At a time when India must contend with COVID-19, Cyclone Amphan is further complicating matters; write Shahid Akhter & Vaibhav Naresh Raut
While countries all over the world are grappling with unprecedented and astoundingly grim realities of a deadly pandemic, another catastrophe involving even higher stakes is looming large over the Bay of Bengal. The extremely severe cyclonic storm Amphan poses a serious threat to millions of lives in Odisha and West Bengal and puts the state and Central authorities in the dire position of handling two grave uncertainties at the same time.
According to the IMD Director General Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, the dangerous cyclone with a wind velocity of more than 90 km/h is set to hit the coastal districts of Odisha and West Bengal. He also accentuated that the cyclone will cause extremely heavy rainfall and strong thunderstorms in the landfall regions and as a further consequence, destructive storm surge flooding is being anticipated. The Government of Odisha has predicted that around 7 lakh people in 649 villages along the sea coast are likely to be acutely affected. Given this situation, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has asked district collectors to put extra efforts to prepare cyclone preparedness amidst of pandemic crisis and try to ensure 'zero casualties'.
Almost 20 teams of Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force (ODRAF) and 17 teams of National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) consisting of around 45 personal each alongside 335 Fire and Disaster Management units are already being deployed as preparatory measures. Additionally, 20 rescue teams with Gemini boats and medical teams are also kept ready for supplementing rescue and relief operations. Further, Indian Naval ships at Visakhapatnam are also on standby to proceed to the most-affected areas to undertake humanitarian aid distress relief (HADR), evacuation and logistic supply.
Background to the cyclone
As per the statistic, 26 of the 35 deadliest tropical cyclones in world history have been taken place in the Bay of Bengal. A study by Nicholls et al. (1995) showed that in the last two centuries, almost 42 per cent and 27 per cent of the Earth's tropical cyclone-associated deaths have occurred in Bangladesh and India respectively. According to the study by Siba Prasad Mishra and Ramakanta Panigrahi (2014), in Odisha annually around 7.4 million people get affected by such disasters out of which 40 per cent are affected due to floods and 18 per cent due to cyclones. In 1999, a super cyclone with a wind speed of 260-270 km/h hit the coast of Odisha and killed 10,000 people and affected 1.89 crore people across the state. In 2013, a cyclone named Phailin hit Odisha and waylaid the lives of nearly 12 million people. Just one year after Phailin, Hudhud hit Visakhapatnam at wind speeds of 206 km/h and caused the deaths of 124 people. Three years hence, in 2017, another cyclone called Ockhi struck and killed more than 200 people and displaced hundreds and thousands of people. Further, in 2018, cyclone Fani left a trail of devastation across Odisha and made 46 million people homeless.
Until 1999, the State had no well laid out plan for disaster management. Consequently, after the 1999 Super Cyclone, the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority was set up. Almost 900 cyclone shelters have been built in vulnerable pockets of the state, with systems in place for evacuation of people. In addition to that, the Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force was also set up in 2001 to conduct rescue operations and relief distribution. With the help of this clear command and control structure, a remarkable example had been made during the Fani Cyclone by evacuating more than 1.2 million people within 24 hours. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) and other experts had praised India for this feat of minimising the loss of life through its early warning systems and rapid evacuation strategies.
A new challenge
However, the majority of the world's deadliest tropical cyclones that have struck India were in a period of normal circumstances. But, the catastrophic cyclone Amphan has coincided with the current global pandemic. While the immediate priority for the country is to battle COVID-19 and the country's disaster management systems are already working over-capacity, a new calamity is venturing forth to unmask glaring vulnerabilities in India's healthcare, economic and political systems. For the last two months, the country is under tremendous pressure and faces one of the worst financial crisis in memory due to shutting down all the economic activities to contain the outbreak of the deadly contagion. This has had an unimaginable impact on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups in the country.
Besides this, the scenario in coastal regions of Odisha is more horrific because almost 36 per cent of people live below the poverty line. Similarly, over 4 million of India's poorest people live in coastal West Bengal. Thus, the lockdown has disproportionately affected their lives. In such a grim plight, the cyclone is another unwelcome challenge for both these regions. Although Odisha and West Bengal have well-developed disaster management plans, in the case of extreme disasters, they require a lot of resources, financial support, volunteers, etc., from the country as well as across the world to speed up the relief, restoration and rehabilitation operations. For example, during the Fani cyclone, the Odisha government had received Rs 1,341 crore and 4,000 tonnes of food items along with 48 tonnes of medical supplies from the Central Government and Rs 15.5 million from the European Union. Likewise, the United Nations, Work Bank, Asian Development Bank, and various other organisations had extended their support as disaster relief. Now, amidst the global health and financial crisis, how many global organisations will come to the aid of Odisha and West Bengal? The next question is what form will aid from the Central Government take? Will there be any relief assistance from the Centre this time as well? How is the preparedness plan for the Amphan cyclone? Is it the same as it was during the Fani cyclone? Is there any evacuation plan for people from vulnerable zones? If so, then how will social distancing and self-isolation norms be followed?
In this unprecedented emergency, radical mitigation measures are imperative and urgent for the governments of Odisha and West Bengal to manage the twin threats of Coronavirus pandemic and Cyclone Amphan. Both the governments need systems in place and special attention to deliver the relief packages to the communities that need them the most. Furthermore, it is anticipated that the cyclone will cause extreme rainfall, leading to severe flooding and potentially compounding the disaster. In such a context, evacuation of people from low lying regions and coastal zones should be of utmost priority and there is a need for immediate identification of more temporary shelters to house those displaced. Various public institutions such as colleges, schools, community houses and religious places can be used as temporary cyclone shelters. It is again of utmost importance to maintain proper social distancing protocols and all other essential measures in the cyclone shelters to avoid turning these shelters into pandemic hotspots. In addition to these, for effective response and management, the medical staff, administrative officials and police personnel can be shifted from a green COVID-19 zone to the cyclone-affected regions. Finally, there is a need for greater solidarity across the country and the globe to tackle this compounded crisis.
Shahid Akhter is a Research Scholar at BITS Pilani, Hyderabad. Vaibhav Naresh Raut is an M.Sc. in Disaster Management, TISS, Mumbai. Views expressed are personal