Senior Research Fellow, Asia Programme
In the port of Gopalpur, India which bore the brunt of Cyclone PhailinIn, many boats were damaged, endangering the livelihoods of thousands. Photo: ADRA India.In the port of Gopalpur, India which bore the brunt of Cyclone PhailinIn, many boats were damaged, endangering the livelihoods of thousands. Photo: ADRA India.

Two contrasting images of India were presented over the weekend. On 12 October, one of the strongest cyclones to hit India in recent years struck Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. Early estimates suggest that the storm has destroyed around 5,000 square kilometres of paddy fields, and may have left as many as half a million people homeless. A similar cyclone hit Orissa in 1999, causing the deaths of 10,000 people. But in the 2013 cyclone, only around 20 people, so far, have been reported dead.

On 13 October, thousands of pilgrims in Madhya Pradesh were crossing the bridge when rumours spread that it was going to give way. This led to a stampede leaving 115 people dead. This is not first time that stampedes have taken place at large religious gatherings; in February, a stampede at the Kumbh Mela killed 36 pilgrims and 102 were killed in Kerala in 2011. Congress has called for the Chief Minister to resign, and the state government has, in turn, suspended a number of local officials. This disaster came only four months after more than 1,000 people died in flooding and landslides in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand.

What explains the contrast between the extraordinary success of the evacuation of the coast-line in Orissa, and the massive loss of life that continues to occur on a regular basis in India? In part, India’s ability to respond varies dependent on the type of disaster. Aside from strong winds, the biggest threat presented by the cyclone is the storm surge. Provided that the population can be moved inland, the impact of a cyclone (like a tsunami) can be reduced. 

In many cases people are reluctant to heed warnings – as in Hurricane Katrina – or the warnings are not issued in time – as in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. But Orissa was well-placed; having experienced the devastating cyclone, people listened to official warnings. And India has formulated a new approach towards disaster response in the aftermath of the 1999 cyclone, the 2001 Gujarat earthquake and the tsunami.

Orissa has been particularly active, constructing relief shelters (to which more than half a million people were moved) and in using disaster risk reduction as a means of empowering people. Orissa housed the evacuees in around 250 cyclone shelters which had been built in advance as well as 10,000 specially constructed school buildings. These buildings had been constructed as part of a special plan developed after the 1999 disaster. In recent years the quality of forecasting of India’s meterological department has also improved substantially.

Orissa's Chief Minister, Naveen Patnaik, has been re-elected for three terms. He is, like Narendra Modi in Gujarat, an Indian politician who has not suffered from anti-incumbency. While Modi has focused on economic growth, in Orissa, one of India's poorer states, the focus has been more on social indicators, and disasters have been one issue around which messages have been delivered.

The government in Orissa also engaged quickly with the central government (responsible for issues such as the deployment of the military). This led to the deployment of thousands of personnel from the National Disaster Relief Force in Orissa and neighbouring states. This deployment was notable by its absence in Uttarakhand.

Technology also helped. In Andhra Pradesh the government sent text messages to more than 10,000 people the day before the cyclone hit. The use of new technology to present information in advance is a game-changer in relation to threats for which early-warning systems should be available but is of no help in sudden events such as the stampede in Madhya Pradesh.   

The difference also relates to the quality of governance – which as Orissa demonstrated is not necessarily related to income levels. In the case of the 2004 tsunami, the quality of local, empowered district officials in Tamil Nadu helped massively in the disaster response. But when the Kosi River flooded in Bihar in 2008, affecting more than 2 million people, the response was more lacklustre.

Events in Orissa have the potential to recalibrate India’s view of its bureaucracy. The expectation that officialdom will be corrupt, coupled with a fatalistic approach towards disasters, allows for complacency, with occasional massive loss of life the norm. Orissa has demonstrated that this need not be the case, and that government can deliver.

Read more:The role of the affected state in humanitarian action: A case study on India Gareth Price and Mihir Bhatt, HPG Working Papers, April 2009.