In Kerala, hit by cyclone Ockhi, fishermen have stopped waiting for the state government and Coast Guard to help them. Communities banded together and launched their own search parties to look for missing neighbours at sea. A week after the tragedy, fishing communities and the government do not even agree on the number of people missing or dead: the former believe that the authorities are vastly underestimating the figure.
Ockhi hit the coast of Tamil Nadu and Kerala on November 30. As of Tuesday, the storm had killed 39 Indians, highlighting the lack of preparation in the country’s response to natural disasters.
Given India’s subcontinental size, the country experiences frequent calamities. Since one-third of the country’s population lives in coastal areas, oceanic disasters are common. Yet, it took the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 for state governments and the Centre to wake up the need for a mechanism as basic as early warning systems. It was only after 2004 that the National Disaster Management Authority was set up.
Yet, even after this, progress was slow. In 2013, for example, Uttarakhand experienced flooding and landslides caused by a severe cloudburst. Though cloudburst had been predicted by the Indian Meteorological Department, the Uttarakhand government simply ignored the warning leading to the deaths of nearly 6,000 people. Even after the calamity hit, there was little coordination between the state government and Central bodies such as the Indian Army and the National Disasater Management Authority. In 2017, large parts of Bihar saw flooding – a regular occurrence during the monsoons. Yet, despite the clockwork timing of the flooding, Bihar was unprepared, resulting in the loss of more than 500 lives.
Things are not all bleak, however. In 2013, as Cyclone Phailin threatened Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, the authorities evacuated the threat areas before the storm could hit. The operation moved out 1.2 million people. In 1999, a cyclone in the same region had killed 10,000 people. In 2013, 21 people died.
Phailin shows that India can swing into action. It also proves that with preparedness, lives need not be lost to nature. Yet, till now, such action has been the exception, not the norm. In the case of Ockhi, for example, a tug of war has broken out between Kerala state government and the Indian Meteorological Department over whether a warning was issued on time. Even worse, India’s laws, copied unthinkingly from international norms, make it illegal for small fishing vessels to carry communication equipment that could save lives in such a situation. This state of affairs with respect to disaster management will have to change.