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Ups and downs of disaster management

Ranjona BanerjiIs there something tragic in the fact that all of us are so surprised that the authorities handled the arrival of Cyclone Phailin sowell? People evacuated, meteorological information precise and casualties limited. None of these are normal as far as India is concerned. The last comparable cyclone that hit the east coast in 1999 left at least 10,000 people dead. This time, the number so far is below 50. Any death is bad but certainly, there is improvement.

So what went right? Seemingly, everything and everyone worked. There was enough warning, there was scientific tracking of the cyclone and dissemination of information. There was official efficiency on the ground as people were made aware and evacuated. Shelters that had been built after 1999 were still usable (this is no small matter, often roads in India are not usable a few months after being surfaced. About 900,000 people were moved away from the danger points.


Mismanaged: Although the Ratangarh Temple pilgrimage in Madhya Pradesh happens every year, there weren’t enough policemen and other arrangements. Stampede survivors claim that the police themselves threw people, dead or alive, into the river. Pic/AFP

Obviously, given the size of Phailin, its aftermath will also have to be dealt with. Details of the destruction of property and livelihood are still emerging and are likely to be devastating. The state administrations of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh will barely have a moment to pat themselves on the back before getting down to rehabilitation and reconstruction. Already, there are rumblings of discontent that officials have vanished after relocating people to the shelters. And the flood situation has affected Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal as well.

On the other hand, everything went wrong at Datia in Madhya Pradesh during a stampede on a bridge by pilgrims to a local temple. There were not enough policemen -- although this pilgrimage happens every year -- and not enough other arrangements. Even worse are the stories emerging from survivors that the police themselves threw people, dead or alive, into the river below. Although the police claimed that no one drowned, several bodies were picked up from the river. This callous heartlessness by the police may well seem horrifying but is hardly that unusual. The poor and helpless in India often expect nothing less from the men and women in the police force.

The Phailin response unfortunately remains the exception in India, although many might hope that it is a precursor to the future: a national disaster response system that works. The Datia incident is what we have grown to expect. This is not cynicism. This is just experience. Human life is cheap in India as the cliché goes and whether you live in a tiny hamlet or a large city you will know this to be true.

And, as expected, we have already seen political capital being made and lost in these two incidents. In fact, if we had administrations at state and local levels that did the work they were supposed to, politicians would be limited -- or elevated if you will -- to formulating laws and making policies. But since we have created an incredible system where bureaucrats apparently cannot function minus political will, even the basics that we get are a matter of much chest-thumping.

I am not naming political parties here because despite all the big claims about governance being tossed about these days, allparties and all administrations function in more or less the same manner. There is no part of India which is some magical charmed circle where everything functions and where you feel like you’re living in Utopia. The same short-term hodgepodge ad hoc system exists everywhere. All this talk about great governance is no different from Kublai Khan’s stately pleasure domes born from the drug-induced fantasies of Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his poem Xanadu.

If the Phailin response is indeed the future, then nothing like it. But I would still exercise and advise caution. Events post-Phailin and the damages from Datia will give us a better picture rather than embarking on some gigantic self-congratulatory yatra which we are more than capable of doing. And by the way, how many of us remember the promises made to Mumbaikars after the deluge of July 2005? Since then, we haven’t even managed to get our storm water drains cleaned in time for an ordinary monsoon...

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona 

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