Op-Ed: ‘Titli’ has blown away all the good work done over the years

Zero to 26 in four days flat. That is certainly an incredible leap for a government, which had stuck to its ‘zero casualty’ boast till Friday. Even after Special Relief Commissioner (SRC) Bishnupada Sethi confirmed 26 deaths due to Cyclone Titli on Tuesday morning, an unapologetic Surjya Narayan Patro refused to admit that anyone had been killed by the cyclone. All those who have died so far have died due to the rains and floods that followed, Food Supplies and Consumer Affairs minister said! [As if the rains and flood that followed had nothing to do with Cyclone Titli!]

That was not the only embarrassment for the state government. The figures released by the SRC’s office about the number of people evacuated ahead of the cyclone and the relief centres set up for the affected simply didn’t add up. While the aggregate number of people evacuated stood at over 3.60 lakh in the SRC’s report released on Monday, the district-wise break up added up to no more than 1.13 lakhs!

This is as shoddy work as the actual preparatory measures put in place for the cyclone. While the government started shifting people living along the coast before Titli hit the state, it forgot to pay due attention to the hilly areas in Ganjam, Gajapati and Rayagada districts. The ‘review meetings’ chaired by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and chief secretary Aditya Prasad Padhi every few hours in the run up to Cyclone Titli failed to pay due attention to these areas, leaving the unfortunate people living there at the complete mercy of the elements.

The fact that the government was blissfully unaware of the death of 15 persons in just one village, Baraghar in Rayagad block, despite all the resources – both human and material – at its command for three full days proves that either it was completely taken by surprise at the extent and intensity of the disaster or was plain callous. The villagers say they had no information about Titli and those who perished in the tragedy rushed to a cave in a nearby hill for shelter after their roofs were blown away by the strong gale.

As per the ‘standard Operating Procedure’ (SOP) scrupulously followed by the government in all such cases, the SRC, instead of admitting the failure to warn the people in time, sought to blame the victims themselves for their death since they refused to budge when representatives of the administration reached the village and persuaded the people to shift out before the cyclone struck.

Given its past record whenever it has been caught on the wrong foot, this columnist would rather trust the villagers than the state government. But even assuming that the SRC was indeed speaking the truth, why did it give the people the option of staying put when it knew the devastation Titli could wreak? To put things in perspective, let us go back a little in time and consider what it did at the time of Phailin in October 2013 for which the government deservedly collected kudos from all quarters. Thousands of unwilling fishermen along the southern coast were forcibly shifted out of their houses before the cyclone struck, weren’t they? So, what prevented the government from doing the same this time?

The bitter truth is the government got it horribly wrong in assessing the intensity of the cyclone, the possible impact it could have and the areas likely to bear the brunt. And it compounded its failure by acting smart when reports started trickling in from the interiors about the havoc caused by the cyclone. The result: plenty of eminently avoidable embarrassment.

No one can fault the Naveen Patnaik government for what it has done over the years in putting in place systems to face disasters in the state after the devastation caused by the Super Cyclone in 1999. The high praise won by the men of Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force (ODRAF) for their work during the recent floods in Kerala is testimony to the fact that Odisha is among the best prepared states when it comes to facing disasters and the government’s claim of being ‘No. 1’ in the country is not just an empty boast.

But unfortunately for the government, Cyclone Ttitli has blown away all the good work done over the years in terms of disaster preparedness in one fell swoop.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)