November 19, 2018 @ 11:45 am

19 NOVEMBER 2018

Being prepared

Coastal districts must continue to strengthen resilience against extreme weather events

Tamil Nadu was more prepared than before to deal with Cyclone Gaja when it made landfall between Nagapattinam and Vedaranyam on November 16, but it still took a toll of at least 45 lives. The severe cyclonic storm damaged infrastructure, property and agriculture. Even so, the effort to professionalise disaster management through a dedicated national and State organisation initiated more than 15 years ago appears to be paying off, with bureaucracies acquiring higher efficiency in providing early warning and in mitigating the impact of cyclones. The National Cyclone Risk Mitigation Project started by the Ministry of Home Affairs has been working to reduce the impact of such catastrophic events on Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat, classified as States with higher vulnerability; most western coastal States are in the next category. However, there is a lot to be done to upgrade infrastructure and housing in coastal districts to meet higher standards of resilience in an era of extreme weather events. The lead taken by the State Disaster Management Authority in issuing a stream of alerts ahead of Gaja helped coastal residents move to camps and adopt safety measures. The active measures taken by the State after the cyclone, notably to clear roads, remove fallen trees and repair power infrastructure and communications, helped restore some stability. In its destructive exit path, the cyclone has affected some southern districts, felling tens of thousands of trees and also 30,000 electricity poles along the coast. It also hit residents in some central Kerala districts.

Tamil Nadu’s political parties have acted in a mature manner and kept partisan criticism from getting in the way of relief and rehabilitation after Gaja. This is in contrast to some earlier instances, such as the Chennai flood of 2015, when the distribution of relief became politicised. Today, if any pressure on the government machinery is necessary, it is to secure without delay the financial relief of Rs. 10 lakh that has been promised for families of the dead, compensation for lost crops, trees and livestock, provision of emergency health intervention and rehabilitation assistance to rebuild lives. The larger question, of course, is whether the coastal States have equipped themselves for an even bigger event, such as the super cyclone that hit Odisha in 1999 that killed about 10,000 people. Even with far fewer casualties, Cyclone Phailin in 2013 required reconstruction estimated at $1.5 billion. India’s coastline experiences a lower frequency of tropical cyclones compared to many other regions, but the loss of life and destruction is much higher. Coastal States must, therefore, focus on reducing the hazard through policies that expand resilient housing, build better storm shelters and create financial mechanisms for insurance and compensation.

Her toughest week

Theresa May is struggling to retain her party’s support as the Brexit deadline looms

With just months left for the U.K.’s withdrawal from the European Union, there is little clarity on the terms of its exit, or indeed whether the verdict of the 2016 referendum can be honoured at all. Instead, Prime Minister Theresa May’s government is facing a possible vote of no confidence, orchestrated by her own deeply divided Conservative Party, over the modalities of a future relationship with the EU. At the heart of this bitter dispute is the withdrawal deal with the other 27 nations in the bloc, which would leave the country largely bound to current regulations, with diminished influence over policy formulation. Brussels has indicated broad agreement over its terms, which are to be formalised at an EU summit this month. But Ms. May’s government faces an uphill task to secure parliamentary approval for the deal in the wake of a spate of resignations by senior Cabinet colleagues in the last few days. Notable among them are the prominent pro-Europe Transport Minister Jo Johnson, brother of the principal Leave campaigner Boris Johnson, who stepped down in July; and Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab. The latter’s exit, as that of his predecessor David Davis, underscores the extent to which Ms. May’s blueprint for an exit has proved controversial even among Conservative eurosceptic Ministers and MPs. Even those pro-Brexit Ministers who have chosen to stick with Ms. May are anxious that the terms of withdrawal be altered. This group recognises the importance of a soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. But they are opposed to the proposed compromise arrangement in return, which could lock Britain into a customs union with the EU for an indefinite period and constrain its ability to strike trade deals.

The unfolding Conservative leadership crisis could trigger a general election, a prospect the Labour Party has been eyeing ever since Ms. May formed a minority government after the 2017 polls. That danger also means she could yet rally support for the draft withdrawal deal among Conservative backbenchers anxious to avoid an election. Her failure to win parliamentary backing for the exit deal would raise the risk of a no-deal Brexit, with potentially chaotic ramifications. Both the U.K. and the EU know that averting such a nightmare is in their mutual interest. For that reason, it is conceivable that the 27 other states will see wisdom in deferring the March 29 deadline for withdrawal, should a request be put forward. Such a scenario would strengthen the case for a second referendum, articulated most eloquently by former Prime Minister John Major and echoed in a public demonstration in London. Meanwhile, growing uncertainties over Britain’s future on the global stage only expose the hollowness of the Leave campaign and the fragility of its leadership.

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