a million people in a few days was a massive task, but maintaining focus, and ensuring continuity of efficient and clean government, will be much more difficult over the longer term.

John Elliott’s Riding the Elephant blog is on http://ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com/

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