The lessons that Phailin taught us
Oct 21 2013
excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.”
— John Lubbock
Nature is our wise old teacher, if we are willing to observe, listen and learn. Both in happier times and in our responses to the powerful forces of nature that have the capacity to destroy us, there are lessons to be learnt. Two strong lessons emerge from India’s response to cyclone Phailin — when there is a will to do something, India has the competence, capability and resources; and we must learn to believe in ourselves. Henry Brad’s words sum it up, “Believe in yourself, and the rest will fall into place. Have faith in your own abilities, work hard, and there is nothing you cannot accomplish.”
This was a time when everything did fall into place. Clearly, the Odisha government and administration did not forget to learn from the 1999 incident when a super cyclone left over 10,000 people dead. Since then, the government has built cyclone shelters with a week’s supply of ration for each shelter. 983,553 people were evacuated from the coastal areas and moved inland into the shelters. This was made possible because of accurate forecasts from the Indian meteorological department. Experts from the west, including the US Navy’s Typhoon warning centre predicted stronger wind force and classified Phalin as a category-5 hurricane. Our own scientists, however, stayed firm. It must not have been easy as there were even suggestions that India was deliberately underestimating the problem. Not only were India’s predictions on the strength of the cyclone right, we were also accurate in predicting the path, the actual path being almost identical to the predicted one.
The efforts and superb response from the National Disaster Management Authority and the National Disaster Response Force completed the cycle. They constantly monitored the advance of cyclone Phailin and sent thousands of rescue and relief workers to help the state government. Within hours of the cyclone striking Odisha, relief workers were in action. Not only did they help contain damage of property and life, they also ensured that the evacuated people were returned to their homes after the cyclone had passed. What is heartening is that the loss of life was minimal against the fury of the terrible storm.
For once, even media played a positive role. It has often been criticised for being disruptive and self-serving, but in this case, it did a commendable job. Bulletins from the interiors of Odisha kept people informed as reporters went into the remotest areas. Focus moved from city-centric debates and drama to reporting news that mattered, aptly playing the watchdog role in ensuring that relief operations did not become slack.
The district administration must be commended for their work as well, as none of this would have been possible if there wasn’t sufficient support at the ground level. We often complain about the Indian bureaucracy, hence it is not uncommon to be shunted between departments for getting anything done. But in this instance, it is almost miraculous that everyone came together to fight the natural calamity. Right from the central government, state government, the NDMA, defence services, district administration and the Indian metrological department; put all of these together and you could have a recipe for disaster, but that’s not how it worked this time around. Full credit for efforts and coordination must be given to everyone involved. Margaret Mead’s words resonate at this time, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
A special representative of the UN secretary general for disaster risk reduction said, “Odisha’s handling of the very severe cyclone will be a landmark success story in disaster management”. Even the UN highlighted Odisha’s efforts in dealing with cyclone Phailin as a successful case study globally.
Applause must be given to the government and all the agencies involved for their preparedness and handling of the natural disaster, which minimised loss of lives. We must feel proud of our scientists who made accurate predictions. We must learn to trust our abilities and our faculties, which compete with the best in the world. Political will, timely and firm action and productive cooperation, can together weather any storm. After having helplessly watched the floods in Uttarakhand cause damage and destruction, India deserves a pat on the back for standing strong against cyclone Phailin.
But as we raise our hands for the congratulatory clap, so must they be raised for further help. Houses have been destroyed and boats have broken down taking away the livelihood of people. Farms have been flooded with saline water, there is a power crisis in a number of districts, food is scarce and prices of essential commodities have soared while people have little or no money to buy necessities. Rehabilitation will require the same passion, sprit and action that was displayed in managing the impact of Phailin. There is an aftermath to deal with and the government cannot rest on its laurels. It must continue to work to ensure that the people of Odisha go back to leading a normal life. That will be true victory.
It has been proven that India can deal with this, in the words of Winston Churchill, “The task which has been set before us is not above our strength; that its pangs and toils are not beyond our endurance. As long as we have faith in our own cause and an unconquerable will to win, victory will not be denied us.”
(The writer is CEO of KPMG India)