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Millennium Post

Looking back at Phailin

Even people of the agitation-affected Andhra responded admirably to the professional advisories of the Meteorology Department relating to Phailin. In case of Odisha, too, people’s response was similar. There was no ‘Odisha speciality’ or ‘Andhra speciality’ about handling the situation. While in Andhra, close to two lakh people moved to safer areas, in Odisha about five lakh people reportedly sought shelter; many of whom were city slum dwellers even away from the core area of Phailin. IMD spoke of its mission for zero casualty and both Odisha and Andhra performed well in making the mission a success. A population that had the experience of the super cyclone of 1999 and knew the perils of a living in close proximity to a surging sea was eager to avoid repetition of the trauma and peril of an angry sea and shifted to safer places. Similar response would be there in future too.
 It is worthwhile looking at the progress of a long term coastal management plan to make the Odisha coast safe against marine turbulence after 1999. Fourteen years of Chief Ministership of Naveen Patnaik did not see any addition to the Cyclone Shelters on Odisha coast beyond what was done after the 1999 Super Cyclone. The Odisha Disaster Mitigation Authority created after 1999 has been kept under limbo for years. The present Additional Chief Secretary, Revenue is the part time head of the Authority now in stupor. Neither the NCC cadets nor the Students associated with the National Social Service were ever roped in to learn on disaster management where as they could have been an asset in clearing obstacles in communication lines, in the management of shelter. HAM Radio network was never allowed to develop; local initiative in this regard wilted due to indifference of the government.

A developed HAM Radio network along the coast, managed by the population living close to the coast, would have helped in monitoring developing distress conditions of the sea and even in isolated inaccessible pockets in the coastal areas.. Prawn farming close to the coastline was not discouraged nor was a safer land-based activity in lieu ensured. Mangrove regeneration efforts were never taken up in a meaningful way.  Rather the state preferred to launch an unrealistic programme of having twelve ports on Odisha’s coast, hardly realising that even much richer economy like the United States did not have such concentration of Ports. Even a very optimistic projection of the state’s economic growth would never feel constrained with only three developed ports on the entire coastline of Odisha. This ill conceived proposal kept large tracks of the eco-fragile coast off any meaningful shore protection and stabilisation activity. The state government does not seem to have learnt much from the devastation the super Cyclone caused. On the other hand, people had. They had grown wiser, not only in Odisha, in Andhra too. Technology made it possible to provide to the people much more details of the impending disaster with much greater accuracy. Spread of mobile phones helped the people to a great extent. The evacuation only conveyed a swelling urge of an apprehensive population to leave a zone of vulnerability. It was as swift and natural as the exodus of Indian workers in a manufacturing unit at the end of a shift from their work place. There is therefore hardly any reason to be overwhelmed by the so-called government performance of swift evacuation of a large population.

Rather the way the real challenge of restoration will be met should exhibit the quality of governance. Berhampur city and the towns and villages that bore the direct impact of the Phailin need to have swift and effective reconstruction. Many other towns and villages of the state have been in darkness due to interruption of power supply. Even in parts of Bhubaneswar and Puri, the speed of restoration has been slow. There is growing realisation that restoration of electricity supply in Berhampur and adjoining areas is a task beyond the local capacity. Chief Minister has already sought assistance of the Centre in this regard.

Inadequacy of the state’s wholesome preparedness to handle Phailin revealed immediately after  Phailin left the borders of Odisha. IMD had forecast that the tropical cyclone would turn into deep depression in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. The import of this forecast was not appreciated by the Odisha administration occupied in the Ganjam situation. The ancient city of Baripada of Mayurbhanj District was badly flooded to the surprise of the inhabitants. There was no previous warning; nor was there any plan for evacuation. The major government Hospital of the city was flooded, bringing in untold misery to the unsuspecting patents. Many districts are now facing severe floods due to heavy downpour in the upper catchment in Jharkhand.  The strategy adopted by Naveen’s government to respond to the incoming Phailin was a part of the national strategy. Evacuation of people succeeded for the incoming Phailin; it was never put into practice to handle the deep depression caused by the same Phailin only two days later. What could be Odisha’s special strategy would be the quality, adequacy and speed of reconstruction and restoration and a humane approach of the administrative machinery. The Electric fuse station of my locality in Bhubaneswar would not take my calls since the 13th of the month for more than 24 hours; the Executive Engineer of the Electricity distribution company kept his official phone on switch off mode since 7 PM of the 13th till the afternoon of the next day; water supply engineer refused on the same day to send drinking tanker with pumping arrangement to fill my empty overhead tank even on payment. I was unable to lift water from my home bore-well as there was no electricity. Some anxious citizens in the evening of the 13th went to the electric sub-station to request for early resumption of electricity supply. Two police control room vans reached the station to provide security to the staff inside the office and the police chased away the citizens. This gloomy situation a day or two after Phailin’s departure could perhaps be condoned as the system was in severe strain. Electricity has since been restored in most parts of Bhubaneswar by the 15th. Bhubaneswar, in any case, was away from the path of the Phailin. An apathetic government system in the core area cannot deliver succor.  Let an indifferent government system not be Naveen’s legacy.

The author is former Coal Secretary
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