Phailin: mixed bag for India’s disaster management



Disasters normally do not warn so much in advance as Phailin did. It helped in evacuation of around a million people but also exposed the gaps in providing relief to people post cyclone.

A visit to Phailin devastated districts of Odisha show a total lack of planning on how to provide relief to the victims at the earliest. The Odisha government has announced free food and a small monetary relief (of Rs 500 per victim) but there is a question mark over whether it would reach the affected people when they need it the most.

Even two days after the cyclone had hit the coastal belt of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, the state governments was unable to provide the first basic essential — the food. The government was quick to blame the blocked road for its inability to provide adequate food to the people left in wilderness.

The situation would not had been grave if the state government had planned for post cyclone disaster management as it did for pre-cyclone, in which a million people were evacuated to nearest government buildings.

The better way to manage the crises would have been if the government would have stocked the ration before Phailin stuck in cyclone shelters or government school buildings. The local panchayats, whose secretary is a government official, should have been tasked with the job of providing meals to the cyclone hit victims. Kitchens in schools and anganwadi centers should have been used to provide cooked meals.

It appears that little has been learnt from similar disasters elsewhere in India.

In June this year, the Uttarakhand government was unable to provide food to thousands of people stranded in the flash-flood hit hills of the state. Unlike the four day prior warning of Phailin, the Uttarakhand government had less than a day to make necessary arrangements. The loss of human life — around 6,000 — was much higher in Uttarakhand than in Phailin hit Odisha.

The poor disaster management in Uttarakhand should have been an eye opener for Odisha government, which was in an advantageous position because Phailin was predicted by Indian Meteorological Department four days in advance. But that did not happen as India does have adequate national coordination mechanism for disaster management.

The Centre’s disaster crises management group headed by Cabinet Secretary only starts working when the disaster happens rather than being proactive around the year. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) set up under an Act of Parliament has proved to be a toothless body with a solitary job of issuing advisories having zero compliance at the ground level.

India needs a permanent disaster management mechanism as disaster does not distinguish between the state boundaries. Around 76% of India’s coastline is prone to cyclones and tsunamis, while 59% of the country is vulnerable to earthquakes, 10% to floods and river erosion, and 68 % to droughts.

The two disasters of 2013 should prod the policy-makers to have a re-look at the disaster management mechanism in the country rather than the government’s — state and centre — patting their own backs for shoddy relief work.

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