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The worst didn’t happen

October 14, 2013

In our part of the world, we are used to disasters – natural and otherwise. We tend to take them in our stride as an accepted part of the news cycle.

So, when the government acts to minimise casualties, puts in place a mechanism to evacuate people based on accurate met predictions, it’s a sign that disaster management is a task the State can perform.

For once, it’s a time not to shy away from giving credit where it’s due.

For a large part of Saturday, I watched television and monitored my Twitter feed about the havoc that Cyclone Phailin was expected to wreak on people living in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh as it gathered force over the Bay of Bengal.

Television coverage, much of it repetitive in such circumstances, showed people being evacuated from their homes and being moved to temporary shelters. In some cases, force was used to shift unwilling people, reports said.

As predicted by the Indian met department, Phailin struck the Odisha and Andhra coasts on Saturday evening, making landfall between 9 and 10 pm IST.

Turning on the television on Sunday morning, it was evident that the worst had not happened. Yes, there was destruction, trees were uprooted and buildings ravaged, but the death toll was placed at three.

The casualties were nowhere in the scale of the 10,000 killed when a massive cyclone hit Odisha on October 29, 1999.

During the course of Sunday, it’s likely that the death toll may rise as relief workers reach interior villages. But certainly the numbers won’t be as high as was feared.

Early on Sunday, my Twitter friend Anil Bhattarai, who is based in Nepal, wrote: “I have tremendous respect for the Indian government. They have done a tremendous job in dealing with #Phailin.”

Even as we wait for information, Anil’s tweet hit home.

The disaster preparedness had worked. The loss of life had been minimised. Nothing much can be done about the uprooted trees and poles, the shattered kutcha houses or missing roofs but, yes, India needs a pat on the back.

From the state governments in Odisha to Andhra Pradesh, from the central government in Delhi to the army and paramilitary, it would appear that all worked to protect the lives of ordinary Indians.

They worked as if people and their lives mattered. They displayed that under a million people could be evacuated in order to save their lives. In the end, that’s all that matters.

I really can’t think of the last time the government of India displayed such unity of purpose.

According to L.S. Rathore, Director-General of Meterology, a decision had been taken to ensure that there were “zero casualties” from Cyclone Phailin. And, it appeared, that the goal had been achieved, Rathore said on television.

Confident about his department’s predictions, Rathore held up a map showing the predicted course and the actual course of Phailin – telling his live viewers across the country that the met had got it right.

He also didn’t forget to thank the electronic and print media for their efforts in informing the people about the dangers from Phailin.

Rathore was authoritative and well informed. He took questions both in English and Hindi and gave details Sunday morning about heavy rain warnings in the states of Jharkhand and Bihar.

It’s possible that there will be deaths from flooding and we’ll learn about these in the next couple of days.

Suddenly, for me, organisations like the National Disaster Response Force and the National Disaster Managament Authority have become more than acronyms.

There will be complaints about the lack of food and conditions in the temporary shelters.

But at least people are alive to tell the tale.