Thiruvananthapuram: The deaths and damages in the wake of Cyclone Ockhi have prompted the Kerala government to launch an investigation into the lapses in disaster management. While the satellite data suggested a potential storm, fishermen were not alerted until it was too late. Who is to blame for the gross mismanagement that added to the natural calamity?
Though the India Meteorological Department often cuts a sorry figure with its rain forecasts that horribly go wrong, the government agency is better positioned to warn about impending cyclones. The IMD passes on data processed from ISRO satellites to its six regional centers 48 hours in advance. They also source data from scientific research institutions such as the Indian National Center for Ocean Information Service.
Flaws in the data distribution at the state level might have contributed to the death toll related to the cyclone in Kerala.
The meteorological center in Thiruvananthapuram is supposed to pass on climate-related data to a state-level disaster management authority headed by the chief minister. The authority then alerts the chief minister’s office, the revenue minister’s office and the district collectors’ offices apart from fishermen’s collectives and vigilance committees in coastal areas.
The Kerala State Disaster Management Authority informed the revenue minister’s office about the cyclone warning only at 12.33 pm on Thursday though the news has been playing out on national media hours before.
Authorities admit that the meteorological center warned the authority on Wednesday afternoon about a depression and the probability of strong rain and gale. However, no other government agency was informed about a storm until Thursday afternoon.
The authority, however, said it issued a warning as soon as the depression developed into a storm around 11 am on Thursday. “Rarely do depressions develop into storms,” sources in the authority said. In this case, the depression originated just 70 kilometers away.
“Warnings are regularly issued for the fishermen. Those who have registered with the Indian National Center for Ocean Information Center receive alerts on their mobile phones. Still not many fishermen have bothered to register with the service. Only 500 persons have been registered so far,” the source said.
Fishermen, however, refuse to buy the claim. “Fishermen did not receive any warning,” said Peter, a leader of a collective of fishermen. “The officials think they can get away with anything when it comes to fishermen. We plan to petition the chief minister and other authorities against this apathy. There is no point in issuing warnings on media if they want to communicate to fishermen. There should be an efficient system to issue warnings.”
The disaster of an authority
The Kerala State Disaster Management Authority was formed 10 years ago to tighten the state’s preparedness to act in times of disasters, under a central act passed in the wake of the tsunami tragedy in December 2004.
The chief minister acts as the chairman of the authority and the revenue minister the vice-chairman. The authority has the agriculture minister as a member and the chief secretary as the CEO. The revenue secretary is the convener and the home secretary another member.
Experts have been calling for an overhaul of the authority to include more members with science background. “This system has to change. People with a proven track record in disaster management should be members of the authority. Sophisticated centers should be installed in all district headquarters rather than focusing activities in a large centralized office,” said Dr Tara, a former chief of the disaster management center.
The meteorological center had promptly passed on the report to the authority, director Sudevan said. “Had such a cyclone passed through Thiruvananthapuram, this city would not have existed now. We could not have triggered panic in the name of a cyclone that passed 72 kilometers away,” he said.
He said the agency had all the equipment, including two doplar radars in Kerala, for accurate prediction. He said the center had enough funds to operate.
An officer who did not want to be named said the central government has been sitting on the center’s request for funds to do more research into the monsoons.
The meteorological center considers two reports - one from the central office in Delhi and another drawn up locally. The Thiruvananthapuram center draws on data from 72 centers in the state, including offices of the Kerala State Electricity Board and the revenue department.