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Special category status for Odisha is a well deserved requirement to face challenges of recurrent natural calamities like Fani

By Satya Narayana Sahu | PUBLISHED: 25, May 2019, 18:40 pm IST | UPDATED: 16, Jun 2019, 19:11 pm IST

Special category status for Odisha is a well deserved requirement to face challenges of  recurrent natural calamities like Fani When the State of Odisha was hit by cyclone Fani it was stated that it was the worst cyclone after the super cyclone of 1999 described as  “the most powerful ever recorded in India, and one of the strongest anywhere in the world in the 20th century.” Amitabh Sinha in his article in Indian Express “Cyclone Fani : How 2019 was different from 1999 super cyclone” revealed “that  super cyclone carried energy equivalent to 1,600 atomic bombs, similar to the ones dropped over Hiroshima.”

When Odisha is getting ravaged successively by one cyclone after another and the tragedy faced by people on account of such terrible natural calamities is of immense magnitude, it is important to unearth the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi who had written with pain and sensitivity about the sorrows and agony  of the people of Odisha whose life became miserable due to frequent occurrence of manmade disasters such as famine and natural disasters such as flood during 1920s and 1930s. It is also important to juxtapose the ideas of Chief Minister Shri Naveen Patnaik with the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi.

Havoc in Odisha caused by flood in 1937
The article titled “Havoc in Orissa” authored by Gandhiji  and published in the Harijan on 25th September 1937 is 82 years old. Its contents assume significance in the context of the cyclone Fani which has battered the State on 3rd May 2019.  He began the article by writing that , “Floods, famines and pestilences have become part of the natural life of India”  and observed, “Famines and floods take place almost all the world over, but their effects are largely overcome in countries which have financial and other resources”. He continued by noting that “.... in India, where poverty reaches the point of starvation, the effects of floods and famines are not only not overcome but are felt with double force, and pestilences are ever with us through the same cause. But the gravest defect of India’s pauperism is that we have come to regard these visitations with resignation which is none the less brutal because it is unconscious.” Then Gandhiji referred to the example of Odisha to illustrate his point because at that time Cuttack and Puri districts were ravaged by flood and an appeal had been issued on behalf of the then Minister for relief for the victims of that natural disaster and people hardly contributed in response to the appeal. He observed with anguish that “...the recurrence of such floods annually in many parts of India has made popular conscience blunt....."

Effective Governance by Naveen Patnaik Government has caused minimum human casualties

The title of the article "Odisha Havoc" by Gandhiji  is equally applicable to the cyclone  Fani which has devastated Odisha on 3rd May 2019. The havoc it has caused is awful. Yet because of effective governance only forty four people have lost their lives. It speaks volumes for the disaster mitigation techniques in face of the  severity of the cyclone which as stated earlier is worse natural disaster the State faced after the super cyclone of 1999 claiming 10,000 lives and causing large scale and extensive devastations.

The absolutely minimum human casualties can be attributed to the effectiveness of Naveen Patnaik Government in shifting 1.2 million people to safe places in just twenty four hours before the landfall of the cyclone. It created a new record in world history dealing with disaster of apocalyptic proportions. It validated the vision of the first Prime Minister of India Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who in a letter to the Chief Ministers in 1950 stated that "Indeed, every calamity is a challenge to our nationhood ….. and a nation is ultimately judged by the way this challenge is accepted."

In reducing human casualties Shri Naveen Patnaik has successfully stood up to the challenge confronted by our nation. In this sense he upheld the nationalism woven around human security and welfare of people. The political editor of the leading daily Hindustan Times Shri Vinod Sharma tweeted about the administrative capability of Shri Patnaik and said "What a political-administrative commando is this man @Naveen_Odisha. Showed his skill in minimising casualties and  sufferings in nature’s surgical strike #Odisha. Good administration is real nationalism. Salutes!"

