(Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
THE MOST DEADLY cyclone in recent times was in 1999 in Odisha. It wreaked the kind of devastation one usually only saw with massive earthquakes, taking 10,000 lives and leading to a nationwide participation in relief measures. In 2020, when super cyclone Amphan hit Odisha and West Bengal, it became the one that was costliest in terms of material damages, but the number of people who died from it was just around 100. For the cyclone that led to the maximum fatalities in India, you have to go back to 1839 when three lakh people died in Andhra Pradesh. In fact, in the 19th century, toll counts of cyclones frequently ranged in lakhs. The general trend of cyclones in India is that its ability to kill has drastically decreased.
This record might not hold. You can still have that extreme event which no society is capable of mitigating because human beings remain puny against the forces of nature. Yet, when it comes to managing what is foreseeable, we triumph. Cyclone Biparjoy will come with a cost but it will be nothing what the same event would have done 20 or 200 years ago. This is because of the ability of human societies to learn, record and adapt. From experience, they make incremental improvements in being ready for the future. Political systems evolve to further aid in this. In an earlier era of kingdoms, it depended on the ability and interest of kings to deal with such calamities but democracy makes it incumbent upon the state to hold people’s lives and property as first priorities.
The story of civilisation is constant opposition to nature in which battles might be lost but not the war. Otherwise, how could communities settle in the freezing tundra in igloos eating nothing but fish, and still thrive? Collective memory can fail and we can get blindsided occasionally, like the tsunami that happened in 2004, and you can bet something equally unexpected will shock us again, but it won’t be a tsunami.
No society can today be callous about climate events impacting their citizens but those that are more efficient, do better. When a cyclone hits two countries, as can happen in the subcontinent, the one with the worse managements and flawed systems get damaged more. But even they fare better than how they did earlier.
People who panic about climate change and global warming being a terminal threat to life on earth don’t factor in the human ability to adapt and find new ways of meeting old overwhelming foes. Days before Biparjoy even made landfall, tens of thousands had been already evacuated and put out of harm’s way. This could be done because science informed us with accuracy about what was going to happen and the memory of old wounds told us how to best reduce the injury. It is easy to look at extreme weather events as nature’s punishment for our overreach. But every such event that we come out of increasingly unscathed is further evidence of the necessity of human progress.