After Phailin

While the Naveen Patnaik government keeps claiming credit for shifting lakhs of people to safe places when Phailin struck, victims of the cyclone blame it for the poor relief operations, particularly in the flooded northern Odisha districts.

Published : Oct 30, 2013 12:30 IST

Braving the storm in Gopalpur.

Braving the storm in Gopalpur.

NATURAL calamities such as cyclones, floods and droughts that strike Odisha from time to time come to the help of some people, particularly politicians. In the latest case, Chief Minister and Biju Janata Dal (BJD) president Naveen Patnaik and his men are trying their best to use the twin calamities of the cyclone Phailin and the consequent floods that hit many districts of the State on October 12 for political gain. Phailin was predicted well in advance. The State government took necessary measures, and people moved to cyclone shelters and other safer places, mostly on their own. Media reports added to the fear of the people, who had experienced a super-cyclone in October 1999, making them take adequate precautionary measures. The State government, however, started claiming that it had succeeded in evacuating about nine lakh people, and accolades followed from various quarters.

Even as the India Meteorological Department (IMD) started providing information about the cyclone which was brewing over the Andaman Sea, people in Odisha started preparing for the worst. They stocked grocery items, candles and fuel. People residing in vulnerable pockets moved to safe places as experts started calling Phailin a super-cyclone. Panic-buying across the coastal districts three days prior to Phailin’s landfall was testimony to the high level of awareness in the community. But the government, which could have curbed the rise in the prices of commodities triggered by panic-buying, failed to ensure that there was enough stock of food in the market.

Phailin ravaged Ganjam district in south Odisha while affecting the adjoining districts of Puri and Khurda partially. It also affected parts of Andhra Pradesh adjacent to southern Odisha. Lakhs of trees were uprooted and several lakh thatched houses were damaged. Electricity poles and other power installations were damaged throughout the cyclone-hit region.

The morning after Phailin struck, no senior officer or Minister was present at the State Secretariat until Patnaik came to take stock of the situation. The only office that had functioned the previous night was the office of the State Special Relief Commissioner, located in a building behind the Secretariat. The Special Relief Commissioner arrived before office hours to gather information from the affected districts and apprise Patnaik of the damage at the review meeting held at 11 a.m.

When the authorities were busy making plans in Bhubaneswar to cope with the post-cyclone situation on October 13, they were unaware of the fact that Mayurbhanj district in northern Odisha had been hit by unprecedented floods. Incessant rain triggered by Phailin caused floods in the Subarnarekha and other rivers. Baripada, the district headquarters of Mayurbhanj, was flooded heavily just around the time the cyclone hit the State on the southern side. By the next day, floods in the Budhabalanga, the Baitarani and other rivers caused havoc in Balasore, Bhadrak, Keonjhar and Jajpur districts.

The Patnaik government, which had been boasting until October 12 about the successful evacuation of possible victims of Phailin, was caught on the wrong foot. While the cyclone claimed 21 lives, the floods snatched away 23 lives. The State government was actually not prepared for the twin calamities.

The IMD had predicted well in advance that heavy rain up to 20 cm could occur at some places under the influence of Phailin. While the government’s focus remained fixed on Gopalpur, preparedness in other parts was not up to the mark, leading to chaos in flood-ravaged Mayurbhanj and Balasore.

Ironically, Balasore witnesses floods almost every year, so the flood-response mechanism in the district should have remained well oiled. However, the district administration could not rise to the challenge. As a result, many remote areas did not get relief materials even after four days. People were seen taking to the streets every day demanding relief. Hundreds of men and women blocked the road near Rangeilunda village, about 15 km from Berhampur town in Ganjam district. They alleged that the administration had failed to provide them any relief even seven days after the cyclone.

With his popularity declining in the wake of people’s cries for relief, Patnaik wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on October 16, seeking the release of an advance of Rs.1,000 crore for relief and restoration works over and above the corpus of Rs.523 crore available in the State Disaster Response Fund for the year 2013-14. In his letter, Patnaik highlighted the extensive damage caused to the power infrastructure in Ganjam district and said it would require more than Rs.900 crore to be restored.

