A natural disaster tests any government’s efficiency and commitment to the public welfare. India, whose past record has not been particularly admirable, deserves full credit for its official response this week to the vast storm that lashed the country’s eastern region.
Well in advance, more than 1,600 personnel from the National Disaster Response Force had been dispatched to Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. State government workers, supported by the military and other central-government resources, put in unprecedented efforts to get more than 500,000 people into government-run shelters before Cyclone Phailin hit the two states. Some government employees were even recalled from holidays to help. A number of villagers had to be removed by force but when the storm passed, only seven deaths had been recorded, far fewer than predicted.
Contrast this with the Uttarakhand disaster in June. That one caught the authorities off guard and more than 5,000 people died. India has a long sad history of poor planning for natural disasters.
But development is slowly providing the tools for more sophisticated preparation. Modern infrastructure, weather forecasting and other contemporary tools create the conditions by which developed countries can minimise the effects of natural disaster. Today many of India’s states, including Odisha, have Doppler radars that alert authorities, with time to spare, to the intensity, timing and exact track of an impending storm. The result is lives saved.
But machinery, while necessary, is not sufficient. The most crucial element in reducing the damage done by a natural disaster is the human one: coordination of effort, flowing from the political will to do the job right, is essential. It’s much easier to save lives when governance is sound and where people are at the centre of a country’s priorities.
Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, like all of India’s states, have their own serious problems, and now officials and citizens must begin the vast, dreary task of cleaning up and rebuilding. This too will demand efficiency, speed, coordination and will. The work never ends.
But this success story should inspire and energise people everywhere in India to demand and expect that their leaders, too, are able to respond properly whenever and wherever the next disaster strikes.