Saving Lives in Odisha: Disaster Mitigation Comes of Age in India

A relief shelter in Odisha during Cyclone Phailin.

Memo #250

By Asim Arun – asimarun [at] hotmail.com

The recent typhoon in the Philippines, and growing threat of climate change it may represent, has once again taught us the necessity of disaster preparedness. It was just over a month ago, on October 12, 2013, that the category-five Cyclone Phailin slammed into India’s eastern coastal states of Odisha, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. Unlike in 1999, when another category-five storm hit the coast of Odisha killing about ten thousand people, this time the response was effective. Only twenty-one storm fatalities were reported.

Such low numbers can be attributed to a combination of policies that were adopted after the December 2004 tsunami that left more than sixteen thousand dead in India. In 2005, the Indian parliament enacted the Disaster Management Act, which provided for a National Disaster Management Authority headed by the Prime Minister and State Disaster Management Authorities headed by the Chief Minister of each state. The Act mandated the creation of Disaster Response Forces by the central and state governments. Odisha was the first to set up a State Disaster Management Authority and a well-trained Disaster Response Force.

Due to significant enhancement in its capabilities, the Indian Meteorological Department was able to issue alerts on Cyclone Phailin five days before it made landfall. An early warning system comprised of radio, public telecommunications networks and sirens was also used to warn the smallest and most remote villages.

The World Bank-funded National Cyclone Risk Mitigation Project has also helped reduce the vulnerability of the region’s coastal communities to cyclones and other hydro-meteorological hazards. As a part of this project, Odisha state constructed cyclone walls and coral reefs to serve as tsunami breakwaters while also providing a cushion against an approaching cyclone, and increased the heights of river dykes to prevent flooding. It also undertook non-structural measures, such as the strict implementation of the Coastal Regulations Zone Act prohibiting any construction within 500 metres of the high tide line. The state has also encouraged the growth of natural bio shields like mangrove forests and casuarinas, and pursued a policy of integrated beach development to maintain natural sand dunes.

As Phailin approached, Odisha was prepared. About a million people were evacuated ahead of the storm along pre-identified routes to shelters well stocked with food, water, medicine, diesel fuel for electrical power, and life-saving equipment.  Policy changes in emergency response and mitigation, and their effective implementation, had paid off.

Asim Arun is currently Inspector General of Police in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. As an Indian Police Service officer, he has served in and headed several large and sensitive districts of Uttar Pradesh, in which capacities he has been actively involved in disaster preparedness and management.

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A relief shelter in Odisha during Cyclone Phailin (Source: Reuters).

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