A retired IPS officer, KM Singh has been working on disaster mitigation at the National Disaster Management Authority ever since the body was formed in 2005. Singh, who was coordinating the response to cyclone Phailin at NDMA, spoke to HT how the country succeeded to minimise loss of life.
From an excess of 10,000 casualties in 1999 to a barely a dozen deaths due to cyclone Phailin, have government agencies really improved their ability to deal with the impact of cyclones or was Phailin just not as deadly?
It isn’t just the intensity of the cyclone that is in play. Our handling of this cyclone is certainly a great success story, largely helped due to the number of steps taken at the central and state level after the 1999 super cyclone that caused large-scale devastation. One should not miss the fact that Odisha, post-1999, was the first state in the country to set up the State Disaster Mitigation Authority that focussed on the preparedness level at districts as well as a very well-trained disaster rapid action force.
How did the Centre contribute?
At a central level, the meteorological department’s ability to accurately predict such natural disasters too has improved significantly, particularly after the Tsunami. Except for a couple of hours delay in Phailin making the landfall, the cyclonic storm moved just as the met department predicted and that too four-five days in advance.
So the early prediction made a world of difference to the entire effort?
Oh yes, certainly. It gave everyone time to prepare. The IMD certainly deserves the first compliment. And then, an NDMA project – the National Cyclone Risk Mitigation Project – ensured there were enough cyclone shelters along the coastline. There are over 200 shelters in Odisha’s affected areas built with central assistance, over 50 of them under this project. The ultimate objective is that no one living along the coast should have to travel more than 2.5 km to reach a shelter. Odisha and Andhra Pradesh are covered under the first phase. The more than adequate presence of the 2,300 National Disaster Response Force personnel – that cleared over 800 km of roads today – was a great confidence booster.
How is it that the state and centre appeared to be working together for a change?
This time, the coordination was excellent. I have never seen better coordination in any other case. The Centre gave the state more than it asked for.
Can you give an example?
Say for instance, the state initially wanted 10-12 NDRF teams. We gave them 29. They wanted some air support in form of choppers. The Centre deployed 40 choppers in Odisha, and 10 more in Andhra.
So do we expect similar disaster response in all disasters?
Yes. The Centre is ready but there is only so much that it can do on its own. If states are not alive to the problem, I don’t think the Centre can help a lot. But if they are pro-active, this response shows how lives can be saved.