One positive long-term outcome of the 2004 tsunami that ravaged parts of India’s seaboard was a heightened awareness of disaster preparedness and mitigation. Over this past weekend, while over one crore people in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh were hit by Cyclone Phailin, the fact that, prima facie, human casualties were modest in relation to the scale and extent of the devastation, testifies to not only advances in the science of weather-mapping and early warning but also the level of preparedness and efficiency in evaluating an impending threat, and then putting into place the logistics to contain the impact of a natural disaster. Across the two States, more than a million people were evacuated. Although formidable relief and rehabilitation challenges lie ahead, in the immediate term, the State and Central governments ought to ensure food assistance packages and temporary accommodation arrangements for those rendered homeless, especially with the flooding of Ganjam and other areas. So far, the agencies involved have given a good account of themselves. The Defence Crisis Management Group that coordinated operations, the National Disaster Relief Force, the National Disaster Management Authority, State-level police and administrative machinery and other agencies all worked together to contain the fallout. Even admitting that the October 1999 super cyclone with wind speeds ranging up to 300 kmph that struck Odisha was probably the greatest cyclonic disaster recorded in India in a century, compare the death toll in that round: officially 9,885 people, possibly more. The cyclone surveillance system of the India Meteorological Department had detected the 1999 cyclone all of five days before it made landfall, while it was still a low pressure formation over the Gulf of Siam. In the case of Phailin also, the IMD flagged the crisis five days in advance. Evidently, the levels of preparedness were significantly different this time round. One thought remains: if only the IMD and the disaster management agencies had had their antennae up sufficiently early before tragedy struck Uttarakhand earlier this year, the extent of human losses would have been less.
This weekend saw another tragic contrast, signifying how the law and order machinery is yet to learn lessons from the past in ensuring crowd management where it is needed most. A stampede near the iconic Ratangarh Temple in Madhya Pradesh’s Datia district claimed 115 lives, triggered apparently by mere rumours that a bridge that devotees were crossing was about to collapse. Adding to the sense of irony is the fact that 56 pilgrims had been washed away at the same site in 2006 and it was after that tragedy that the bridge was built. Clearly, when it comes to proactively preventing man-made disasters, India has a long, long way to go.