It has been twenty-five years since the Super Cyclone ravaged Odisha. Around 18 million people were affected, more than 10,000 precious lives were lost, and the economy was devastated.
The event, however, marked a turning point in Odisha’s development trajectory. Not only did the cyclone-prone state resolve to protect its people from future disasters - setting the goal of ‘zero-human casualties’ – it also emerged as a global pioneer in disaster management.
Today, Odisha is more resilient. Odisha’s years of planning and preparation paid off as fatalities from powerful cyclones never crossed double digits. When Cyclone Phailin struck the coast in 2013, Odisha carried out one of the most successful disaster management efforts in the world, evacuating close to 1 million people ahead of the strongest cyclone to hit the country since the Super Cyclone. In 2019, when another powerful cyclone – Cyclone Fani – struck, the Odisha government showed a high degree of preparedness and effectively evacuated about 1.2 million people based on these predictions.
In 1999, in the wake of the Super Cyclone, Odisha became the first state in India to establish a disaster management authority. In fact, the body, now known as the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority (OSDMA), was set up well before the establishment of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) in 2005.
Importantly, the state departed from the conventional approach to disaster management by placing local communities at the heart of the effort. As such, people at the grassroots – gram panchayats, women’s self-help groups and a 100,000-plus cadre of volunteers – were trained to reduce disaster risk and manage rescue and relief operations. Even now, every June and November, the OSDMA conducts two massive community-led mock drills across the state, mobilizing several government departments, district collectors, gram panchayats, NGOs and thousands of trained volunteers in this massive exercise.
But empowering communities is just one part of the solution. Building disaster-resilient infrastructure is equally important. Since this requires collaboration between several government departments, OSDMA has taken the lead in putting in place critical infrastructure that protects the lives and livelihoods of the people. The World Bank, along with several other multilateral agencies, has been privileged to partner with the OSDMA, helping to strengthen it in its formative years.
Drawing on the best technical expertise, OSDMA has built over 800 multi-purpose cyclone shelters together with evacuation roads along the state’s entire coastline. Embankments are also being built to protect seaside villages from the ingress of the sea, and several vulnerable families have been helped to shift from straw huts to new multi-hazard disaster-resilient houses.
Most importantly, Odisha is the first Indian state to have created an early warning system for disseminating critical disaster-related information to the very last mile. Nearly 1,200 villages in all the coastal districts of the state now receive cyclone or tsunami warnings through sirens and mass messaging. This early warning system, with watchtowers in over 120 coastal locations, forms the bedrock of Odisha’s disaster preparedness and response.
Today, two decades of persistence in building both resilient infrastructure and resilient communities have stood the state in good stead. There is, however, more to be done. Disaster risk management is a dynamic process, requiring us to be ever-alert to new needs and challenges. Because every disaster is different, there are no textbook solutions. Yet, as a coastal state, we know that in the coming years, Odisha will have to brace for more frequent and intense cyclones, heat waves, droughts, extreme rainfall events, cloud bursts, floods/flash floods, lightning storm surges, tsunami, and sea-level rise. There is also an urgent need to protect Odisha’s coast from sea erosion.
Odisha has learnt and unlearned from its own experiences. As climate risks multiply, Odisha is raising its own bar for cyclone risk mitigation and exploring more sophisticated technologies while ensuring they are accessible to and owned by local communities as far as possible. As Odisha’s experience shows, it is important for every state to recognise that disaster preparedness and management is a developmental priority to be pursued in accordance with every state’s own socio-cultural context but in all cases with a sense of urgency. It is not a matter of choice anymore, for climate change is a clear and present danger, and millions of lives and livelihoods are at stake.
Pradeep Jena is Chief Secretary to the Government of Odisha and Auguste Tano Kouamé is the World Bank’s Country Director for India.
This Opinion piece first appeared in Business Standard on November 3, 2023.