“Why is fire safety such an important matter for Odisha?”

Conversation with Mr P.K. Jena, IAS, Chief Secretary, Govt. of Odisha during the 13th Beyond Carlton Memorial 2023


BEYOND CARLTON has deeply motivated me, so much that I want to partner with the organisation to take this movement beyond Bangalore to Odisha. Thank you for partnering with us.

Achieving zero casualties is possible

All of you might be aware of a disaster that struck 22 years ago – the Odisha Super Cyclone 1999, where as many as 10,000 human lives were lost, I was then a young Collector. In the past three years I have managed seven very major cyclones, and we have now achieved zero casualties. After this, I was happy that we are quite good in managing flood and cyclones. But there are three areas which are contributing to death in a very large number in my State apart from road accidents, they are

  1. Fire
  2. Snakebites
  3. Drowning


That’s when I had a conversation with Anup (Executive Council Member, BEYOND CARLTON) and thought, fire – is something we could start to work on. 

I believe, hazards will be there – either natural or man-made. Why should hazards become disasters? If all of us, administration and communities, work together we can avoid disasters. That’s where I found, it’s not purely technical or governmental. Government cannot alone control disasters, we need communities. We need someone to know how to approach the communities, that’s when I found BEYOND CARLTON.

There was no “Beyond Madhubhan” 13 years ago


Madhuban fire: Fire Accident in Baripada Odisha, 1997 Pic source: JPS

We had a major fire in Odisha, exactly 13 years before the Carlton Towers incident, Feb 23rd 1997, where 154 lives were lost. But no ‘Beyond Mahdubhan’ started. At Carlton Towers, nine were lives lost and the way you came up and the way you are spreading the message, I believe, your initial journey might have been difficult, now you can count me as one of your members. 

Our Chief Minister says “We can’t lose a life to a disaster”, it is a big statement, but in a cyclone, we are able to achieve this to a large extent. I believe if we can’t make it zero, at least we can minimize it. With the hope of minimizing the deaths due to fire accidents, we (OSDMA) have now partnered with BEYOND CARLTON. As a pilot, we have started with two cities, Bhubaneswar and Cuttack and soon we will take it to all the cities and towns of Odisha.

Mr. R. A. Venkitachalam: Preparedness and resilience – India as a society, we often hear – ‘Chalta hai, there is nothing much to worry about’. In such a societal status we have today, how do you think a change can be made in terms of being prepared, being resilient?

Mr. P.K. Jena: Three events in this country have served the disaster management discourse.  They are –

  • Super cyclone 1999
  • 2001 Bhuj earthquake
  • 2004 South Asian Tsunami

After that, everyone started talking about disaster management. The paradigm shift happened only after Super Cyclone. Odisha is the first to start special aid called Odisha State Disaster Management in the country. We also came up with the first special disaster response force. After National Disaster Management Act came into place, many things started happening across India. With disaster management – preparedness, mitigation and adaptation, in place, we have seen successes in flood and cyclone management as well as in reducing lightning deaths in Odisha. 

Government alone cannot do it

Every year we used to lose 500-600 numbers, now we have come down to 150. Hopefully, in the next two-three years, we will bring it to a single digit. So, preparedness is key. But then, government alone cannot do it. The first responders are the communities, so they should know. Unless we prepare the community, and preparing community is a difficult task. For government and bureaucrats, it is not their cup of tea. So, you need different skill-sets. Therefore, you need to first prepare the bureaucracy, at all levels, to accept community as partners and then work with the community to prepare them. So that is the first lesson.

Unless you know what your strengths and weaknesses are, how to respond, what to do in case of emergencies, it is not possible. If the communities do not understand their hazard profiles, if they are convinced that this can be prevented, or the hazard impact can be minimized, possibly we can get them along. 

Talking about the institutional frameworks, we have these beautiful Acts, if we do not enforce, there is no real change. In India, we have National Disaster Management Act 2005, I’m sure nobody would have looked at it, including me perhaps, until COVID struck. The Act gives so much power to the disaster management authority when a disaster strikes. 

The legal framework should not be taxing for the citizens

The way we casually act, the city administration, state governments, possibly leads to hazards turning into disasters. Basically, what is the legal framework, how simple it is, how processes and systems are built in a simplified manner. Everybody will not feel so burdened to comply. That is where we are averting. For example, if for getting a fire safety certificate, I have to run from pillar to post, and do a lot of underhand dealings, it’s better I avoid. So, we have to introspect, how our legal framework supports the individuals. How the institutional framework, instead of taxing and penalizing the individuals, motivates and influences them to comply. So these are few areas where we need to work.

Mr. R. A. Venkitachalam: BEYOND CARLTON does a lot of work with apartment owners and public at large. My last question would be about OSDMA. Under your leadership, OSDMA has become a case study in a lot of business schools in different parts of the world. It’s been a shining star of what a government department can do to catalyse society at large and government administrations in particular to respond to disasters gigantic magnitudes that affects millions of people. Can you tell us what sort of mobilization you have achieved in OSDMA. If you take the major cities in India, it is already congested, and adequate infrastructure or resources to handle the cities. The cities like Bhubaneshwar or Cuttack is very populated now when compared to major cities, but you thought it right to start even now. What are the lessons we can learn from OSDMA?

Mr. P.K. Jena: Our leadership under the current Chief Minister, enables us to take the important decisions with respect to disaster management. What we realize is, the golden hour is important where none of us can help. Even the fire service vehicles take time to reach the spot. It is the community, it is the volunteers, it is the local civil society organizations, unless you empower them, unless we work with them, things will not happen. 

Lessons from COVID

Odisha has been very successful in managing COVID, not because we in administration did a lot of things. It is because of the Gram Panchayats, the elected representatives we empowered them with the power of district magistrate. The sarpanch of the gram panchayat was empowered with the power of district magistrate, the seven odd lakh women self-help groups, were given the responsibility of managing the quarantine centres. Because of the public engagement with the system, this was possible.

Community is the crux

In Odisha, in every village we have a village disaster management committee who are trained. In 50 per cent of our villages, we have at least 10 boys and 10 girls who are trained in first aid and rescue. Before the special aid reaches, at least they should have done something, they know how to make a stretcher out of nothing, or how to lift a person in situation of a fire or a building collapse. So, they become the auxiliary forces to our main force. Only prescription I’d give is, we can do everything, but nothing without the community. Unless we empower them, unless we give them the adequate skills, and believe in their capacities, things will not happen. 

Mr. R. A. Venkitachalam: We have worked with you for the past one year, we’d like to say, it’s been an outstanding experience working with the team. You have brought to the table, every department that can be impacted with fire safety. Thank you for that.

Mr.P.K. Jena: I value our partnership, with that we are aspiring to achieve zero casualties, I’m sure we’d achieve it in another 3-5 years.

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