Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik turned 67 on October 16, just 72 hours after Cyclone Phailin wreaked havoc and destruction in the state. Choosing not to celebrate his birthday, Patnaik was holding rehabilitation and relief meetings with senior officials with focus on restoring electricity in the worst-affected Ganjam district.
Reclusive and a man of few words by nature, Patnaik is focused on his state, doesn’t believe in scoring unnecessary political points with the Opposition and chooses not to wear his national political ambitions, if any, on his sleeve.
While the June Kedarnath floods severely dented the governance of Uttarakhand government led by Vijay Bahuguna, Patnaik has scored politically in his commendable handling of Phailin and will help in returning back to power for the unprecedented fourth time in the 2014 Odisha Assembly elections. Odisha has been perennially hit by floods and cyclone over the past decades. Since you came to power 13 years ago, how have you increased the efficiency of disaster management? What is the infrastructure put in place?
Ever since the 1999 super cyclone, we have devised a standard protocol in disaster management. Every year mock drills in preparedness are held on Disaster Management Day. Besides, we have 247 multi-purpose cyclone shelters all along the coast of Odisha. All cyclone shelters are provided with electricity generators, fuel and free kitchen to provide safety to people and their livestock. Ten units of Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force (ODRAF) have been deployed for quick response to calamities.
What steps did you take to counter Phailin?
We managed to evacuate 9,83,553 persons in 36 hours up to five kilometers from the coastline to keep the casualty at minimum. Puja holidays for state employees were cancelled. Some 18 satellite phones were distributed to keep the district administration directly in touch with State headquarters, with control room operation 24x7. I was personally monitoring the preparedness from October 10-13 and was in touch with district collectors to ensure effective monitoring.
How do you compare your handling of Phailin with the response to 1999 super cyclone?
Casualties directly related to Phailin are 21, while 12,000 died in 1999 super cyclone. I was the Union Minister for Steel and Mines then and arrived in Bhubhaneswar a day after the cyclone hit the state. I found that state representatives were still to move out of the Capital. This time from sarpanch to state minister, all were in the field.
What do you feel about Phailin being turned into a political football between Centre and State? Has Centre done all that it is claiming?
There is no political football. I would not like to comment on this issue at a time when the state is focused on relief, restoration and rehabilitation of the affected. I wrote to Defence Minister AK Antony and spoke to Home Minister Sushil Shinde in the run-up to Phailin. I also thank the National Disaster Response Force, Army, Air Force and Navy for their prompt response. But the credit for this massive effort goes to the people of our state, administration and media.
Do you think IMD’s prediction on Phailin were sound and helped in timely evacuation?
The forecasting was accurate and our preparedness was foolproof. I thank the IMD for their accurate forecast regarding the location and timing.
What is the kind of relief Odisha is looking for from the Centre in replenishing all that is lost?
I have written a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asking for a `1000 crore advance for relief and rehabilitation work with a special request for restoration of energy infrastructure that has been wiped out in Ganjam district. I cannot give you guess estimate about the total package required without proper assessment. I do sincerely hope that the Centre will wholeheartedly support our just demands.
Coming to state politics, Odisha goes to polls in 2014 with the general elections. Do you think there is anti-incumbency against you or BJD?
Let me tell you that the BJD managed 75% of seats in recent urban municipality elections and more than that in the last panchayat elections. We still have the blessings of the people and will continue to have them. Odisha attracted 27% of the national investment last year. Our growth rate is higher than ever. Poverty levels, maternal and infant mortality rates have gone down. I’m totally focused on economic development with due consideration to environment.
You have been openly equidistant from BJP and Congress. How do you see the 2014 general elections? Do you see any change coming?
We will continue to be equidistant from both the Congress and BJP. It is too early to predict about any change in 2014.
While the BJP’s PM candidate is Narendra Modi, Congress has pitched for Rahul Gandhi. What do you think about the two leaders?
I think both the leaders have been really hyped up... media has also contributed to this... let’s see what the results will be.
Is there a possibility of a sustainable third front post 2014 Lok Sabha elections?
It is too early to talk about a third front. But I think federal front is a healthy idea.
Odisha is one of the states which has taken action against the Maoist. Do you think Maoist is more of a development or law & order problem?
Development and police action with the help of central para-military forces has been an antidote to the Maoist issue in our state. I think Maoist is more of a law and order problem than a development issue.
Do you think there is any space for candidates with criminal records in Indian politics?
Our party was totally opposed to the criminal ordinance. I’m totally opposed to candidates with criminal records in electoral fray. We are one the states to pass the Special Courts Act that allows confiscation of property of corrupt persons.