Cyclone Phailin and disaster preparedness

India needs to devote more resources for managing climate change risks

Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint

By all accounts, the Odisha government has managed to contain the human fallout of Cyclone Phailin. Within a week or so of the original warning being generated, the authorities in Bhubaneswar managed to move close to a million citizens to safety. The human toll was less than 50 deaths at the time of writing. This is in stark contrast to the last time Odisha faced cyclonic destruction in 1999 when some 10,000 persons lost their lives.

If there is one lesson from this episode it is that India has to prepare for risks from climate change. So far, it has not done that.

A combination of an alert meteorological establishment and a state government willing to act on the warning made all the difference.

That is the happy part of the story. Odisha now faces another struggle. The worst affected district, Ganjam, is now in a shambles. Preliminary estimates indicate that 234,000 houses have been destroyed and the electricity infrastructure of the district requires a huge reconstruction effort. The damage in terms of lost livelihoods—due to crop destruction, work loss and other economic effects—will be fully known only in the weeks and months ahead. Phailin’s final bill may end up biting Odisha quite a bit.

There are three issues that require consideration. First, there is no doubt that after the disastrous tsunami of 2004, governments—Union and states—have learnt that early warnings and acting on those warnings is important. Does the Phailin experience show that India has moved on? Not really. Take the last big natural disaster—in the quake and flood prone high Himalayas in Uttarakhand. The state government was virtually clueless, much like Odisha was in 1999. It did not heed the Met department’s warning. Further, its administrative ability to evacuate residents from the disaster zone was non-existent. For crucial days, it was the army that delivered all the essential services apart from the task of rescuing and ferrying residents to safety. So the record is too patchy to say that India as a whole has moved on.

Second, because of the diversity of the climatic and geological conditions in the country, there can be no one, unified, disaster management and post-disaster rehabilitation plan. This is the key weakness in managing such events. If it is an earthquake in Gujarat (2001), a flooded river in Uttarakhand (2013) or a cyclone in Odisha or Andhra Pradesh (2013), the state governments have to foresee, plan and act. There is, to be sure, a great deal of difference in predicting and acting on a cloudburst than a cyclone. But in the end, heeding warnings and taking precautions at the right time is central to handling all natural disaster situations. Here, it must be pointed out that if India has a diversity of geoclimatic conditions, the administrative abilities of the states also display a dismaying diversity.

This point is linked to what is perhaps the determining issue in the end: states having a sufficient economic and financial wherewithal to save citizens and rehabilitate them. In countries such as Japan, the bulk of infrastructure—housing, roads, bridges and electricity—has been “proofed” against such events. Most Indian states do not have the resources for this task. For example, reports indicate that in the years and decades ahead, global warming and climatic imbalances will only increase the incidence of Phailin-like events. It makes sense, then, to devote resources and protect vulnerable areas like coastlines in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. But where is the money to do this? In fact, such issues are deliberated momentarily in the wake of such extreme events and then forgotten. The subject does not command political attention.

It is due to these diverse factors that India will have to rely on what is a second best option: devoting resources to building an early warning system spread across the country. The much maligned India Meteorological Department has been given some of the resources it needs to model and predict such events. There is a case to spend more money in training and recruiting scientific manpower for this task. This is a relatively easy job as the Union government manages this and not a collection of squabbling and poor states.

What should India do to minimize the impact of natural disasters? Tell us at