While spearheading freedom struggle Mahatma Gandhi was so agonised by the havoc wrought on Odisha due to recurrent natural disasters and famines that he painfully described it as "a land of tears and sorrows." He wrote several articles depicting the trials and tribulations of people devastated by those calamities. It is tragic that on the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhiji the humanity is caught in the whirlpool of COVID pandemic and Odisha and West Bengal are facing dual disasters, one caused corona virus wrecking havoc on health, human and economic security and other by nature in the form of Amphan cyclone. Possibly for the first time Odisha and Bengal have become victims of dual disasters.
In the context of Odisha and Bengal while COVID infections are rising because of the arrival of migrants from different parts of the country, the natural disaster inflicted on people and the Governments have compounded their problems in facing the severe challenges.
Zero Human Casualty set as the Goal
In the context of Odisha Shri Naveen Patnaik's Government while arduously battling against COVID pandemic in face of rise in COVID positive cases had set the challenging goal before the administration that no human life should be lost on account of the Amphan cyclone. The zero human casualty as a goal was indeed tough given the fact that COVID pandemic had to be fought by ruthless practice of social distancing, isolating oneself from the large gatherings and following other non pharmaceutical measures which involved hand washing protocol and drastic cutting down of proximity among humans. Therefore, worst affected people in cyclone ravaged districts of Odisha- Kendrapara, Jagatsinghpur, Balasore, and Bhadrak were not willing to come to the shelter homes because of their fear that they would not be able to follow social distancing norms. It must have been a huge challenge to the administration to persuade people to come to the shelters to save their life both from COVID pandemic and cyclone Amphan. In face of such insurmountable difficulties 1.5 lakh people were shifted to safe places. It was indeed a great accomplishment that a huge segment of affected and vulnerable population could be moved so fast by the Odisha administration which is under severe stress and strain because of the enforcement of fifty days of lock down to cut down the transmission of highly infectious corona virus.
The high benchmark of excellence in managing disasters by Odisha Government under the leadership of Shri Patnaik since 2000 and the global acclaim it has commanded in saving precious human lives from successive natural calamities summoned unprecedented courage and spirit of both people and administration to embark on the path to ensure zero human casualties.
Odisha deserves compliments for battling COVID and Ensuring Low Human Casualty due to Cyclone
After the land fall of Amphan near Digha the magnitude of havoc it has caused is scary. The people of the worst affected districts of the Odisha must have lost standing crops in vast swathes of agricultural land. It would aggravate food security problem for the suffering people and imperil the agricultural economy of the State. The loss of thousands of trees because of the adverse impact of the cyclone has robbed the State of the green coverage in the affected districts. The electrical polls have been uprooted and telecommunications have been disrupted. Restoration of electricity and telecommunication in those districts would be done on a priority basis. Based on the achievements registered in this regard in the past people would get access to electricity and telecommunication facilities very soon. The State requires underground cables for transmission of electricity and the huge amount of funds required for this purpose has to be organised with active support of the Union Government. It is reported that a child has lost life and another person died on account of the cyclone.
It is indeed painful to lose precious human lives during natural disasters. The sad and unfortunate loss of life of only a few people in the worst affected districts of Odisha proves the point that large scale loss of human lives have been averted because of exemplary preparedness of the Government in spite of the round the clock utilisation of human, material and administrative resources in its continuing combat against COVID pandemic. The Odisha Government deserves all credit and compliments from the entire nation and indeed the world for preventing massive loss of life both from corona menace and the ferocity of cyclone Amphan. Only bare minimum loss of human lives proves the point that the Government has come very close to fulfilling its resolve of ensuring zero human casualty while facing the twin disasters, one caused by the alarming spread of infection by an invisible virus and the other caused by natural disaster.
Special Status for Odisha and Special Focus Status for Eastern States Facing Recurrent Cyclones
On 25th September 1937 Mahatma Gandhi authored an article “Havoc in Orissa” in the Harijan based on devastations caused in that British province because of flood and famine. He observed, “Floods, famines and pestilences have become part of the natural life of India.” Then he poignantly added, “.... 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.
