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Thane Cyclone: An Indication For
Re-visioning Disaster Management

By Rajkumar

03 February, 2012

National and state governments in India are well bracing up for climate change vagaries under national disaster management policy and programmes. Various government agencies and NGOs are building up their efficacies in dealing with crisis situations. Even farmers’ organizations and civil society organization are ready to come forward to put their helping hands in such disaster situations. However yet there are some critical missing links that we need to address.

Most of these enhanced efficiencies, preparedness and perspectives are mainly directed towards enumerating the details of the damages, efficient management of relief and rehabilitation deliverables to the affected families and swift restoration of basic amenities. All these are directed towards restoring the visible damages. Do we have a shared critical perspective, policy directions and scientific attempts in valuing and assessing the invisible damage caused on the ecosystems in the disaster area? Do we have a dynamic mechanism in operation for mapping of sensitive ecosystems, predicting and projecting of potential damages of and designing exclusive intervention packages for differently varying ecosystems? By and large the answer is ‘No’.

The entire country is divided into various agro-ecological zones and each zone is divided into agro-ecological sub-zones. Further these agro-ecological sub-zones are divided into agro-ecological units at district level. This scientific categorization is mainly to design disaggregated special policies and exclusive interventions on temporal and spatial basis. Despite the meticulously compiled data which is readily available, when disaster strikes, amidst the hectic relief operations these valuable data base are not utilized or negated widely. Healthy ecosystems are comprised of interacting and often diverse plant, animal and other species, and along with this species and underlying genetic diversity, constitute the broader array of biodiversity. Biodiversity is the combination of life forms and their interactions with one another, and with the physical environment, which has made Earth habitable for people. Ecosystems provide the basic necessities of life, offer protection from natural disasters and disease and are the foundation for human culture (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005).

My recent visit to some of the remote villages in Panrutti block of Cuddalore area where one could see the extreme rages of the Thane cyclone, has been an eye opener. This area is known for wonderful indigenous variety of jack fruits and cashew. In a particular village called Alagappa Puram and in the surrounding villages where majority fall into the category of marginal and small farmers, they have evolved a brilliant model of dryland agriculture system. The significant model deserves special attention and further research for scaling up for the following reasons. The farmers are using indigenous seeds and species of jack and cashew which do not force them to depend on either capital intensive external inputs or ground water and chemicals. While these crops enable them to meek out significant annual income, the mixed intercropping of highly nutritious minor millets help ensure the farmers not only food security but nutritional security too. This model is vital evidence that the wisdom of Punjai farming (an age old traditional practice of dryland farming system in Tamil Nadu) culture could offer a sustainable solution in fighting climate change in terms of adaptation and mitigation. They have so far succeeded in raising this system amidst the ongoing hydro-geological disruptions caused by the operations of Neyveli Lignite Corporation, a public sector unit, as due to its operations groundwater tables drastically fell deep and the open wells dried up in the neighborhood vicinity. These farmers thus totally rely on the seasonal monsoons only.

It is in this backdrop, the Thane has done extensive damage destroying thousands of acres of crop. Most of the farmers unanimously lament that it would take another 20 to 25 years to supply tasty jack fruit to the common public. The affected families particularly the creators of the brilliant rainfed system are hectic in enrolling their names for receiving relief and rehabilitation packages with the concerned departmental people who are yet to arrive. The department officials are directed to streamline their relief operation as much as possible. Assessing the damage is very sensitive and huge task. It is sensitive in terms of the requirement for scientific approach and making recommendations for restoring the different agro ecological units in a sustainable manner; huge task, in terms of the time and geographical coverage. Usually, the bureaucrats under pressure are forced to make standard thumb rules for providing relief and rehabilitation to the affected. Hence they would be forced to supply hybrid variety saplings. If the farmers innocently receive such saplings then every five years they have to re-raise the crop as they could not preserve seeds from the crop. Again they would be forced to go for irrigation, chemical inputs which, consequently destroys the wonderful Punjai model. Thus the irrational standardized relief /rehabilitation package would be potentially more dangerous than the Thane itself.

The need of the hour is to constitute a multi-disciplinary committee to assess and design a disaggregated relief /rehabilitation package that suits sustainable to various agro-ecological units that have been affected. It is time to motivate other resource rich farmers to shift to sustainable biodiversity based farming system dismantling mono-crop plantation – banana, sugarcane, jack, cashew, etc. high priority needs to be given to the adaptation model of rainfed farming. Because the damage caused to these farmers is not a single year damage of individual physical assets but decades-long damage of a dynamic farming system. What this ravaged system needs is an appropriate support for in situ soil and water conservation measures along with supply of the same indigenous varieties of seeds and saplings, so that he resilience capacity of these living farm lands may be restored. It is to be noted that it is this ecological units that ensure livelihood security to thousands of vulnerable families and resource-poor farmers.

It is time that our disaster management efforts needs a radical revamping in integrating concerns and direction in preventing potential damages caused to sustainable livelihood models of the communities which are not easily understood and left un-noticed. Farmers adopt such a same dryland farming system in Raichur district in Karnataka, which is now on news coverage that reports of death of children because of under nutrition. Over 2,600 children under the age of 6 years have died of malnutrition in Raichur district of Karnataka during the past two years, as per data provided by women and child welfare department.

(Read more at: http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/malnutrition-death-in-karnataka-kids-die/1/153489.html)

The cause is not deficient rainfall but irrigation expansion. The traditional dryland farmers are now encouraged to go for BT. Cotton and other chemical intensive irrigated crops rather than raising nutrition-rich minor millets and pulses that fulfilled the local need of nutritional security particularly the women. Now due to intensive cash crops most of the farmers have fallen into debt trap. The chemical agencies who supply chemical inputs operate an informal lending system of supplying all inputs in advance and exploit them with high rate of interest which exceeds 36 percent. Each family who is now growing cash crop particularly the chilly under irrigated system now are losing around Rs. 20,000 per year for farm inputs alone. This vicious cycle of debt trap finally impacts on women in terms of nutritional intake. Consequently the newborns are severely anemic that results in thousands of death. According to the World Bank (2004), investments in preventive measures, including in maintaining healthy ecosystems, are seven-fold more cost effective than the costs incurred by disasters. Thus there is un urgent need to take up scientific mapping and appraisal in documenting and identifying various Punjai system models that could offer the scientific community a way out in fighting climate change in south India region and particularly in the coastal districts that are prone to climate related disasters. Failing in these aspects are tantamount to inviting real disaster.

Rajkumar is working as a Programme Officer in a national NGO (www.svaraj.in) working in the field of integrated water resource management focusing water debate, conservation, ecology, environment, farm livelihood aspects.




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