Cuddalore experience shows TN govt ill-prepared to handle Cyclone Nivar

Cuddalore, a frequent victim of cyclones, could be a case study to help government assess disaster mitigation measures that have worked and that have not

A large part of Cuddalore district in Tamil Nadu falls under low-lying areas which get inundated during rains. Representational photo: The Federal

Even as it gears up to face Cyclone Nivar, it may be time the Tamil Nadu government assesses its disaster management strategies, to fix recurring errors and strengthen preparedness. A starter could be re-evaluating the efficacy of disaster mitigation initiatives taken for Cuddalore district, which due to its vulnerable topography has faced the wrath of major cyclones — from Tsunami in 2004 to Gaja in 2018.

Although the state’s 1,076 km coastline threads its way through 14 districts, Cuddalore has remained a central point in almost all major cyclone formed in the Bay of Bengal after the onset of the northeast monsoon.

Experts say Cuddalore takes the hit because of its geography. A large part of the district fall under low-lying areas which get inundated during rains. According to a paper published by S Saxena et al., in 2013, “the stretch between Cuddalore and Nagapattinam is classified as Low Elevation Coastal Zone region below 10 m elevation near the coastline and delineated to designate the population affected from Sea Level Rise”.

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Cuddalore is a part of the districts in the Cauvery delta which are predicted to receive ‘very heavy rainfall’ due to the effect of Cyclone Nivar.  The cyclone which has been brewing in the Bay of Bengal for the past few days is likely to make landfall between Karaikal and Mamallapuram on Wednesday (November 25). Weathermen say Nivar, which is the first cyclonic storm to form in the bay this season, will have a wind speed of 100 to 110-120kmph gusting and bring heavy rains to Tamil Nadu and Puducherry on Wednesday and Thursday.

Experts say the Tamil Nadu government’s cyclone preparedness is obsolete and needs to be re-formulated considering ‘extreme weather events’.

“Though the district started to have emergency preparedness plan from 2005, following lessons learnt from Tsunami, it seems the government officials plan the preparedness based on annual rainfall. But in 2015, in a single day the district has received 84 mm of rain. The officials are not taking these kinds of ‘extreme events’ into account while planning the preparedness. Because of that, the preparedness becomes insufficient,” said T Arul Selvam, environmental activist, SIPCOT Area Community Environmental Monitoring (SACEM), an organisation which monitors pollution levels in the district.

Insufficient measures, lack of enforcement

As part of disaster mitigation measures, Cuddalore, an economically backward district, has cleared slums in most places and replaced huts with government-built concrete houses. The electricity cables are being laid underground, and desilting of lakes and ponds are also being carried out.

But environmentalists say, it is not enough.

“The district administration has done some good work to face disasters. But in some cases there is no transparency. For example, Cuddalore has large number of petrochemical industries. Even in normal days, some of the industries violate environmental norms and drain their effluents into rivers. What kind of steps has the district administration taken to prevent such violations during disasters? During Cyclone Thane (2011), a lot of trees were uprooted and mangroves acted as bio-shields. What steps have been taken to increase such bio-shields? There is no answer,” said Selvam.

Sekar, founder, Centre for People’s Participation and Development, said though the government has built cyclone shelters in 54 villages, they are not properly maintained.

“There are chances that communicable diseases may spread due to lack of maintenance” he said.

Need for sustainable measures, grassroots training  

Former United Nations Development Programme official Suresh Mariaselvam says the state doesn’t have a sustainable plan to handle natural disasters.

“We think about emergency preparedness only during or a couple of days before the disaster strikes. But that should not be the case. The disaster preparedness should include training officials and conducting mock drills in villages. This should be continued all through the year. Such initiatives gives us more edge during crises,” Mariaselvam.

With the state’s disaster management working at four levels – nation, state, district and panchayat – Mariaselvam says disasters can be handled efficiently only if emergency preparedness is handled efficiently at the grassroots level.

“So it is indispensable that the panchayat leaders must be given training on emergency preparedness. Every panchayat office should paint the map on its wall which gives an idea about safe zones, evacuation path, etc in case of an emergency,” he said.

During Cyclone Thane, a lot of people in Cuddalore lost their cultivation of cashew nuts, a cash crop. A cashew nut tree takes at least 15 years to bear fruits. Till then, people choose to take alternative jobs like driving auto-rickshaws in cities like Chennai.

“The government should have plans to create employment opportunities locally. In Puduchatram, one of the villages in Cuddalore, with the help of panchayat and NGOs, some of the people started their own business and contributed a share of profits to create resources to face disasters like buying machines to cut uprooted trees, ladders, ropes, etc. That could be a lesson that other panchayats and government can follow,” said Mariaselvam.

Bridging communication gap

In order to manage the communication gap during the disasters, every district should have a community radio station in vulnerable areas, opines John Nelson, founder, 107.8 MHz an emergency radio setup in collector office campus in Cuddalore. Launched in 2015, this is the first community radio in the country, officially set up in the district administration’s building.

“Though we are able to reach the people within a 15 km radius, which covers the vulnerable community of fishermen, we are unable to cover the whole district. So if official emergency radio stations are established in the centre of the district or most vulnerable areas, we can reach many people,” said Nelson adding that the radio station operates throughout the year and disseminates information about official schemes and awareness programmes.

On the health front

While during the disasters, medical camps are set up to provide medical assistance for physiological problems, there is no mention of psychological treatment, said a mental health professional based in Pudukkottai district.

“People who lose their house and property come to these medical camps with complaints like chest pain and lack of sleep. For some, these problems may be psychologically-induced. At that point of time, listening to their concerns and providing counselling will help them a lot. We need to have a policy for such efforts,” he added.

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