Two precious human lives and an elephant—all three were lost in what was a tragic outcome of an operation in Mahanadi river that went completely wrong in Cuttack last week. On September 24 morning, the jumbo, separated from its herd, was found negotiating the strong current of the raging river. It soon caught media attention; forest teams moved in; police were deployed and then came a team of the Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force (ODRAF). What was supposed to be an exercise to rescue the jumbo was in shambles within the next couple of hours. The disaster response team took with them two journalists of a TV channel onboard a boat, which capsized in the swelling waters. Right from the word go, everything about the rescue plan was wrong. Yet, nearly a week into the mishap, not a squeak can be heard from the Odisha government.
Let’s break the incident down further. The deceased included a journalist as well as a jawan of the disaster rapid action force; the animal enlisted in Schedule-I of the Wildlife Protection Act for which the operation was mounted also died. Standard operating procedure for dealing with such cases clearly mandates that no one must approach wildlife from close proximity. Here was an elephant in the midst of a raging river and it was being herded by a team trained to save human lives in disasters, not to deal with wildlife. How the journalists went on to be part of the ODRAF team has generated enough heat.
The entire operation was flawed with absolutely no crowd-control measure as hundreds of onlookers laid siege to the area. The tragedy was avoidable and has raised serious questions over enforcing procedures during rescue and disaster mitigation exercises, which are fraught with danger. It has also brought focus on media and the extent the chase for news can be taken to. It has provided an opportunity to reflect and make course corrections—both for the government and media to set the limits. Sadly, nothing of that sort has happened and no one seems to have been held accountable. Happening under the watch of CM Naveen Patnaik, who has made Odisha a model state in disaster management, this is indeed unfortunate.