The Odisha CM would have some valuable insights on how to plan for a disaster
As the nation grapples with the terrible problem of migrant workers walking from Delhi to villages in UP or Bihar, not to mention workers from Telangana packed like sardines in container trucks, one harks back to the extraordinary measures taken by Odisha, one of the poorest states in the country, during the humanitarian crisis triggered by cyclone Fani in May 2019.
It was a textbook case of how the might of the state can be used to mitigate the suffering of common people: The state government built storm shelters, sent over 2 million text messages, used over 40,000 voluntary workers, public address systems, the police, public transport to warn people to move quickly to the shelters as a cyclone with windspeeds of 175-185 kmph was going to hit the coast. And it worked! The evacuation was meticulously planned and the government, which had learnt hard lessons from past tragedies, moved a million people to safety with great speed.
Contrast that with what the central government has done: the coronavirus lockdown was announced -- rather dramatically, without taking stock of the scale of human suffering it would cause to the poor and marginalised -- to begin at the stroke of midnight on March 23. How could a small and poor state manage to evacuate a million to safety with less than 20 deaths whereas the prime minister of the nation with all the resources of the country available to him has not been able to evacuate a similar number of migrant workers to safety before the lockdown was announced? What is the lesson there?
Does he care?
As India watches thousands of migrants walking back home without food, water and money, the only conclusion anyone can come to is that the prime minister cares little about the people he governs. What prevented him from calling in the army and ordering the use of their transport to take the migrants back home? Even the 'corona package' of Rs 1.7 lakh crore was announced after the lockdown and not before. He also found time to call a video-conference meeting of SAARC nations to fight the virus and even announced a corpus fund to this end. It is only now, after the migrant labour crisis, that the Union home secretary has written to all the states and union territories to take immediate steps to provide adequate support, including food and shelter, to migrant agricultural labour, industrial and other unorganised sector workers during the 21-day national lockdown. One may say better late than never, but the damage has already been done. The strategy of isolation and social distancing to contain the coronavirus outbreak has been completely knocked off course.
Perhaps the prime minister should have consulted the able chief minister of Odisha, who came in for praise from the UN for his government’s efforts to prevent loss of lives and prevent human suffering. The Odisha government had drafted lists of vulnerable people, employed hundreds of power boats, and truckloads of food and bottled water was delivered to the shelters. That is how a caring government responds to an emergency. The central government does not have to look abroad for an example to follow, it exists right here within our shores.
The writer is a former Business Editor of Deccan Chronicle.