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RARELY has the evidence of a breakdown been as convincing. Disasters, both natural and man-made, are not uncommon in India. And though the recent cyclone that hit coastal Orissa was ‘unprecedented’ in its intensity, to not even have an approximate estimate of human casualties weeks after the disaster speaks volumes.

Indian state and society, normally apathetic if not callous, has in the past demonstrated immense creativity and initiative at times of crisis. The Andhra cyclone in the last decade saw relief and rehabilitation efforts mounted on a war scale. The primary initiative may have been taken by philanthropic organisations, both religious and secular, but few accused the government of laxity. Similarly, those who visit Latur now, site of a major earthquake earlier in the decade, come back impressed with the scale and quality of reconstruction. Here too dozens of organisations, both official and voluntary, came forward in response to a humanitarian need.

So what has changed now? Surely it is not just that the scale of the tragedy (figures of over 50,000 dead are making the rounds) has stunned everyone into a despairing inactivity. To have permitted the Chief Secretary of the state to go off on leave to the U.S.; worse, for him to have even sought leave on such an occasion is clear indication of complete disarray.

Reports about differences in the Union Cabinet over whether to declare the cyclone as a national calamity seem to enjoy a privileged position over the progress on the relief front. There is concern, possibly legitimate, that the decision would further impair the strained fiscal situation. So loans at soft interest rates are fine, grants are not. True, the central government has created a nodal task force under the chairpersonship of the defence minister to coordinate relief effort, probably because it is currently the army which seems most active in the devastated state. Nevertheless, to have permitted calculations about political fallouts to enter the frame, worry about who will reap the electoral benefit in the impending state assembly elections, when the need of the hour is to stand above partisan considerations, can only deepen the tragedy.

Other than the usual appeals about contributing money to the various relief funds, little has so far been done to both enthuse and channel citizen response. Most people are still unclear about what is needed – clothes, medicine, shelter material – and where one should reach it. The little which has been collected has still to reach the needy, probably because many of the organisations that inevitably spring up in such situations are not professionally equipped to manage relief.

The few reports that we do have about Orissa generate little confidence. As in all such disaster situations, the aftermath is often worse than the event. Disease, hunger and exposure to the elements inevitably claim a higher toll of lives. The situation has become even more grim with the destruction of sources of potable water. Unless the local government, on whom everything rests, can gear itself up to the task and not merely complain about Central obduracy, little will happen.

As important as efficient relief provision is the need to set up systems of disaster management. The super cyclone is by no means the first calamity that we have experienced; nor will it be the last. We need to know what happened to our early warning systems – the sophisticated network of radars and satellites. Or the broadcasting systems? Do we have an adequate provision of weather-proof shelters? Personnel trained to handle relief and engage in reconstruction?

After all, Andhra Pradesh, which too has experienced its share of cyclones has in place a system which proved its effectivity in 1991. Reportedly, the casualties that year were a fraction of the numbers killed in 1974. Similarly Maharashtra. Post Latur, the state claims to have in place a provisional response system. On the other hand we have the case of Gujarat whose ability to handle such calamities seems to have declined over time. Remember the cyclone that hit the state last year? The lesson is that we not only need to set up systems but inculcate a culture of maintenance.

This will only be possible through an active collaboration of the government with civil society organisations. Agencies such as Oxfam, care, the Ramkrishna Mission, even the RSS and now not heard of Ananda Marg have a rich experience of and a valuable record of service. Even otherwise, Orissa has been a favoured site of ngo activity. Along with other expert bodies and individuals, efforts must be initiated to both intervene now and institute long-term measures for prevention and mitigation. The wherewithal exists. All that is needed is the will.

Harsh Sethi