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Goa’s Ignoring Natural Calamities To Its Peril

A surge of seawater along Goa’s coast due to the cyclonic storm Ockhi that passed from Tamil Nadu to Lakshadweep caused damages to shacks on several beaches. Water entered many shacks. Tourists and locals on the beaches had to wade through water to safety. The surge started on Saturday night and continued till Sunday. Fortunately no lives were lost, but the damages to several shacks were major. The natural calamity, though very minor, has put the state government in the dock. Why was there not enough preparedness? When the surge invaded the beaches, why wasn’t any disaster response team seen anywhere? Even the meteorological department, which now has a full-fledged office in the state, did not issue any warning of flooding. The state government took it as a not serious enough calamity for them to intervene. It was left to the shack workers to jump to action as the surge hit the beaches and remove beds, umbrellas and whatever else they could.

Such a surge in seawater owing to a cyclonic storm had not happened in Goa in the recent memory. Of course, the surge is inconsequential in comparison to the tsunami that struck India on December 26, 2004. However, the surge is an alert and Goa can ignore it only to its peril. The state had not anticipated that Ockhi would have any impact on Goa. Yet experts have often warned that Goa’s coastline was vulnerable to a cyclone in the Arabian Sea and also tsunamis within eight hours travel distance. According to the scientists of the National Institute of Oceanography, the state’s coastline appeared to be in danger from calamities such as tsunamis due to local coastline and estuarine topography. They said that the Sumatra tsunami that took place in September 2007 was recorded in Goa and the Lakshadweep archipelago in the Arabian Sea, but being mild went unnoticed.

The state does not have a quick and sound disaster management plan. We saw that in the ordinary incident of a ferryboat that drifted in the Mandovi river due to winds. Fortunately the boat did not drift toward the sea or we would have had a human disaster. The laid-back attitude of the state government about risks to human life and properties from natural calamities has to change. Natural disasters come unannounced but with enough warning. The state disaster teams have to be prepared to deal with any eventuality at short notice. Sunday’s incident too should have been anticipated but the state government was found napping. The government needs to tell the public why its disaster management teams failed to respond to the Ockhi surge, though the water level began rising around 8 a.m. and continued for hours. Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar must allocate funds for enough manpower, equipment and training for setting up disaster management teams that are really worthwhile and not for name sake. The practice in the state has been that disaster management teams are constituted during the monsoon and disbanded thereafter. However, in order to cope with natural and manmade disasters, the disaster management teams should be made strong and functional round the year. As far as institutional intervention was concerned, when the surge caused by Ockhi affected the beaches, only tourist police officials and lifeguards acted swiftly and prevented people from venturing into sea for swimming. At Palolem, the Navy helped the lifeguards rescue two female foreign tourists. However, as far as the state government was concerned there was no rapid action by and quick help from them to the people on the beaches or the shack owners and employees.

Five years ago, the Goa government told us they were making Indian Coast Guard and Navy a part of disaster management with participation of local population. This was to include a special rescue plan for the villages along the coastline. “We now have a tailor-made disaster response plan for coastal areas in case of tsunami or cyclone,” the then North District collector Mihir Vardhan, who headed the district disaster management authority, said. The disaster response exercise was to begin from Arambol in view of the fact that it attracted many foreign tourists. The disaster management authority was to hold meetings with residents of coastal villages such as Arambol, Calangute, Baga and Anjuna to make “micro-level” disaster management plans. The local sarpanch was to be responsible for implementation of the plan, while mamlatdar was be a nodal officer. Every coastal village was to have a specific disaster response plan and team.

Were there any signs of these “micro-level” disaster response plans and teams before and after the Ockhi surge?

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