On 29th October 1999 Odisha had the worst misfortune of getting ravaged by a super cyclone which killed more than 10,000 people and caused unprecedented loss of property, assets and crops. The most agonising aspect of that tragic episode was that it caused complete collapse of governance. The political leadership of that time miserably failed to deal with that natural disaster even as there were predictions made by the meteorologists that a monstrous cyclone would hit the coastal region of the State. The image of the State got badly shattered because of the utter failure of the political leadership in handling the crisis. In the annals of human history the misery suffered by people of Odisha and the complete crumbling of the State apparatus in face of that disaster painfully reminds us the quality of leadership and governance required for disaster preparedness to save precious human life.
Odisha's Effective Disaster Management Measures helped to Fight COVID
Twenty one years later on 29th October 2020 as we recall with pain and anguish that horrible natural disaster and the attendant havoc it caused in the State we take heart in the fact that Odisha is now a role model in setting excellent global bench mark of disaster management. Its successive track record since 2000 in dealing with natural disasters under the leadership of Chief Minister Shri Naveen Patnaik has become a global brand and international media has acclaimed it and underlined its profound significance in enabling the State to deal the COVID pandemic. For instance none other than the prestigious medical journal the Lancet in its editorial "India Under COVID 19 Lockdown" published on 25th April 2020 observed "Preparedness and response to COVID-19 have differed at the state level... Odisha's exposure to previous natural disasters meant crisis precautions were already in place and have been repurposed." It clearly shows that the excellent method of disaster management by Odisha since 1999 super cyclone has enabled the State Government in successfully containing COVID pandemic and the WHO has appreciated it.
UN Appreciated Odisha's Record in Managing Disasters
Addressing the people of Balasore assembly constituency while participating in a virtual election rally organised on the occasion of the conduct of by election there, the Chief Minister Shri Patnaik reminded them about the havoc caused by the super cyclone in 1999 on account of failure of political leadership in taking appropriate measures to face it. At the same time he flagged the globally acclaimed disaster preparedness of the State which saved human lives.
The appreciation showered by the UN on the State Government in this respect brought out the global significance of disaster management scripted by Odisha. In fact in 2015 when Phailin cyclone hit Odisha and only 21 people lost their lives the UN appreciated the State Government and said, "The Odisha government managed to reduce human deaths during Phailin by evacuating around one million people from the seaside areas. The authorities also made people aware of the areas which were vulnerable and saved many lives. Today, Odisha is a global leader in disaster management and risk reduction. It would highlight the state’s efforts as a model for disaster management programmes globally".
The UN also appreciated the state’s well-functioning disaster risk reduction (DRR) system which includes preparedness activities by families, communities, governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs)
Fani Cyclone the Worst After Super Cyclone
The way the Odisha Government faced Fani cyclone in 2019 and ensured near zero human casualty drew attention of the international community. The New York Times published an article titled ‘How Do You Save a Million People from a Cyclone? Ask a poor State in India’ The essence of the piece was about what the world could learn from Odisha’s disaster management. With an invaluable experience of managing disasters and saving precious human lives, the state is now engaged in an arduous battle against the novel coronavirus, and is getting praise, yet again.
We should be mindful of the fact that Fani cyclone 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 of 12th May 2019 published in Indian Express under the caption “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. ”
So in successfully handling Fani cyclone the State of Odisha was handling a disaster equivalent to 1,600 atomic bombs, similar to the ones dropped over Hiroshima. It means that the State in spite of lack of adequate support from the Union Government has been able to effectively respond to natural disasters which are becoming recurrent and more intense in terms of ferocity and devastation these cause. The saving of precious human lives during such disasters constitute the most heartening aspects of robust disaster management measures adopted by the Government.
Special Category and Special Focus Status for Odisha
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.
Therefore, the demand of the Government of Odisha for special category status for the State due to periodic natural disasters it faces is a just demand meriting implementation on the part of the Union Government. Its demand that special focus status should be accorded to Odisha and other States facing such disasters should be immediately put into action. Keeping in mind the solemn anniversary of super cyclone and taking account the excellent track record of Odisha in managing disasters the demands of Odisha should be accepted by the Union Government without delay.
#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.