Role of Central Leadership in dealing with disaster in Odisha is deplorable

Now when restoration of normal life is the primary requirement in the post disaster period political leadership at every level should set an example for others engaged in relief and rehabilitation work for upholding dignity of labor and harnessing technical and engineering skills to alleviate the sufferings of people and empower them to face natural disasters and overcome their aftermath. The role of the central leadership in addressing the problems of Odisha because of recurrent natural disasters is deplorable. They should set an example in playing a leading role in addressing the problem. It is unfortunate that the central leadership did not bother to come to the State during the time it was devastated by cyclones.

Let us recall the stellar role played by late Biju Patnaik who used his own helicopter for  dropping food packets at his own cost in Kendrapada when it was hit by a severe cyclone in early 1970s. Why did not the central  leadership remain in forefront in dealing with natural disasters. There is truth in the statement of Chief Minister Shri Patnaik that central leadership never visited the State and stood by people when they faced devastation and deluge by cyclones such as Phailin, Hudhud and Titli. He stated that the central leaders only visited the State during elections.

Neglect of the Union Government in revising coal royalties has resulted in loss of revenue for Odisha

The failures of the Union Government headed by Modi to reassess the coal royalties due to Odisha has resulted in the loss of Rupees ten thousand crores to the State. The coal royalties should have been re fixed every three years. But the Union Government has not done it for several years. The Chief Minister Shri Patnaik in an interaction with students recently had stated that loss of Rupees ten thousand crores to the State puts the State Government in a disadvantageous situation to take up  many developmental measures. Had such a huge fund been made available to the State the restoration work in post cyclone period could have been carried forward to a great extent benefitting people.

Similarly money accruing to the state out of the railways is about Rupees Two Thousand crores and only a few hundred crores are spent in the State. Such resources should have been made available to the State to use them in situations such as post cyclone disasters which affect numerous people and cause loss of livelihood opportunities.

Finance Commission and Disaster Management

The fourteenth Finance Commission in its report stated that "A major concern for the States has been the fiscal burden of financing disaster management, including relief and reconstruction, without a commensurate flow of resources from the Union Government. As a consequence, State Governments said, they were compelled to spend funds in excess of the SDRF from their own resources, particularly on post-disaster restoration and reconstruction. They asked for a substantial increase in the SDRF corpus based on expenditures they had incurred on calamity relief, including reconstruction and restoration of assets in the affected areas. Other States asked for an increase in the Union Government's share from the present level of 75 per cent, with some urging full funding by the Union Government." Such legitimate demand of the States like Odisha deserves to be implemented. In fact the fourteenth Finance Commission recommended  that "all States contribute 10 per cent to the SDRF during our award period, with the remaining 90 per cent coming from the Union Government." In case of Odisha and given its vulnerability to disasters the Union Government should take care of all expenses required by SDRF. It is in this context the Special Category Status demanded by Shri Naveen Patnaik assumes significance.

Special Category Status is a well deserved demand by Naveen Patnaik  to deal with disaster  

The report entitled "India : Cyclone Phailini in Odisha: October 2013" reveals that "India’s east coast is one of the six most cyclone prone areas in the world". It also notes that "Although the coastline of Odisha is only about 17% of the Indian east coast, it has been affected by nearly 35% of all cyclonic and severe cyclonic storms that have crossed the east coast and associated storm surges that have often inundated large tracts of coastal districts". Observing that "On an average, about five to six tropical cyclones form in the Bay of Bengal every year, of which two to three are within the mild to severe range" it informs that coastal Odisha is about twice as vulnerable to storms and severe storms as compared to the other eastern states.

Besides, massive resources are required on a sustained basis  to build resilient housing for millions of people in areas most prone to cyclones. Moreover more cyclone shelters have to be built and embankments need further strengthening. Improvement of forest cover and vegetation in the coastal and river belts is a critical necessity to minimize the impact of natural disasters. Given the fact electricity and telecommunication facilities are made available to people based on over ground wire network which gets disrupted during cyclones and storms we need  extensive underground cabling for power and telecom networks in cyclone prone areas so that in post disaster period such essential facilities could be restored fairly quickly. All these require massive financial, technological and human resources.

