Cyclone Nisarga | Lessons learnt due to storm has revived my faith in people: Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas

Updated: Jun 17, 2020, 08:21 IST | Vinod Kumar Menon | Mumbai

Former Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas, who is 87 years old and lives on a seven-acre estate in Alibaug, shares his experience of facing Nisarga and its aftermath

Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas at his Alibaug estate
Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas at his Alibaug estate

Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas, (retd.) former chief of Naval Staff (retd), 87 years of age born and brought up in Matunga and his wife Lalita 80, are staying at 'Lara' Ramu Farm, Bhaimala village, Alibag, post retirement at their 7 acres of estate, with no power and no water for twelve days due to cyclone Nisarga, when it hit Raigad district on June 3.

Three live electric pole fell, triggering fear of getting electrocuted, numerous mango and gulmohar trees too got uprooted in the estate, and amidst this a distress frantic call was received by Navy Foundation Mumbai chapter, seeking assistance and the caller was non other than the Admiral himself, the couple shared their ordeal with cyclone Nisarga and the aftermath, they shared with Vinod Kumar Menon.....

AdmiraAdmiral Laxminarayan Ramdas at his Alibaug estatel Laxminarayan Ramdas at his Alibaug estate

Admiral recalls, "As a sailor for more than half my life, we at sea have always tried to avoid cyclones by adjusting our courses as required. This was the first time that I have physically been captive in a "stone frigate", ie a shore establishment, wherein one had no choice or chance, of avoiding a storm! This experience was therefore unique and unforgettable, coming as it has, almost at the wintertime of my life.

· Normally the west coast, from Bombay and further south, has rarely if ever been the target of a cyclone crossing the coast. I am told this has not happened in the past 100 years or so. Certainly not in my living memory as someone who was born in Matunga, Mumbai in 1933, and who has spent large amounts of my tme in the Navy, in this port city.

Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas at his Alibaug estate

· Experiencing a cyclone was an annual feature on the Eastern Seaboard, where I had commanded both the Eastern Fleet as also later the Eastern Naval Command. A cyclone crossing anywhere between Bengal and Tuticorin was fairly common and people and the administration of coastal areas were well prepared, especially after the devastating cyclone in Andhra in 1977– in Divi Seema. Cyclone shelters, cyclone drills etc were developed and people slowly oriented and trained in all the safety drills.

One also had to deal with an avalanche of warnings and interpretations from various websites – pre Nisarga – not quite knowing when and where exactly it would make landfall, and with what intensity and windspeed. Sometimes too much information can also be a bad thing!! Even as some sources predicted that wind speeds might only be about 60 km per hour. In the event, the Disaster Management Teams clearly did their homework on the ground with efficiency and professionalism. And it is noteworthy that there was relatively little loss of life – with as many as upto over 40000 people evacuated to schools and other community buildings away from the coast.

Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas at his Alibaug estate

Our wadi is situated about five kms away from the coast as the crow flies – and we barricaded and battened down as much as we could. Even so the impact was Terrifying. And we watched in awe and fascination almost as the 'Chakra vidhi ' – did her awesome Tandava danced and whirled around with a velocity and fury which must have touched about 100 to 120 kmph!! We could only keep our fingers crossed and say our prayers as we heard the sounds of howling winds, falling trees, flying cement and metal roofs, crashing cement and iron electric poles. And depending where one was located in the path of the cyclone – so too the damage varied from location to location.

Obviously the coastal area – especially around Murud, Kashid, Srivardhan, bore the brunt of the landfall. Nisarga dealt with an uneven hand in different areas..... and so the return towards 'normalcy' has been equally uneven.

Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas at his Alibaug estate

Old cyclone hands tell us the worst is always in the period following the actual storm.

How right they are!!
The Bijli was switched off in anticipation – and so the early morning of 3rd June was the last that we actually saw of mains power until yesterday, June 14 around 3pm! The MSEB have had one of the toughest tasks of repair, rehabilitation and restoration – given that huge numbers of electric poles have been totally destroyed in those four hours of sound and fury. There is a huge shortage of men, materials and technicians.

Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas at his Alibaug estate

The Superintendent of Police, who came by to check on us a few days ago, on his way back from a site visit in Srivardhan, was telling us about the hundreds of major electric poles literally ripped out and felled. Not to mention the thousands of homes without roofs, especially those with tiles or cement and metal sheets.

While the mobile phones miraculously remained alive almost for the entire duration of the highest intensity action, by the evening of the 3rd – most networks had also gone silent. So digital India had been rendered totally toothless by the power of Nature!!

Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas at his Alibaug estate

For a rural India which had also grown used to and dependant on the mobile phone for all communication – not to mention a host of 'on line' transactions – the four days of radio silence was the toughest to handle. Judging from how our own family and friends reacted, responded, almost panicked – one could well imagine the scale of anxieties, and total breakdown of all contact with Alibag. And thanks to the Media focus on Nisarga making a beeline for Alibag – this quiet and otherwise largely insignificant town in the Konkan region was suddenly in the eye of global news-in addition to being in the Eye of the storm! By June 6, the Raigad Police had launched an interesting initiative – called The #ConnectingPeopleFacility on Twitter – whereby those unable to connect with their families could the Superintendent of Police with details and they would locate, find out and send vital information to families.

