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Odisha govt's pre-Fani measures commendable, but post-cyclone response raises questions about disaster preparedness

It's 5 in the morning of 13 May, and I'm by the bridge over the Bhargavi river adjoining Balakati, on the outskirts of Odisha's capital Bhubaneswar. Many are still deep asleep on the pavement of the bridge, their bikes parked beside them. Some, like 27-year-old Sangram Kishor, have just woken up.

"Without electricity, it's extremely difficult to sleep in this terrible heat at home. So we prefer this place," says Sangram as he and others fold their bedsheets. "We have heard that power supply will be restored by the 20th of this month. Till then, we have no option but to spend the nights here."

According to these residents of Odisha, since the night after Cyclone Fani struck the state on 3 May, the bridge has served as a bed for over 300 to 350 people, all from villages near the Balakati market.

"At 10 pm, you wouldn't find an inch of vacant space on this walkway," says Kaliash, a 32-year-old local resident.

 Odisha govts pre-Fani measures commendable, but post-cyclone response raises questions about disaster preparedness

A local resident said that without electricity, as has been the case since Cyclone Fani struck Odisha, it's extremely difficult to sleep in the heat at home. Debi Mohanty

To be precise, Balakati is 9 kilometers from Bhubaneswar, and the bridge connects Balakati with Uttara Chowk on the road leading to Nimapara. Uttara Chowk falls on the Bhubaneswar-Puri highway.

However, the post-Fani condition of the interior areas is far worse though. Everyone in the rural pockets is anxious to know when power supply will finally be restored. The destruction is humongous, to say the least, and the Odisha government has a monumental task ahead of rebuilding the state.

Lack of power is a huge issue, but just one of the many. Even on the afternoon of 14 May, days after Cyclone Fani struck the state, journalists in Puri were left searching for places to charge their mobile phone batteries, as one reporter said, "Otherwise we can't file our stories." There are also near regular reports of angry protests and roadblocks against tardy relief and restoration work.

According to a government official engaged in the relief operation, many villages in the Satyabadi and Krushna Prasad blocks of Puri district are impregnable as large tress are still lying on the roads, blocking access. "You can't imagine the condition of the people living there," he says, adding that people had received the initial assistance of Rs 2,500 and 50 kilograms of rice.

"The situation on the ground is grim. Everyone knew that with heavy winds, trees would fall and electricity supply would be disrupted. Where was the preparedness?" asks veteran journalist Rajaram Satpathy. "Instead, the government is basking in the glory of the praise of international agencies. It's atrocious."

Senior Congress leader Panchanan Kanungo, a former finance minister in Naveen Patnaik's cabinet, also criticised the Odisha government's post-Fani relief measures.

Recalling a telephone call from a friend in Bengaluru on the afternoon of 11 May, Kanungo says he was shocked when the caller said, "I am glad everything is fine with you and the people in Bhubaneswar."

"By scripting a cooked up story, an impression has been created for people outside the state that here is a very capable government that was quick in taking effective measures both before and after Cyclone Fani. But the ground reality is something else," he adds.

Satpathy believes that the horrible experience could have been minimised had the government, instead of waiting for the technical workforce from other states to arrive, had pooled in manpower from Odisha's own districts that were unlikely to be affected by Fani, well in advance. He says Odisha is a pioneer in managing disasters like cyclones and is well equipped with technical manpower and tools.

Kanungo, on the other hand, goes a step further and questions the role played by the Viju Yuva Vahini (BYV) in the relief and restoration activities in the aftermath of the tropical storm. "The government should tell is about that, as well," he demands.

The BYV was established last year with the objective to help create a sense of social responsibility among the youth to take up community service and leadership. It had received a budgetary allocation of Rs 450 crore for three years.

Incidentally, the Odisha government received accolades from the United Nations and international media for the massive evacuation of over 13 lakh people, which minimised loss of human lives. On 6 May, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his visit to the cyclone-ravaged state, had praised Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik for the planning.

While the government's pre-Fani measures are commendable, the post-cyclone response raises questions. Many believe the government was not adequately prepared for it. "Had the people not been evacuated, thousands would have died. When the government managed that job efficiently, we thought it would respond equally promptly post Fani, but that hasn't been the case," says a Bhubaneswar-based executive with a private company.

BJP national secretary Suresh Pujari believed the Odisha government was caught off guard by the intensity of the cyclone and was ill-prepared for the challenge "They were well aware of the approaching cyclone and had all the information with them. Yet, the government's response after the disaster was surprising. It shows their lack of sensitivity and commitment to the people," Pujari claims.

Satpathy echoes the sentiments of both Kanungo and Pujari. He highlights that Odisha is a cyclone-prone state that has experienced three such storms between the 1999 super cyclone and Fani. He believes that the destruction and human causalities in the 1999 cyclone were massive due to the lack of a pre-cyclone warning system, awareness and poor communication network.

Since then, casualties in cyclones dropped considerably in the successive cyclones — Phailin, Hudhud and Titli — thanks to better awareness among people. Today, the communication system has improved a lot; the reach of the media is everywhere; and in the age of satellites and social media, minute-to-minute transmission of information is accessible to those living even in the remotest corners. Therefore, it's natural for people to move to safer places ahead of any such disaster, Satpathy explains.

However, leaders of the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) dismiss the allegations of their critics. They say the government had done and was still doing the best for the people affected by Cyclone Fani.

"The government's main aim always has been to ensure zero casualties. It successfully evacuated over 13 lakh people to safer places before Fani struck Odisha, which shows its commitment. Everyone knows this government is very sensitive to the people's needs. Before and after the cyclone, it did and is still doing the best it can to meet the challenges," claims senior BJD leader Amar Prasad Satpathy.

The ruling party leader, however, concedes that the government failed as far as quick restoration of power supply was concerned. "We failed to restore electricity supply. That is because so many trees fell," Satpathy concedes. "It's time to go for underground cables."

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Updated Date: May 14, 2019 16:23:51 IST