”The havoc in Odisha continues owing to recurrent cyclones. In fact every year the State is getting badly ravaged by cyclones and other natural disasters. Last year in the first week of May 2019 Fani cyclone which was equal in magnitude to the super cyclone hitting the State in 1999 caused wide spread devastation. Forty four people lost their lives in spite of all precautions taken to ensure zero human casualty. Such low casualty can be attributed to the effective governance of Naveen Patnaik Government in shifting 1.2 million people to safe places in just twenty four hours before the landfall of the cyclone. On 3rd May 2019 the prestigious New York Times published an article, "How do You Save a Million People from a Cyclone? Ask a poor State in India". The essence of the article was the message of disaster management offered by Odisha to the rest of the world.
Lancet, the globally acclaimed British medical journal wrote on 25th April 2020 an editorial, "India under COVID-19 lockdown" and specifically mentioned Odisha along with Kerala and Maharashtra to flag vital measures taken by these States to fight the danger posed by COVID to health, human and economic security. The fact that the editorial referred to the example of Odisha speaks volumes for the importance of the State and the measures it has taken to defeat the corona peril. Its observations that "Odisha’s exposure to previous natural disasters meant crisis precautions were already in place and have been repurposed" flagged the preparedness of the State rooted in its excellent global bench mark of governance in managing natural disasters from 2000 onwards and ensuring almost zero human casualties.
It is worthwhile to recall that on 28th February 2020 Odisha Chief Minister Shri Naveen Patnaik while speaking in the Eastern Zonal Council Meeting, held in Bhubaneswar, demanded that States of Eastern India should be accorded Special Focus State on account of recurrent and increasing natural disasters confronted by them. Such a demand is just, valid and appropriate. While addressing the fifth meeting of the Governing Council of the NITI Aayog chaired by Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi in June 2019 Shri Patnaik had demanded ’Special Focus State’ status for the Odisha in view of its vulnerability to natural calamities. He did so without diluting the demand of the State for Special category status for Odisha taking into account the special needs of the State, particularly the extreme suffering of Odisha and its people due to servers natural disasters faced by its people. Apart from pleading the cause of the State he appealed for including natural calamity as a criteria for according Special category status to Odisha. He also took up the cause of other States and asserted by saying that “As an interim measure, states hit by major natural calamities may be declared as Special Focus States and granted benefits of Special Category Status for a specific period,” His reiteration of the same demand in the Eastern Zonal Meeting in Bhubaneswar assumed significance in the context of rising crises caused by frequent incidence of natural calamities which have become a new normal due to climate change and global warming described as more dangerous than thermo nuclear weapons by former US Secretary State John Kerry.
It is instructive to note that the fourteenth Finance Commission in its report had observed “There can be no dispute that the primary responsibility for providing relief to people affected by natural calamities is that of State Governments. Nor can there be any dispute that natural calamities, apart from causing loss of life and livelihoods, leave behind a trail of destruction of public assets and private property that require urgent and expeditious restoration, all of which cast a heavy financial burden on the State Government concerned.” The Commission then stated, “We, therefore, recommend that all States contribute 10 per cent to the State Disaster Response Fund during our award period, with the remaining 90 per cent coming from the Union Government.”
The spirit of the Finance Commission recommendation if interpreted liberally would mean an approach compatible with Special Focus Status which Shri Naveen Patnaik has been consistently upholding and taking forward.
In his first interview after Fani cyclone hit the State Shri Patnaik had 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 longterm”. Lack of response from the Union Government to such pressing demand of the State does not augur well for the cause of cooperative federalism.
In spite of the high acclaim received by the Odisha Government at the national and global level for setting global bench mark of governance for managing disasters, the special focus State demanded by Odisha is yet to be considered seriously by the Union Government.
In such a grave situation where the combined catastrophy of the COVID pandemic and Amphan cyclone is tearing normal life asunder the Chief Minister Shri Naveen Patnaik’s demand that special category status to Odisha and Special Focus Status to States of Eastern India deserves to be accepted by the Union Government.
#The author served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India late Shri K R Narayanan and had a tenure in Prime Minister’s Office and Joint Secretary in Rajya Sabha Secretariat. Views expressed in the article are in his personal capacity.