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Above: Devastated coconut plantations in Tamil Nadu will take years to revive/Photo: Twitter/Gurumathavan

The disaster struck by Cyclone Gaja in Tamil Nadu is an apt example of a state caught napping with little planning in disaster management and a centre lacking in empathy 

By MG Devasahayam

Tamil Nadu has always been a victim of natural calamities such as cyclones, tsunamis and floods in some years and severe drought in others. According to the National Institute of Disaster Management, 13 districts of Tamil Nadu are vulnerable to high or very high cyclonic impact and flooding. There are at least seven districts here that are regularly impacted by drought conditions. This means that over 62 percent of 32 districts in Tamil Nadu are disaster-prone.

Latest in the list of disasters to strike Tamil Nadu is Cyclone Gaja. In the early hours of November 16, this cyclonic storm crossed the state and Puducherry coast between Nagapattinam and Pamban with a wind speed of up to 130 kmph. Cyclone Gaja caused massive destruction across the state with 63 deaths, and devastated 12 districts—Cuddalore, Karaikal, Nagpattinam, Thanjavur, Tiruvarur, Pudukottai, Ramanthapuram, Sivagangai, Trichy, Dindugal, Karur and Theni. Many are in the fertile Cauvery delta.

Cyclone Gaja’s economic impact in Tamil Nadu will be massive. Houses have collapsed, farms have been ruined, water sources contaminated and electricity supply disrupted. Many areas remain inaccessible because fallen trees have blocked roads.

In its report to the centre, Tamil Nadu has estimated that the number of people rendered homeless is 3.7 lakh and houses destroyed 3.4 lakh. The cyclone has crippled agriculture and livelihoods in a fertile region, felling thousands of productive trees and killing livestock. Between 60-80 percent of the coconut trees in the region have fallen, hobbling Tamil Nadu’s farmers who contribute a quarter of India’s coconuts with the highest unit yield. Unlike other crops, bringing coconut plantations back to life will actually take years.

The cyclone has crippled the lives of people forever. While the poor are left with nothing, the middle class and the rich have become poorer. Villages and towns look like sets of a Hollywood war film. Only concrete structures have survived; huts and tiled houses are beyond repair. Electric posts and cell phone towers lie twisted. The sea water has spoilt groundwater and the delta region has been left without drinking water. It is now dependent on water tankers.

In general, the Cauvery delta region is packed with integrated livelihood dependent communities who do fishing, farming (paddy, cereals, pulses, etc), horticulture, salt-panning and look after livestock. Many are Dalits. Therefore, the impact of Gaja should be evaluated from an integrated perspective with the focus on the socio-economic loss.

However, disaster management also often borders on the ritual. After evaluation of field realities, Tamil Nadu released Rs 1,000 crore for relief operations. Of this, Rs 350 cr was for agricultural losses, Rs 205.87 cr for loss of life and personal belongings, Rs 100 cr to rebuild houses, Rs 25 cr for restoration of roads and Rs 102.5 cr for other infrastructure. While Rs 200 cr has been allocated to the state electricity board, Rs 41.63 cr has been granted to the fisheries department as initial relief.

However, as usual, the state government submitted a memorandum to the centre claiming a relief package of Rs 14,910 cr – Rs 7,077 cr for Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation Limited; Rs 6,000 cr for housing damages; Rs 625 cr for agriculture and horticulture losses; Rs 100 cr for the fisheries department and Rs 378 cr towards restoration of roads. It requested the immediate release of at least 10 percent of this amount.

Again as usual, a seven-member inter-ministerial team of the Government of India visited the cyclone-affected areas for three days and returned to Delhi after calling on the chief minister. The leader of the team, joint secretary Daniel E Richard commented: “The report of the committee would be finalised and submitted for consideration by the [Central] government.” For effect, he added: “We have seen the pain of the people, the loss of trees and the loss to fishermen.”

If past experience is any guide, the centre will release a pittance as relief and close the door. The experience following Cyclone Ockhi that struck Kanyakumari and Tirunelveli districts of Tamil Nadu in November 2017 is still fresh in the mind. The state government sought a central relief package of
Rs 9,300 cr. The centre, after going through the usual ritual, sanctioned a paltry Rs 133 cr. In the event, post-cyclone rehabilitation and reconstruction have been left high and dry!

These rituals and some emergency relief efforts apart, the disaster management system in India has not been able to put together any integrated planning, organising, coordinating and implementing measures. Though headed by the prime minister, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has become a passive body. NDMA’s involvement in day-to-day management of disasters such as examination of damage reports submitted by states, planning and execution of visits by central teams and functioning of inter-ministerial committees connected with this field has considerably toned down. It would appear that the role envisaged for NDMA has been substantially diluted over time.

The case of Tamil Nadu is an apt example. Here, even the World Bank funded “Coastal Disaster Risk Reduction Project” of the Revenue and Disaster Management Department of Tamil Nadu was wound up in October 2017. There were 87 personnel in various positions spread over the 12 coastal districts of Tamil Nadu. All were well-trained in disaster preparedness activities and training was given to them by various agencies. However, in October 2017, all were removed for no cogent reason, leaving the state without any trained personnel for disaster preparedness, rescue and relief work during Cyclone Ockhi and Gaja.

In contrast, the Kerala government managed the August 2018 floods better. About a million people were evacuated, mainly from Chengannur, Pandanad, Edanad, Aranmula, Kozhencherry, Ayiroor, Ranni, Pandalam, Kuttanad, Aluva, Chalakudy, N. Paravur, Chendamangalam, Eloor and a few places in Vypin Island.

All 14 districts of the state were placed on red alert. One-sixth of the total population was directly affected by the floods. The centre declared it a Level 3 calamity or a “calamity of a severe nature”. Kerala responded, mobilised and coordinated better. On these counts, Tamil Nadu was found wanting.

Be that as it may, with nearly two-thirds of Tamil Nadu being disaster-prone, mere relief measures are not enough. It must learn to rebuild with proper policies. This means (i) reshaping boundaries for human habitation in relation to disaster risk (ii) have focused plans to face disasters by planting mangroves, palmyra trees, altering cropping patterns, and so on. Disaster planning in Tamil Nadu also requires preserving space for water. To develop the plan, rural planners, hydrologists and meteorologists would have to be involved, as well as locals who know better. This applies to neighbouring Kerala also.

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