Following demonstrations and road blockades in many areas, particularly during Patnaik’s visit to Ganjam district, the Special Relief Commissioner issued a statement saying that incidents such as looting, blocking of relief vehicles and attacks on government employees were unfortunate. Stating that government employees engaged in power restoration work were being attacked in several places, the Special Relief Commissioner urged people to cooperate with the government in relief, rehabilitation and restoration works.

The situation in the areas worst affected by the cyclone and the floods made it clear that the performance of the Patnaik government in the aftermath of Phailin was as poor as the Giridhar Gamang government’s performance in the post-super-cyclone days 14 years ago. The difference is that while Patnaik had ample advance warning, Gamang did not.

Although Patnaik and his men were good at managing the media in the State capital, the fact that the administration did not have adequate manpower and food stock showed how ill-prepared the government was. The Ganjam district administration, for example, organised an inter-agency coordination group meeting to get non-governmental organisations (NGOs) involved in the relief operation only on October 19.

Phailin, which affected several districts and brought in its wake floods in five districts, hit the State’s coast with wind speeds reaching 223 kilometres per hour at Puri and 213 km per hour at Gopalpur. But the super-cyclone had hit Erasama, in Jagatsinghpur district, with a wind speed above 272 km per hour. It killed over 9,000 people in Jagatsinghpur and other coastal districts. The tidal surge that came with the super-cyclone killed more than 8,000 people in Erasama.

Water-logging had posed a serious problem in the super-cyclone-ravaged areas and no mobile phone or land phone was working in the affected zone. The communications system was hit so badly then that Gamang’s Congress government came to know that it was not Paradip but Erasama that was hit by the super-cyclone only after helicopters flew over the ravaged areas with relief materials two days later.

The super-cyclone crippled the Gamang government because it hit Bhubaneswar very hard. The State government then had only two phones working in the entire city—a satellite phone and a land phone at Gamang’s official residence.

Phailin, however, spared Bhubaneswar: though thousands of trees were uprooted, the city had to go without electricity only for 24 hours. Mobile connectivity came as a major advantage. Even during Phailin’s landfall, the mobile network remained intact and the administration was in touch with field-level staff. But despite such connectivity, the mobilisation of resources in the aftermath of the cyclone was poor.

Corruption in relief work was another phenomenon that came to light after both the super-cyclone and Phailin. While irregularities in the procurement of polythene was detected in 1999, corporators of the Cuttack Municipal Corporation (CMC), the majority of them belonging to the BJD, allegedly looted large quantities of relief materials a day after Phailin struck. They allegedly took away about 200 quintals of rice, 40 quintals of dal, 480 litres of edible oil, 48,000 biscuit packets and other materials that were meant to be used in the free kitchens that the CMC had planned to open for slum-dwellers who had taken shelter in safe places. Patnaik has ordered a vigilance probe into the incident and a BJD leader has been suspended from the party. Even as the cyclone- and flood-hit people were waiting for government relief, politicians started engaging in mudslinging.

After failing to live up to the expectations of the affected people, two Ministers and a senior BJD leader addressed a press conference 10 days after Phailin and alleged that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government was apathetic towards the plight of the people in Odisha. State Chief Secretary Jugal Kishore Mohapatra handed over a memorandum to Union Home Secretary Anil Goswami stating that the damages cause by Phailin amounted to Rs.4,242.41 crore. He assured the people that the Central and State governments would jointly tackle the situation.

But the State government started taking an anti-Central government stance apparently because both the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections are just a few months away.

The damage caused by Phailin to Berhampur University in Ganjam district has been pegged at Rs.155 crore and the damage to Utkal University in Bhubaneswar has been estimated at Rs.80.17 crore. Many people are of the view that these estimates are on the higher side.

Phailin did not eventually cause as much loss of life and property as was expected. The Central government was ready with the defence forces for relief and rescue operations and the BJD government’s criticism of it carries little credibility. But delayed or inadequate financial assistance from the Centre will surely help the BJD make it a major election issue.

The Naveen Patnaik government keeps claiming credit for the evacuation. But the time has come for it to take steps to minimise the damage to infrastructure during natural disasters. The high level of awareness among people contributed to the State government’s partial success this time. The planners have to apply their minds now on ways to reduce damage during cyclones and floods in the future.

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