A vast cyclone slams into Odisha. It pushes before it a devastating surge of seawater that destroys crops and farmland over an enormous area, far inland from the shore. Telephone and power lines are broken all over the coastal districts, homes and businesses are flattened. Trees fall everywhere; though many palm trees resist that impulse, they are bent over with the force of the storm.
And nearly 10,000 people die.
Go ahead, admit it. Until that last sentence, you thought I was writing about Cyclone Phailin, right?
And I might indeed have been, because a lot of that damage has in fact happened in Odisha over the last few days: for example, reports say that Phailin has damaged or destroyed lakhs of homes in the state. But writing those lines above, I actually meant the last great disaster to hit Odisha: the “supercyclone” of 1999. It too caused all that damage and much more — and it killed nearly 10,000 people.
But Phailin? Enormous and frightening as it was, what it has not been able to do is kill on the scale its malevolent 1999 ancestor managed. The number of deaths attributed to Phailin is, as far as I can tell so far, countable on no more than a few hands. 14, says one report. 14, compared to 10,000. There is something stunning about those numbers.
I remember that 1999 tragedy well. Soon after the cyclone struck, I travelled to Erasama, the little town that was effectively the very focus of the cyclone’s fury. Within just a day helping with relief work there, I had managed to pick up an unconscious habit: I was looking around constantly for bodies. The tell-tale whiteness of animal carcasses, the crumpled forlornness of human corpses. A woman with several bright red bangles — amazingly, all intact — here, a man sprawled face up on a field there. Perhaps I picked up the habit because I spent long hours with a team of volunteers from Delhi, burning bodies, and that job meant that as we drove about, we had to stay on the look out for carcasses and corpses. Perhaps it was because even with other teams doing the same work, it was still amazingly easy to spot bodies. Bodies everywhere, in 1999. If memory serves, the team I was with found and burned more than 14 human bodies even before my second day there was complete.
Yet 14 years later, there are just 14 deaths reported across the whole area that Phailin ravaged.
Still tragic, of course, but nothing like the scale of 1999.
Why this remarkable change? Because, for whatever reason, with Phailin this year there was a focus on the people of Odisha. Unlike in the past, there was a deliberate, diligent, massive and widespread effort to warn and then evacuate people from the areas Phailin threatened. Countless photographs tell this story. One of my favourites is of a tractor-trailer with a large “Om” painted on the side, and it is overflowing with people, including a smiling woman. Smiling, likely because she knows she is escaping to safety.
I mean, nearly a million people in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh were like that woman, evacuated by trailer, truck, bus and who knows what else. Nearly a million people with reason to smile.
Now it’s early days, of course. But I’d like to think that we will eventually look back at Phailin as that signal moment when a few welcome things happened in tandem.
First, that an Indian administration faced with an impending calamity took the decision to act, and, in time, to protect lives. Timeliness and decisiveness like this, fairly or otherwise, is not a feature we Indians are used to attributing to our governments.
Second, that the administration moved past decisions and actually acted: mobilizing resources and transport and people to actually carry out this massive evacuation. Again, this is not something we are used to from our governments.
Third, that ordinary citizens actually believed the warnings and left their homes in the districts the cyclone threatened. Whether this is explained by lingering memories of 1999, or whether it is because of a new faith in governments, or something else — whatever it is, the result is that thousands of lives have been saved. That’s a big, big thing.
Back in 1999 again: even drowned by that colossal tragedy, Erasama in those days was suffused with an optimistic, energetic and inspiring spirit. I found it in any number of indefatigable volunteers from all over India and abroad, people plugging away uncomplainingly at all the tasks that needed to be done. (Like the volunteer team from Delhi, burning bodies). There was a quiet determination in the air, a desire to clean up, to restore the area quickly to some normalcy and even make something out of the enormous mess. I returned from Erasama in November 1999, stunned by the enormity of the tragedy for sure, but also oddly charged with that spirit. And so, despite the bodies and destruction, I think of those days as the best few days of my life.
I haven’t travelled to Odisha after Phailin, as I did in 1999. But I find myself just as encouraged by a certain spirit this time. Only this time, it’s made an appearance before the storm. Much the same thoughtful diligence as in 1999, but applied this time to the task of saving lives before the cyclone strikes. And applied successfully. How can anyone not be inspired?
Like most of my fellow Indians, I remain profoundly sceptical of our governments. (As, I believe, every citizen must be). And yet I can only applaud Odisha’s Chief Minister, Naveen Patnaik, when he said this to reporters after Phailin hit his state: ““I think we have been successful in minimising the loss of precious lives.”
Precious. And alive.
The author lives in Bombay and writes so he can keep his cats Cleo and Aziz fed. Views expressed are personal.