Progress in a World Bank-funded project to mitigate cyclone risk in states along the western coast of India has been “moderately unsatisfactory” largely due to poor performance by Kerala and Maharashtra, according to a World Bank mission report from September.

An estimated 178 fishermen from Kerala have reportedly been missing at sea after the state failed to issue adequate warnings to fishermen to stay away from the sea as Cyclone Ockhi passed through the waters off the Kerala coast. Large parts of the Lakshadweep archipelago, which is not a part of the World Bank project, were also devastated in the wake of the cyclone last week.

As of September, Kerala and Maharashtra were still drafting detailed project reports and conducting environment and social impact assessments, the report said. If the works are not tendered by April 2018, these states run the chance of not completing their work by 2021.

The National Cyclone Risk Mitigation Project is a project with the Government of India, the National Disaster Management Authority under the Ministry of Home Affairs, the National Institute for Disaster Management and participating coastal states.

The project began seven years ago in Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, where the international finance institution funded the building of roads, cyclone shelters and saline embankments along the coast. This phase was to be completed by the end of October, though Andhra Pradesh may get an extension until March 2018 after delays caused due to its bifurcation in 2014.

The second phase, with a planned budget of Rs 2,361 crores, of which the World Bank will contribute Rs 1,881 crores, shifts the focus to states along the western coast and to West Bengal. This phase began in 2015 and is still in the planning stage. Kerala has committed to building 27 cyclone shelters under the project, while Maharashtra will build 11 cyclone shelters, 50 km of saline embankments and underground electrical cable works in three districts.

According to the report, West Bengal, the only eastern state to be included in this second phase of the project, and Gujarat have tendered more than 50% of the planned work and begun to implement them. Karnataka and Goa have also issued tenders to build cyclone shelters.

Cyclone map delayed

There are other delays in the World Bank project, including a comprehensive risk atlas developed by RMSI, a geospatial data company. This atlas was meant to “provide a risk management framework for decision makers in the 13 States/UTs [Union Territories] and the Central Government to take mitigation steps to protect the people and assets of the country.”

The atlas assessed the vulnerabilities of different areas to cyclonic winds and flooding, and to the storm surge that frequently accompanies cyclonic storms. According to RMSI, 40% of India’s population lives within 100 km of the coast, and only a fifth of India’s coastline is not exposed to cyclones.

Six months ago, RMSI transferred the entire project to the government-run National Informatics Centre server. The government was supposed to open up the atlas to the public at that point, but this has not yet happened.

An expert involved with the project who asked not to be identified said, “The site was transferred to NIC [National Informatics Centre] servers about six months ago. Right now access is only available with [National Disaster Management Authority] through password protection. It has not gone live. It should have by now.”

The authority had, as of October 2016, given usernames and passwords to the participating states, the World Bank report said.

Cyclone frequency

The RMSI atlas classifies states into different levels of risk based on the frequency of cyclones in that region, the number of people living there and how well those places are able to manage disasters. States on the western coast – except Gujarat – and the Union Territory islands of Lakshadweep and Andaman and Nicobar are less vulnerable to cyclones than states on the eastern coast.

As Cyclone Ockhi shows, this does not mean that they are immune to any cyclones at all.

Ockhi began to develop as a deep depression at around noon on November 29 near the South-West coast of Sri Lanka. This rapidly turned into a severe cyclonic storm as it passed Kerala on November 30 and battered the Lakshadweep Islands over the next two days as a very severe cyclonic storm. It then moved northwards towards Maharashtra and Gujarat where it reduced in intensity into a depression and then to a low pressure area over South coastal Gujarat by the morning of December 6.

Cyclones typically pass over the Bay of Bengal far more frequently than over the Arabian Sea. On average, the Bay of Bengal has experienced nearly six cyclones each year since 1891, according to data from the India Meteorological Department. By contrast, the Arabian Sea experiences only an average of 1.5 cyclones each year.

Credit: Anand Katakam

Since 1891, however, there have been five years where the Arabian Sea has seen more cyclones than the Bay of Bengal. Four of these have been after 2000.

Credit: Anand Katakam

Anger in Kerala

On Sunday, members of the fishing community blocked Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s car when he visited Vizhinjam, a fishing village near Thiruvananthapuram. They claim that the state did not do enough to warn fishermen on November 29 – when the cyclone was still forming near Sri Lanka – not to venture out into the sea.

Officials in the Kerala Disaster Management Authority attempted to shift blame to the India Meteorological Department, which they say only issued a fishing advisory and not a cyclone warning on November 29.

Sekhar Kuriakose, member secretary of the Kerala Disaster Management Authority, issued a press statement on December 1 claiming that the Met department could not have issued a cyclone warning on November 29 because the cyclone was still a deep depression till noon on November 30.

Kuriakose did not respond to an earlier request from for an interview.