It is not you who will speak: let the disaster speak in you. — Maurice Blanchot
Disaster shuts down language. Disaster cannot be fathomed. Disaster stuns us into silence because the suffering it causes is so total and complete that it robs us of our power of speech. This is a common way in which we refer to disasters. But the Chief Minister of Odisha, Mr. Naveen Patnaik does not believe in this. A lot of water has flown since 1999 when the state was devastated by the super cyclone which killed 15,000 people and rendered 16 lakh homeless.
After assuming the Chief Minister’s Office in March 2000, he developed a system to deal with disasters effectively. His vision and determination have helped Odisha to stand tall in the fight against the coronavirus. Last Thursday, the Chief Minister once again exhibited his prescience and announced an extension to the ongoing lockdown till 30 April, ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other Chief Ministers. Mr. Patnaik has also urged the Centre to stop train and flight services to the State till 30 April. Government also decided that schools and other education institutions will remain closed till 17 June 2020.
The decisions of Mr. Patnaik such as setting up of multiple specialty hospitals across the state, with the largest such hospital having a collective capacity of 1,000 beds, to exclusively deal with Covid-19 cases, giving four months’ advance salary to doctors, medical and paramedical staff and donating his own three months’ salary to the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund have encouraged his counterparts to follow suit. When the supplies of essential items in major cities of other states are far from smooth, the Master Circular on lockdown prepared by Government of Odisha has once again proved to be a masterpiece. To ensure smooth functioning of life during the lockdown, markets for essential commodities have been set up at designated locations in most of the cities and towns with all due precautions being adhered to at such places. People were pleasantly surprised to see MoBus (an intercity bus run by the State Government), ferrying personnel and essentials to locations inside Bhubaneswar.
Additionally, several MoBus stops across Bhubaneswar have been converted into temporary vegetable shops. At a time when public transportation has been shut down, such activity is putting the buses to good use, the vendors are being helped with their trade, and the supply of essential commodities remains uninterrupted. Thereby turning an unfavourable scenario into a win-win situation for all. These measures are reflective of the numerous innovative steps that the Odisha Government has taken to tackle the Corona crisis head-on. But more impressive than these measures is the quickness with which they have been adopted and implemented. For instance, Odisha was one of the first states in the country to announce a shutdown, well in advance of the Central Government’s announcement of a national lockdown.
The 1,000-bed hospital that we have referred to earlier, was made functional within a record 15 days. Whenever a number of Covid-19 patients have been found in a particular locality, such areas are immediately sealed off, while ensuring that supply of essentials remain undisturbed. These lightning fast responses to the situation and the absence of a proverbial ‘policy paralysis’ that seems to afflict most Governments, have proved to be very effective in keeping the cases to a minimum in the state. While the State has kept the situation under control, it is again foresight on part of Mr. Patnaik and his administration that in order to combat a probable shortage of medical personnel in the future, retired doctors and nurses have been requested to re-join service temporarily, with the State Government offering them lucrative honorariums.
To ensure the well-being of serving doctors, in the instances where medical personnel have been treated with prejudice by their landlords and society members, prompt action is being taken by the Government. In an example of its pro-people policy, the Odisha Government announced that it shall bear all the expenses for the treatment of Corona patients. Keeping in mind the plight of financially weaker sections of the society, the Odisha Government sponsored ‘Aahaar’ kitchens are providing free meals to such people round the clock. For the Odias stuck outside state borders, Mr. Patnaik reached out at the earliest to other Chief Ministers, offering to bear expenses for the lodging and maintenance of such people.
Even the care of stray animals in cities has been thought of, with the State Government providing them with cooked food everyday through delivery vans. This level of preparedness and thoughtfulness is indeed heartening and encouraging. The whole state machinery has worked like a well-oiled unit, and regular and detailed press briefings by the Chief Minister’s Office have kept the public in the loop with the Government’s latest measures. That Odisha has shown how to live up to the challenge is a story to tell at least on the basis of evidence till date. Odisha took off early. It put in place an “action plan” to deal with the Covid-19 situation early in March. It set up a Covid-19 helpline number before the lockdown was announced.
The state machinery propagated this helpline number leading to thousands of people calling up to seek information about the Coronavirus infection. While Governments across the world lived in denial and procrastinated over Corona, the Odisha Government instead accepted the situation and rose magnificently to the occasion. A lot of the credit for this goes to the Chief Minister and his bureaucracy-driven administration, which has time and again come out on top of the many natural disasters plaguing the state, be it devastating super-cyclones, or torrential floods. Little wonder then that in these tough times, India’s ‘poorest’ state is setting a shining example and showing others how it’s done.
(The writers are, respectively, Professor of Law and a final year student at the National Law University Odisha)