Cyclone Phailin was, in a sense, a moment of glory for the India Meteorological Department. IMD’s warnings were timely, precise, confident and actionable.

What marks Phailin as a turning point in the history of disaster management in India was that there was no loss of human life. IMD took pains to explain that Phailin was not a supercyclone. Nevertheless storms of Phailin’s magnitude have in the past taken a huge toll of human life in India and in other countries as well, even in recent times. But in the case of Phailin, the expected loss did not occur. Thousands of lives have indeed been saved. The credit goes to IMD, the National Disaster Management Authority, the defence forces and all concerned administrative authorities.

Most disasters come without much of an advance warning. The only exceptions are cyclones which form out at sea and take a few days to strike coast, and droughts which develop slowly over weeks or months. A cyclone is the only natural disaster that offers an opportunity to save lives by making a dramatic and heroic effort.

During my tenure as Director General of IMD from 1998 to 2003, India had three major natural disasters: the Orissa supercyclone of 29 October 1999 in which 10,000 people perished, the Bhuj earthquake of 26 January 2001 that took 20,000 lives, and the all-India drought of 2002 in which millions of Indians were affected. These three events had made me look at life and death very closely as a scientist, a believer in God, and as an ordinary human being. So when I was watching Phailin over the last few days, I could not help comparing the situation with my own previous experience.

On Republic Day 2001, schoolchildren in Bhuj are singing the national anthem and saluting the national flag, when the ground on which they are standing opens up and takes in the entire school campus! Thousands of strong, young people perish instantly, but search parties later rescue tiny babies, cuddled up in the arms of dead mothers. Frail old people are able to just walk out of the debris days later, alive and well..! So who decides who dies and who is to live? It is not the survival of the fittest, certainly not.     

On 29 October 1999, the supercyclone strikes Paradip and then hovers over it for two days, pounding the area with torrential rain, submerging it under tens of metres of water, until dead bodies come floating up…There are good forecasts, but bad communications. There are no mobile phones, the internet has just been heard of…People of Orissa have braved cyclones earlier. They live in poverty, have meager possessions, have little to lose either in life or in death. So they rely on their own knowledge and wisdom, and lose all.

With Phailin many things have changed. The fishermen and farmers of coastal Odisha may still be poor, but they now have mobile phones! What a difference in lifestyle! They can now make an informed decision about saving their lives by losing their belongings.

Jesus Christ had this to say about life and death: “Take heed, and beware of covetousness, for a man’s life consists not in the abundance of the things which he possesses” (The Bible, Luke 12:15) And this: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” (The Bible, Matthew 16:26)   

Going by past experience and history, Phailin, left to itself, could have killed tens of thousands of people. We have not allowed that to happen. We may surely ask, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (The Bible, 1 Corinthians 15:55)

But what have we really done? Have we conquered death? Not at all. Like doctors, what we mean by saving lives is that we postpone death for a little while and then let it happen later due to other causes.