Most Indian politicians are long in words and short on action. In times of crises, therefore, they usually offer a spectacle of utter confusion and incompetence. Cyclone Phailin may have changed that image of the Indian politician to a considerable extent. And this is largely because of the way Naveen Patnaik, Odisha’s chief minister, geared his administration to face the fury of the storm. Mr Patnaik has always been rather unique among Indian politicians. He is not given to making high-sounding statements on every issue that stirs national politics. He is also not among those politicians who are endlessly making and unmaking alliances in regional or national politics. His government’s success in tackling the cyclone’s challenge is yet another evidence of Mr Patnaik’s approach to governance. Leaders of such proven abilities in administration are not common in India. They might be just the kind of politicians that India will desperately need at the national level after the general elections next year.
True, improvements in science made Mr Patnaik’s task easier. Weather-mapping and predictions of natural disasters such as cyclones have become more accurate than they were in 1999, when another cyclone killed over 10,000 people in Odisha. But it is one thing to be warned and quite another to act on the warning. The speed and determination with which the administration in Odisha evacuated some 7,00,000 people from the threatened coastal areas suggest an unusually efficient response to a colossal challenge. It may have thus set a standard for disaster management for the entire country.
Yet, none knows better than Mr Patnaik that he has a huge job on hand. The cyclone may not have cost a large number of human lives, thanks to the state government’s massive intervention. But it has left behind a trail of devastation that will take months or even years to tackle. Standing crops on thousands of acres of land have been destroyed by floodwater. Homes of several thousand people have been destroyed. Roads, railway tracks and other items of infrastructure have been badly damaged. Above all, nature’s fury has left the people in coastal areas of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh feeling very vulnerable. Instilling hope among these people is no less a challenge for the government than rebuilding their homes or repairing roads. Relief and rehabilitation packages are always less troublesome than the politics that often accompanies them. Mr Patnaik can justifiably claim generous assistance from the Centre in arranging relief and resettlement for the affected people. But he also needs to ensure that his administration is as prompt and efficient in doing this as it has been in protecting the people from the cyclone’s first strike.