After the deluge,the questions

Author - Baijayant 'Jay' Panda

Posted on - 10 October 2011

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This article was published on ‘The Indian Express’ on 10th October 2011





Natural calamities in our country are more likely than not to be politicised,and in fact,can have serious political ramifications. For example,Naveen Patnaik first became Odisha’s chief minister when he led his coalition to a state election victory only weeks after the super-cyclone of October 1999,in whose aftermath the incumbent government was perceived to have been ineffective.

Odisha is prone to floods and the intervening 11 years have seen several,including two major ones just this past month. During these,if you listened to political parties,you would wonder if they were talking about the same events. Inevitably,the governing party — the BJD,to which I belong — would claim credit for effective relief work,while opposition parties would go to town claiming the exact opposite.

Another inevitability to these opposite spins of the same facts is a Centre versus state angle. A major part of any regional party’s appeal is always the assertion that it holds dear local aspirations to which the national parties — and “Delhi” — are apathetic. The counter-argument from national parties is that the Centre’s neglect is a bogey that is misused to score political brownie points. In the end,of course,it is the voters who get to determine which point of view carries greater authenticity.

Beyond the politics,there is also the role of the media,which can sometimes be whimsical. Last month’s two floods in Odisha bookended the devastating earthquake in Sikkim,which deservedly got significant attention from both the national media as well as the Central government. Yet the Odisha floods,which saw almost as many Indian casualties — 83,compared to 97 in the earthquake — got far less attention from both. But what is astonishing is that even three days of rain in Delhi — with one reported casualty — got more media attention.

The first phase of the September floods in Odisha was largely ignored by the national media (with a few notable exceptions like this newspaper),despite 41 casualties. By the time of the second flood,perhaps having gathered momentum from covering Sikkim and Delhi,the media did finally get around to covering Odisha. Together,the two floods claimed 83 lives; affected 8,000 villages (including 3,000 completely submerged) in 21 of the state’s 30 districts; and damaged 2.9 lakh homes. The preliminary estimate of damage is more than Rs 3,000 crore. The state government has already approved relief and reconstruction expenditure of Rs 1300 crore over 45 days,of which about Rs 300 crore has already been spent on relief measures,and the Central government has been requested for immediate assistance of Rs 1,000 crore. During the relief exercises,up to eight helicopters of various national agencies had been pressed into action,including ones diverted from Naxal operations.

Recent years have seen resentment in Odisha on the perceived apathy of the Centre,particularly with regard to equitable relief during natural disasters. This perception has been based on the Centre sanctioning only a fraction of the funds demanded by the state,as well as comparisons with significantly larger relief packages sanctioned to other states for calamities around the same time. Two examples that stand out are Bihar’s Kosi flood in 2008 and Bengal’s Aila cyclone in 2009; in both of those years Odisha had significant floods but got what appeared to be disproportionately little in Central assistance.

Will things be different this time around? The signals are mixed. Despite aiding the early relief efforts,mostly by way of the armed forces helicopters airdropping relief packets,the first Central team to assess the damage only visited the state two weeks after the start of the first flood. A later visit by an inter-ministerial Central team (IMCT) during the second flood,agreed with the state government — a departure from 2008 and 2009 — that this time,the damage was “huge” and “large scale.” But it also said,somewhat ambiguously,that “the state government’s request for Central assistance may be more. But,our norms are conservative. Hopefully,the state will get a higher amount this year.”

What about the counter-allegations that the state needs to do a better job of handling disasters? Without contesting that there is always room to improve,Odisha has indeed made progress. Perhaps due to the early experience after the 1999 super-cyclone and its political implications,this administration has assiduously invested in disaster management. The Orissa State Disaster Management Authority (OSDMA) has been transformed over the years,earning a good reputation nationally and even among multilateral organisations (the UNDP has cited it for good practices in two case studies).

OSDMA’s reputation has been built on its 24×7 control rooms during crises,as well as its multi-locational Orissa Disaster Rapid Action Force (ODRAF),equipped with speedboats,road-cutters,portable generators and the like for search,rescue and relief operations. The proof of the pudding is that the numbers of casualties for similar-level calamities have come down drastically over the years. If validation were needed,the Centre’s IMCT spokesperson stated after their recent visit that “We have not got a single complaint on relief operation.”

Putting aside parochial or partisan considerations,the fact is that more needs to be done by both the Centre and the states when it comes to preventing,preparing for,and tackling floods. This should include investing in infrastructure like river embankments and check dams; strictly enforcing the ban on riverbed sand excavation; improving forecasting and reservoir management; establishing national rapid action teams; and better inter-state coordination (these Odisha floods were partly a result of heavy rainfall upstream in Chhattisgarh).

Perhaps it is also time to take a fresh look at a decades-old idea,last floated during the Vajpayee era: the interlinking of rivers to provide waterway transportation,generate electricity,and indeed,balance out droughts and floods.