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Orrisa Floods


Praful Bidwai


It would not do to plead that the catastrophe in Orissa was unavoidable because it was caused by a natural calamity beyond control, or that the eastern coast is especially vulnerable to cyclones about which nothing can be done. This argument misses two points. India, or South Asia, is not uniquely susceptible to natural calamities. Nor are "natural" disasters socially neutral in their effects. They pick on the poor and the weak. To take the first point, the United States and Europe are also prone to disasters such as earthquakes. And yet, according to the environmental research group Earthscan, earthquakes killing more than 10,000 people have only occurred in the Third World. Similar hurricanes regularly hit the east coast of the U.S., but their toll is infinitesimally smaller than in India, Bangladesh or the Philippines.

For instance, the average Japanese disaster kills 63 people. But in Peru the average toll is 2,900. At the same time as the Latur earthquake in Maharashtra, California experienced a quake of magnitude 7.4 (Richter scale), which was 100 times more powerful than the Indian event. While entire families were wiped out in Maharashtra, only one person died in California. When Hurricane Elena hit the U.S. in 1985, only five people died. But when a cyclone slammed Bangladesh in 1991, half a million people were killed.

The U.S. is as susceptible to severe cyclones as India's eastern coast. Each year, 10 major tropical storms (of which six become hurricanes) develop over the Atlantic, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico. An average of five strike the U.S. coastline every three years. Of these five, two hurricanes are major ones. But government agencies, rescue and relief organisations, and the news media launch a huge warning and preparedness effort. The airwaves are flooded with detailed advice on how to face impending emergencies. Information is frequently updated and people are asked to stock provisions and medicines, and given emergency service numbers. In the global South, information about emergency plans is withheld from the public.
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