BHUBANESHWAR, India (Reuters) - As the fiercest storm to hit India this century barreled across the Bay of Bengal last week, a local mandarin frantically worked the phones from his hot and humid office, leading the charge in an operation to move nearly a million people to safety.
“We were telling people: ‘Look, you have to choose between death and life’,” said Taradatt, who heads the Revenue and Disaster Management Department in the poverty-plagued eastern state of Odisha.
“Those who were not willing (to be evacuated), I was telling the local official to use force, because the rules permit that.”
When Cyclone Phailin slammed into Odisha and neighboring Andhra Pradesh states with winds gusting at more than 200 kph (125 mph), India was braced for the worst. A monster storm that hit the very same region 14 years ago had killed 10,000 people.
But this time, the death toll was astonishingly low, at the latest count just 21.
It was a rare moment of relief in this disaster-prone country, one that has already been hailed as a triumph of official heroism and defies the Indian bureaucracy’s reputation for bungling and indecision.
“It’s nothing short of a miracle that so many lives were spared. We were expecting the worst, but it just shows that all the time and investment put into preparing for such disasters by the authorities, civil society organizations and communities has paid off,” said Devendra Tak from Save the Children, the international NGO.
Disasters that claim thousands of lives are still almost routine in India, however. More than 5,000 people died in June when flash floods hit a Himalayan state, and even on Sunday - as many marveled at the low death toll from the cyclone - more than 100 devotees were killed in a stampede at a Hindu temple.
Along with Taradatt, who just uses one name, junior officials also chipped in.
As the storm closed in on Odisha’s coastal district of Ganjam last Saturday, the senior most local civil servant Krishan Kumar was exhausted.
For the past three nights he hadn’t slept, working without a break to set up hundreds of temporary shelters in schools and temples and persuade villagers to abandon ramshackle dwellings.
“There was a lot of resistance to begin with,” said 37-year-old Kumar. “The weather was very good, the sun was shining and to convince people was not an easy job. We had to move from village to village explaining what could happen.”
With a couple of hours to go before the storm made landfall, some 350,000 people living up to 10 km (6 miles) from the shoreline were safely sheltered for the night. Across the two eastern states, more than 1 million people were evacuated from their homes.
Civil servants like Kumar are some of India’s best and brightest, but they have long been hamstrung by a bureaucracy that discourages individuals from taking decisions on their own. Kumar said he knew lives depended on breaking with that culture.
“That’s the first thing I asked, that I be completely authorized to take decisions at my own level,” said Kumar, who received an award from the country’s prime minister five years ago for resettling victims of bloody clashes between Hindu tribes and Christians in another district.
Kumar, in turn, last week empowered officials across Ganjam to act as they saw fit, including ordering village shops to remain open to prevent hoarding of food and emergency supplies.
“EVERY MINUTE IS IMPORTANT”
Back in the state capital, Bhubaneshwar, disaster management chief Taradatt had also taken matters into his own hands as the cyclone approached.
An original proposal to assign the task of evacuation to multiple civil servants was ditched after Taradatt volunteered to oversee it himself, an official who attended an early planning meeting told Reuters.
The official said Taradatt worked day and night to liaise with district chiefs like Kumar and, after the storm had blown over, he dived straight into the problems of an estimated quarter of a million people left stranded by the resulting floods.
“I do not even have time to respond to the calls of my family. My son called me from New Jersey to speak to me, but I told him, sorry,” Taradatt told Reuters from his government office. “Right now every minute is important, please excuse me.”
Much of what went right in Odisha at the weekend can be traced to a wake-up call delivered by the 1999 cyclone, which thrashed the state - then known as Orissa - with wind speeds of 300 kph (190 mph), leaving more than a million homeless.
This time Odisha was relatively lucky: the storm moved quickly inland and dissipated, whereas in 1999 it clung to the coastline for two terrifying days.
Back then, however, the state had only 23 cyclone shelters and many survivors said later that they had not been provided with sufficient information to judge if they were at risk.
Both Odisha and Andhra Pradesh now have disaster management departments, both have built hundreds of cyclone shelters along the coast, and drills are conducted regularly so people know what to do when an alert is issued.
Technological advances since 1999 mean that forecasters can accurately predict weather patterns seven days in advance.
The advent of mobile phones has also made a huge difference, said district chief Kumar, who said he was able to contact officials in remote villages to spread word of the coming storm.
At the time of the 1999 cyclone, there were less than 2 million mobile phone users in the whole of India: today, about 25 million people in Odisha alone - 60 percent of the state’s population - carry a phone.
Kumar insisted that his efforts to minimize the loss of life were just part of a state-wide mobilisation of forces that leapt into action. Authorities canceled the holidays of civil servants during the popular Hindu Dussehra festival, and they deployed disaster response teams with heavy equipment as well as helicopters and boats for rescue and relief operations.
Naveen Patnaik, who was elected chief minister of Odisha the year after the 1999 cyclone partly on promises of better disaster management, said that lessons have been learnt.
“We have been working very hard on that all these years,” he told Reuters. “You can see for yourself, when one million people were evacuated in 36 hours, that it is working well.”
Additional reporting by Nita Bhalla, John Chalmers and Devidutta Tripathy in NEW DELHI; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan