Only rarely do journalists in India write in praise. If I’m honest, such sentiments get stuck in our throat. However, the smooth and very successful response to Cyclone Phailin cries out for applause. This time, I don’t intend to be mealy-mouthed.
The facts speak for themselves. In 1999 a super cyclone left over 10,000 dead. Orissa was devastated. Four months later the Congress government was thrashed at the polls. In 2013 a cyclone of only slightly less intensity could claim just 21 lives. Though battered Orissa was back on its feet the next morning. And who knows, six months down the road, when elections are held, the BJD government could be re-elected.
What made 2013 so different from 1999? That is the key question we need to answer. First, I would say, the speedy evacuation of over 9,00,000 people. Coastal Orissa was virtually cleared of all living souls.
This was not just a result of political will and firm action. It was critically dependent on the cyclone shelters the government has built since 1999, a week’s supply of rations for each shelter and dedicated supervision by civil servants. Clearly years of careful planning lay behind all of this.
Second, the evacuation was made possible by accurate forecasts from the Indian Meteorological Department. In 1999 they were way off the mark. This time they were spot on.
What’s particularly pleasing is that although the United States’ Navy Typhoon Warning Centre and the British Met Office predicted a super cyclone, with winds exceeding 300 kmph, the IMD differed and stood its ground.
It couldn’t have been easy. The West has a reputation for being right. There were even taunts that India was deliberately underplaying the challenge. In the end western forecasters changed their stand. The IMD proved to be absolutely right.
In fact, it wasn’t just the intensity that was correctly gauged. So too the track the cyclone took. The actual path was almost identical to the predicted one.
The third factor was the superb response from the National Disaster Management Authority and its relief force. The cyclone struck Orissa minutes after 9 pm. By dawn the next morning clearance teams were in action removing fallen trees and reopening highways. On Monday the majority of those evacuated returned to their homes.
This cannot have happened without close coordination between the state government, the central government, the meteorological department, the NDMA and the defence services. Normally when multiple agencies act together it turns out to be a case of too many cooks. This time they formed a united and efficient team.
So who are the heroes I would single out? Without doubt, the chief minister, Naveen Patnaik, the vice chairman of the NDMA, M Shashidhar Reddy, the director general of the IMD, LS Rathore. But there are others who deserve equal mention. The collector of Orissa’s Ganjam district, Krishan Kumar, is one such. He went without sleep for 96 hours. Senior police officers like Amitabh Thakur, Ashish Singh and Aniruddha Singh, who collaborated with Kumar, are others.
In fact, heroic work was done by hundreds of others. Of that I have no doubt. Sadly, the press has not named them. But even if they are unknown their work and success has not gone unrecognised.
Four months ago Uttarakhand brought shame to India. It shook our confidence in ourselves. In contrast, Orissa’s performance has been internationally recognised. It’s proof the Indian system can work effectively when the right people are in charge.
Views expressed by the author are personal.