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Naveen Patnaik's fail proof disaster response has miles to go!
On 29th October, Odisha celebrated Disaster Preparedness Day and National Day for Disaster Reduction. It was the 15th anniversary of the most devastating cyclone ever experienced in Odisha i.e. Super Cyclone 1999. And it was also immediately after the cyclone Hudhud that spared Odisha to a great extent.

The state government had evacuated about 2.47 Lakh people as a precaution. So it was the most befitting occasion for the Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to boast "Government's disaster preparedness is fail proof".

Government of Odisha has all the reasons to boast of its disaster preparedness. But is the preparedness fail proof or not is debatable. When super cyclone devastated Odisha it was in shambles. Even it did not have the rotary saw to cut the trees and clear the roads. It was the then Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu who extended his support and team arrived from AP to clear the roads, restore power supply and other infrastructures.

In fifteen years time clock has come full circle. As Hudhud devastated Vizag, responding to the request of Seemandhra Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu, Odisha sent a contingent of Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force (ODRAF) team and firemen for restoration work. These teams were equipped to the teeth. It was way back time for Odisha.

Many Odias were very satisfied with this development. Prior to this Odisha also sent ODRAF teams for Jammu and Kashmir flood. A state that did not have even rotary saw during the super cyclone has now raised special forces like Odisha Disaster Response Force in line of National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), has inflatable boats, inflatable tower lights, and multiple sophisticated equipments for the restoration work.

Odisha has come a long way in disaster response. During the last two successive cyclones, within a span of a year, it has been able to evacuate massive population to safe places. During the last one and half decade large numbers of cyclone shelters and schools doubling up as cyclone shelters have come up in the state. Odisha has been hailed by the UN agencies for its efficient disaster response during Phailin.

The preparations for Hudhud were even better than for Phaillin. This time the state had set a new goal to achieve zero casualties. But due to the accident of a boat engaged in evacuation, two precious lives were lost and few more deaths also occurred. But the very act of setting such a goal exhibits the confidence the disaster managers in the state have. And it takes a lot to exhibit such confidence.

But what has contributed substantially to the disaster response in the state of Odisha (as well as the other parts of the country) is the substantial improvement in weather forecasting by the Indian weather scientists. The Indian weathermen have proved during the last two occasions of Phailllin and Hudhud they can predict the path, timing and intensity of the cyclone more accurately than their counterpart in US Navy and Tropical Typhoon Warning Centre.

During the last two cyclones in the Bay of Bengal, Phailin in 2013 and Hudhud in 2014, this has been the point of discussion among the people. And this has happened despite the failure of the government in installing four Doppler radars that it declared post super cyclone to set up for more accurate weather forecasting.

And the other factor that has contributed immensely to the disaster response system of the government as said by the Special Relief Commissioner of Odisha Mr. Pradeep Mohapatra, who has aptly handled the rescue, relief and restoration after Phaillin and Hudhud, "Now we have perfected a standard operating procedure for disaster response and it is irrelevant as to who is heading a particular position."

Despite all these positive developments, is the disaster response mechanism in the state of Odisha fail/full proof?

Tapan Kumar Padhi, a member of the civil society, who was initiated into disaster preparedness in the aftermath of Super Cyclone, is in disagreement. He says, "No doubt government disaster response has taken substantial strides during the last fifteen years, but Odisha still has a long way to go in having a full proof or fail proof disaster preparedness in the state. Only the disaster response by the state machinery is not a full proof preparation. Disaster preparedness is yet to take strong roots amongst the people. The glaring example is the flood of 2014 in the Mahanadi system where the people complained the very next day their houses were inundated by the flood waters in Mahanadi that they were starving."

Padhi added, "In Sonepur and Boudh districts the villagers had to move to the safer places. Neither the communities not the government have shown the foresight of storing food for the emergency. The very thinking of the government that it is fully prepared without preparing the communities is erroneous. Community based disaster preparedness program of the government is association with UNDP has not been very effective as it was more of focused on preparing reports than rolling out the processes for community based disaster preparedness. A lot needs to be done on this front."

Purnachandra Mohapatra, a volunteer working in the Puri district echoes the same sentiment. "Disaster preparedness is still a government effort. Government has to send in the vehicles to evacuate people. Communities are to be goaded to go to the shelters. If during the previous evacuation food was not provided properly, then it becomes all the more difficult to motivate the communities to evacuate. This is not disaster preparedness. Well, the response by the government has been far far better. But overall preparedness - no."

The chief minister also has said "15 years of continuous planning, capacity building have made Odisha resilient to manage natural disasters".

Tapan PAdhi has to say, "When it comes to responding the floods in Odisha like the 2011 flood in both Mahanadi and Brahmani systems and even the 2013 flood one can safely say that Odisha has miles to go to achieve this status. Odisha is yet to have a proper flood forecasting model. Till date the flood warnings are very generic in nature like the Mahanadi system will have say 12 lakh cusecs of water. The exact areas to be inundated and intensity of flooding etc are yet to be predicted specifically. It is not that it is a mission impossible. Government of Odisha can take the cue from Karnataka initiative. Again during the 2011 flood the state administration was a helpless spectator while the marooned villagers were perched precariously on the roof of their houses. The intensity of flood was such that even it was not possible for the ODRAF people to reach them and rescue them. Actually the administration also was overwhelmed with this flood and was not able to evacuate people in advance as that takes a lot of information gathering and modeling. This is an area that the state has to work on to move towards disaster resilience. The embankments are not flood resilient. The infrastructures in the state are far from being disaster resilient. The electric towers those were planned to be constructed to withstand wind speed of 200 kmph, were all twisted by Phaillin, having lesser intensity. When ever there is little rain in the south western Odisha Nabarangpur district gets disconnected as river Hati flows over the road. This happens many times in a year and has been happening since many years."

He adds "Disaster preparedness is yet to be integrated with the development interventions of the state. Again the state of Odisha is yet to enforce many important provisions of NDRM Act."

Chief Minister and the administration in Odisha can pat their back for the good shows that they have put up during the last two cyclones. But they also should not fail to take the learning from the experience of the helplessness of the state during the floods in the past. It is time for Odisha to move away from the hype and look into the areas like disaster resilient infrastructure, developing accurate flood forecasting models and most importantly rooting disaster preparedness in the communities.

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