India copes with grand natural disasters better than local man-made ones

By Rajeev Sharma Source:Global Times Published: 2013-10-17 0:33:01

India is a land of dramatic contrasts where epic achievements and Himalayan blunders exist side by side. This incongruity was in evidence on Sunday, when India was able to hold off the super cyclone Phailin that affected 9 million people, and minimized the death toll to only 23. But on the same day it could not prevent a man-made disaster when at least 115 people were killed in a stampede near a shrine in Madhya Pradesh, Central India.

About 14 years ago, a weaker and less dangerous cyclone killed over 10 thousand people in the state of Odisha, which was in the eye of the storm on Sunday.

In June this year, another Indian state Uttarakhand, which shares a border with the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, experienced the country's worst natural disaster since the 2004 tsunami and thousands of people were killed in flash floods.

The Uttarakhand tragedy began as a natural disaster, but the apathetic administration of Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna in this Congress Party-ruled state allowed it to degenerate into a man-made tragedy of sorts.

The Uttarakhand state government did little in foreseeing the upcoming natural disaster, and botched up relief and rescue efforts after the disaster struck.

As a result, more than 5,700 people were presumed dead a month later, and in hundreds of cases the victims' bodies were not even found.

The Phailin episode was a complete contrast. The brunt of the category 5 super cyclone fury was faced by the eastern state of Odisha and the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.

The Indian action to deal with Phailin is commendable. It was a Herculean effort executed perfectly by myriads of agencies in copybook fashion.

The magnitude of the upcoming disaster, the brilliant and accurate work done by weather scientists in correctly predicting the time and exact area of the cyclone's landfall, the uninhibited help given by the international community in sharing scientific data and the mammoth scale of preventive measures before the landfall, and the relief, rescue, repair and rehabilitation works all contributed to saving thousands of lives.

Over 1 million people had been evacuated before the super cyclone made a landfall with wind speeds of over 200 kilometers per hour.

The central government deployed 18 army helicopters and 12 aircraft, and rushed six relief columns of army to Odisha and four relief columns to Andhra Pradesh.

Two Navy ships and seven navy helicopters with relief material were kept on standby.

A total of 26 National Disaster Response Force teams were deployed in Odisha. The state-owned Food Corporation of India stocked sufficient advance stock for six months.

Countries like Japan, Thailand, the US and the UK shared vital scientific and weather data with India, and showed to the world how the global village can come together to deal with huge natural disasters in the future.

The combined response to Phailin by the central government, the state governments concerned, the armed forces, the India Meteorological Department, the National Disaster Management Authority and host of other central and state agencies was unique, a ray of hope for the future.

Sensing a political kill in view of the assembly elections in five states next month, Congress General Secretary Ajay Maken released details of the efforts made by the Congress-led union government in dealing with the super cyclone.

But at the same times, the Madhya Pradesh tragedy shows that local abilities at crowd management and avoiding panic are still fatally weak even if natural capacities have grown.

India has done well to minimize loss of life in a natural disaster of gigantic proportions.

But people's optimism should be cautious. We hope government performance facing such disasters can constantly prove effective. India cannot afford to rest on its laurels when it comes to tackling natural and man-made calamities.

The author is a New Delhi-based journalist-author and a political commentator.

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