We have been living here for nearly 26 years on a piece of land allotted to Admiral Ramdas by the Govt of Maharashtra for the Gallantry award received in the 1971 Bangla Desh Operations. This property was totally barren, with barely ten trees and not even a known water source in 1993 when we moved here post retirement from the Navy. Maybe we are among the very few 'formers' who have lived on the land, rejuvenated the earth, learnt from the local people and their wisdom and also practiced natural and organic farming. Over the years we have planted over two thousand trees – of all varieties . Each tree has been nurtured with cowdung and a variety of natural nutrients and pesticides – no chemicals being allowed inside the compound!!

Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas at his Alibaug estate

So the loss of each of the thirty plus trees was like losing a child!

Maybe there was a funnel effect which brought Nisarga right over our area which appears to be among those worst hit by collapsed and broken electric poles and wires.

But the lessons learned have been immense – and revives faith in each other and especially in the extraordinary presence of skills and experience in our local community and immediate neighburhood.

When Hi tech teams from Mumbai could not get a generator going – we called up to a self taught mechanic down the road, Ramesh, to take a look – and within half an hour of cleaning and oiling he had the machine going. It was just lack of maintenance and a dirty carburator!!

How do we retro fit the generator to synch with the solar powered invertor? Along comes another self taught village product – Dinesh – never went to no ITI s – but has practical knowledge which is awesome and till the power returned and with careful management, we managed till the power was restored.

Someone sent along a tanker of water and since there was no pump to take it up to the tanks– we shared it with our neighbours.

And not to mention another all purpose handy man – cum entrepreneur – Sainath and his son, Omkar, who have singlehandedly helped to cut and clear fallen trees and debris. Omkar is not only a student of class 10, but is an expert at climbing coconut trees and cleaning and taking down coconuts. He is also like a lithesome creature who climbs up the tallest mango trees and has taken down over a thousand of our mangoes! Wonderful to see young people from rural areas who are not shy to put their hand to different tasks and in fact take great pride in their skills.

The young men from the nearby villages have voluntarily landed up and offered help in erecting and straightening up broken and damaged electric poles which are looking dangerously like the leaning tower of Pisa!!

We are mentioning these few anecdotes by way of reaffirmation of the immense spirit of community and shared responsibility to get things back on track. There are Rameshs and Dineshs and Sainaths and Omkars.

But also to underscore that Nisarga and Covid are both signalling to us that Mother Nature has been mortally wounded and it is up to us in our own self interest to radically rethink what we want by way of development. The conversations with so many are filled with genuine introspection about the many mistakes our governments have made by blindly following the path of privatisation. The plight of the workers and labour who have been treated like dirt by our country, our government and yes our people– figured in all our conversations about the acute shortage of labour. We have heard story after story about the short staffed department working through the night atop High Tension poles – repairing, joining and pulling wires. All this with the minimum of equipment, and no safety harnesses or equipment. And we have also seen inefficiency and corruption!!

So this is a small glimpse of our Nisarga story …..and the biggest factor that as quickly as Alibag was the centre of the news -the minute the storm came and went – so too did the interest in the media. Most people have no idea that things are still bad – or the extent of the damage and hardships suffered by the ordinary folk. Thank you for bringing a spotlight to bear - not because of a so-called VIP – but because it will draw attention to the realities on the ground.

All of us here in Alibag Taluka are still riding the storm!!

How the ex-student came to rescue

Rajeshwari Kori, Deputy Controller of Civil Defence, Raigad, received a phone call from Navy Foundation Mumbai Chapter (NFMC) that the Admiral is facing issues post Nisarg cyclone.

My office is located in Uran while the admiral was in Alibaug. I have served the Indian navy from August 1995 to December 2008. Joined Maharashtra government's Home Department Special 8, Directorate of Civil Defence in June 2010 in ex defence services category.

On receiving information, I immediately messaged the Collector of Raigad, Nidhi Chowdhry, who also is the Controller of Civil Defence about the Admiral.

"She was extremely busy with Honourable CM's visit to Raigad post the cyclone on 6th June 2020. Yet she ensured all help. I also spoke to the admiral who apprised me of his situation with no electricity, water and communication. He picked my call although on low battery as he was expecting my call, " said Kori.

She added, "After speaking, I assured him , that I will do what is best possible from our side. I took his coordinates and passed on to the Collector saying he was the Chief of Naval Staff. Incidentally I passed out of the Naval Academy when he was the CNS. The Admiral and his good lady have always been an advocate of women officers being in the Indian Navy. He encouraged women to join the navy."

The Collector ensured his well-being by sending the Residential Deputy Collector (RDC). She had also sent an agricultural officer to do the panchanama of the devastation of the Admiral's estate. Three electric poles had fallen and they feared electrocution. Many fruit bearing trees were uprooted. Farm helps around the estate were without water. A water tanker was also arranged by the District Administration.

And I contacted the lone ham operator Dilip Bapat, who forwarded my message to the control room. In addition, I spoke to Tanisha Avarsekar, also a resident of Alibag to inquire about the wellbeing of Admiral.

When contacted Bapat confirmed the distress call from Kori and said, "I informed disaster chief Sagar Phatak and then help was sent from collector office and provided required assistance. Admiral was worried as the electric pole had fallen, and he feared that once power is restored their could be high chances of electrocution. We spoke on phone but the connection got disconnected."

So yes, I moved heaven and earth to ensure that the Admiral is safe and sound.

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