From praise to criticism was just one step for the Odisha government.
The government earned appreciation for being able to evacuate 900,000 people — a huge number by any yardstick — much before cyclone Phailin lashed the Odisha coast on the night of October 12.
Chief minister Naveen Patnaik was praised in several quarters for almost achieving the “zero casualty” target.
“Odisha’s handling of the very severe cyclone will be a landmark success story in disaster management,” said Margareta Wahlstomm, special representative of the UN secretary general for disaster risk reduction.
The brickbats followed soon after. Reports of alleged shoddy relief management when the floods struck after the cyclone took the sheen off the government’s earlier success. There is palpable anger at shoddy relief operations. There are instances of victims resorting to roadblocks, protesting against the non-availability of relief material in several districts.
The situation has reached a point when the police had to be sent on Thursday to control people who blocked roads in Ganjam, the district that suffered the most in the cyclone.
What added to the government’s discomfiture was the fact that it was caught napping, as admitted to by special relief commissioner PK Mohapatra, while northern Odisha districts such as Balasore and Mayurbhanj were flooded.
What went wrong? After all, the India Meteorological Department predicted there would be heavy to very heavy rain in Mayurbhanj and Balasore. After all, preparations were going on for three days before the cyclone. Hoarders took advantage of the accurate prediction and prices of essential commodities such as potato, vegetables, biscuits, candles and kerosene shot up 500% and even started disappearing from the market.
The government, on its part, could not procure the required amount of chura (flattened rice), the most vital item for relief during such disasters, locally. The government was still ordering it from states such as West Bengal and Chhattisgarh even after the cyclone had blown over.
Opposition leaders, who were initially stumped by national and international praise for the government, got a handle to beat the government with. They also alleged the state government was inflating evacuation figures.
“Five days before the cyclone, the government claimed it was fully prepared to meet the disaster... If it was well equipped, why are no relief materials reaching the victims?” asked BJP leader Bijay Mohapatra, after visiting Balasore and Mayurbhanj.
The government replied to this charge. Revenue and disaster management minister SN Patro said: “Enough relief material including food, medicine, kerosene and polythene had been provided to people.”
Veteran journalist Rabi Das, who covered the devastation caused by the super cyclone of 1999, said there was no comparison between the super cyclone and Phailin. He said the 1999 storm completely devastated 14 coastal districts and also Bhubaneswar. Government officials who were supposed to do relief work were themselves affected.
This time it was not the case, he said, because the impact (of the cyclone) was confined to mainly Ganjam. Weather forecasting has advanced in the past 14 years and technology has changed. “Till Phailin struck, mobile phones, a great tool for communication for relief officials, were working. That was unheard of during the super cyclone,” he said.