Super cylone, floods, controversies - the unwanted guests in Odisha's 2020 pandemic woes

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By Sidhartha Kanungo Bhubaneswar, Dec 27 (PTI) The coronavirus pall of 2020 was writ large on Odisha like the rest of the world in a year that also brought with it the vagaries of nature, as a super cyclone and floods left a trail of destruction in the coastal state.

The Naveen Patnaik goverment, however, won accolades for its prompt and proactive steps to tackle the pandemic, which has claimed over 1,850 lives in Odisha so far.

Patnaik had ordered closure of several public places in the second week of March, when the state was yet to report a single COVID-19 case, and days before the nationwide lockdown kicked in.

'Effective governance, robust health infrastructure and mass testing, efficient handling of migrant workers, including screening and quarantine, involvement of women self-help groups and 'Mission Shakti' have been the high points of the pandemic management,' said a senior official.

Mission Shakti is a key initiative of the BJD government for empowerment of women by helping them achieve economic independence.

When the first COVID-19 case was reported on March 15, the state control rooms were already functional, while capacity building, awareness campaigns about hygiene, hand washing, sanitisation, social distancing, use of face masks and respiratory etiquette were also in place, he said.

'Odisha was among the few states to have created a COVID-19 hospital in every district in record time. It also set up an inter-departmental task force to oversee and monitor the pandemic management,' the official added.

In addition to over 50 dedicated hospitals with around 7,500 beds, the state has set up 178 COVID care centres and 17,647 temporary medical centres (TMCs), another top official said.

Among other measures, the state government unveiled a Rs 17,000-crore plan to support the livelihood of people, including farmers and migrant workers, hit hard by the economic crisis triggered by the pandemic and long spells of lockdown, Chief Secretary A K Tripathy said.

Odisha's recovery rate has now increased to around 98.50 per cent, among the highest in the country, while the reporting rate of fresh coronavirus cases declined to 0.96 per cent, Additional Chief Secretary P K Mohapatra said.

Just months into the pandemic, super cyclone Amphan, which in spite of making landfall in neighbouring West Bengal, barreled through vast parts of Odisha in May, bringing in its wake a trail of devastation in Kendrapara, Jagatsinghpur, Bhadrak and Balasore.

The state government maintained that it ensured 'zero casualty' by undertaking timely evacuation of people from vulnerable areas.

Nature was in no mood to relent as the state was soon faced with a flood-like situation, owing to heavy downpour triggered by a series of low pressure areas over the Bay of Bengal.

Major rivers, including Mahanadi, were flowing over the danger mark in August, affecting several districts like Jajpur, Bhadrak, Kendrapara, Mayurbhanj, Keonjhar, Cuttack and Puri.

The pandemic year also came with its share of controversies for Odisha, as opposition Congress and the BJP mounted a scathing attack on the BJD government for 'gross mismanagement' in Covid care centres and 'large-scale corruption' in procurement of equipment and PPE kits.

The allegations prompted the Odisha Lokayukta to order the vigilance department to launch a detailed probe. Two senior IAS officers have already appeared before the Lokayukta on four occasions as part of the investigation.

Odisha was also rocked by the kidnapping and murder of a five-year-old girl, with the incident coming to light after the parents of the minor attempted self-immolation in front of the state assembly in November.

The opposition was quick to pan the state government, demanding a CBI investigation, besides the dismissal of Agriculture Minister Arun Kumar Sahoo, accusing him of shielding the main accused.

Odisha's ruling dispensation subsequently ordered a court-monitored probe by a special investigation team, but it came under criticism from the the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), which termed the exercise 'severely flawed' with 'glaring defects', and sought disciplinary action against the investigating officers.

As the year drew to a close, there was uproar over detection of alleged ill-gotten wealth by a senior Indian Forest Service officer with close links to Gopalpur MLA Pradeep Panigrahi.

The lawmaker was for long the blue-eyed boy of the chief minister, managing the affairs of the party in his home district of Ganjam and in his constituency.

Patnaik, however, talked tough and expelled his former confidante from the BJD for 'anti-people' activities.

Days after his expulsion, Panigrahi was arrested on December 3 for allegedly defrauding people with the promise of jobs. PTI SKN RBT SK SK