Taking into account all these facts and the recurrent vulnerability of Odisha to natural disasters Chief Minister Shri Naveen Patnaik demanded special category status for Odisha so that the Government could be more adequately prepared to deal with pre disaster and post disaster situations.

In his first interview after Fani cyclone hit the state he said, “Special category status is the need of the hour due to the massive loss to infrastructure which may stall growth of the State. In fact this is one of the main demands before the Union Government. Odisha faces natural calamities almost every year. The assistance we get from the Centre is mostly for temporary restoration of infrastructure. We have to spend a lot from State’s own funds to work for the long term”. Lack of response to such pressing demands of the State and appeal of the Chief Minister is like blunting of the conscience which Gandhi talked in 1937 when Odisha was facing disaster caused by flood.

The blunting of conscience which Gandhi talked in 1937 is equally true in twenty first century India and particularly in the context of cyclone Fani which has ravaged the State of Odisha where thankfully human casualties have been reduced to minimum because of effective governance of Chief Minister Shri Naveen Patnaik in dealing with disasters. In spite of the high acclaim received by the Odisha Government at the national and global level for evacuating 1.2 million people to safe places in twenty four hours before the cyclone struck, the necessary assistance required to restore normalcy to remedy colossal devastation wrought by Fani is rather disheartening and indicative of the blunting of conscience.

Large parts of Puri and Khurda districts which bore the brunt of Fani are yet to receive the relief even after a week of the disaster and the restoration of electricity and other essential facilities in such places would take some time. In such a grave situation where the catastrophy of the disaster has torn normal life asunder the rest of India should have come forward to render whatever help needed for the affected people. Chief Minister Shri Naveen Patnaik’s demand that special category status to Odisha should be conferred by the Union Government deserves to be accepted in the context of the cyclone of severe category pounding Odisha every year and causing devastation of high magnitude.

Contents of Gandhi’s article “Cry of Orissa” of 1933 bring pain and pathos of disaster victims even today

The demand of Chief Minister Shri Patnaik for special status for Odisha reminds us  the contents of the article “The Cry of Orissa” authored by Mahatma Gandhi in Harijan on 3rd November 1933 in response to the distress of the people caused by severe flood affecting large parts of the State. He mentioned the services rendered by Marwari Society which fielded 3,500 persons from 25 villages and providing some amount of rice per head per month. He also referred to the contributions of society in giving one cotton sheet and husk for cattle. He described distribution of such quantity of relief as little dole for which there was big rush. Noting that able bodied got nothing he observed that relief was confined only to women and children. Gandhi quoted someone who was sent to extend help to the victims. He said,  “You should not imagine that anything like adequate relief is being given”. Gandhiji then observed, “I have always held that Orissa is the most helpless and the poorest province of India. Thousands of pilgrims visit the ancient temple of Puri for acquiring merit. Hundreds among them are rich enough to satisfy the hunger of the hungry and clothe the naked. Times are not doubt bad. That is just the opportunity for the moneyed people to deny themselves many things they have hither to held necessary for their comfort or enjoyment and establish their right to the wealth God has blessed them with, by unstintingly helping the helpless.”

Yet again observing that, “Somehow or other, ever since my return to India in 1915, Orissa has been to me an epitome of India’s distressful helplessness”, he appealed to people across India to extend all help and particularly invoked the catholic charity of Bombay and wanted rest of India to imbibe that spirit to respond to the cry of Odisha.

Can the Union Government which appreciated Chief Minister Patnaik for saving millions of lives respond to his appeal for a special status for the State taking into account the devastation wrought by several natural disasters including Fani cyclone? The real statesmanship lies in accepting the idea of Shri Patnaik which formed part of the BJP Manifesto in 2014. Let not the cry of  Odisha go unaddressed.

  • The author served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India late Shri K R Narayanan and had a tenure as Director in Prime Minister’s Office and Joint Secretary in Rajya Sabha Secretariat. His views are in his personal capacity.