General Elections 2019

For the survivors of 1999’s Super Cyclone in Odisha, polls mean nothing

None of the political parties in the state have provided them with amenities ranging from sources of livelihood to cyclone shelters to compensation money, they say

By Ashis Senapati
Published: Saturday 23 March 2019
Sudhir Mandal, 76, who lost 12 of his family members in the 1999 Odisha Super Cyclone. Credit: Ashis Senapati

Polls come and go, but the pain of victims of Odisha’s Super Cyclone is yet to abate even two decades after the natural disaster, with a large number of them still struggling to rebuild their lives.

The Super Cyclone, which battered the Odisha coast on October 29, 1999, had killed   many, mostly in the Jagatsinghpur and Kendrapara districts. 

In Jagatsinghpur district, as per official reports, 7,090 persons had perished in the storm. Unofficially though, the death toll was around 10,000. However, the district administration provided ex-gratia payment to the family members of only 4,261 victims.  Many victims were never found or even identified.  

In Kendrapada district, 466 persons had perished in the Super Cyclone and the authorities granted compensation money to the relatives of 382 victims. But ex-gratia amount is yet to be given to the family members of 84 dead persons. This is because nobody has yet filed proper documents to claim that they are the close relatives of the deceased persons, said Sanjay Mishra, the Sub-Collector of Kendrapara.

Since then, the government, its agencies as well as non-governmental organisations have spent hundreds of crores to support affected families and rebuild coastal villages. This sum includes the Rs 50,000 the government provided to the immediate relatives of each deceased person as compensation, and monetary assistance for those who were injured.

Even two decades after the cyclone, there is resentment among the locals against the government on a number of issues. These include non-payment of compensation money to the family members of many cyclone victims, the lack of proper roads, the lack of clean drinking water and other important issues, said Sarat Rout, a social worker of Earasama block in Jagatsinghpur district.  

An everlasting pain

The seaside village of Ambiki under Earasama bore the brunt of the cyclone’s destruction. 

Narayan Mandal (54), a resident of Ambiki, lost 22 members of his family, but survived the Super Cyclone. However, he is struggling to this day.

“The 1999 Super Cyclone was one of the worst natural disasters in living memory. I lost my widowed mother, four brothers named Bibhuti, Birendra, Subash and Bikash, the wives of three brothers, three cousins and 12 children of my brothers. Only Anjali, the wife of my brother Subash, managed to save her life by clinging to a coconut tree.  I might have died as well, but I and my wife were not at home when the cyclone hit. We had gone to Jagatsinghpur town to purchase clothes,” he told Down To Earth (DTE).

He continues, “The government had promised to provide us with a fishing boat 20 years ago. But the officials have yet to fulfil their promises. Today, I run a small grocery shop in the village.

“We faced four state and parliamentary polls after the cyclone. During election campaigning, the leaders promised everything under the sun for us. But that was just lip service. Many cyclone-hit villages are yet to recover from the damage caused by the storm. Today, elections hold no meaning for us,” he said.

Like Ambiki, Tentulikandha village under the Mahakalapada block in Kendrapara district, also suffered huge damage due to the Super Cyclone.

75-year-old Sudhir Mandal, a resident of Tentulikandha, lost 12 family members in the storm. “My wife, three sons, daughters–in-law and five grandchildren perished when waves from the sea during the Super Cyclone turned the village into a mass grave 20 years ago. I saved my life by holding a broken piece of wood,” he says.

He has slowly rebuilt his life. “Today, I earn my livelihood by making mats with the help of some village residents. I adopted Sarat, the son of my sister Arundhati 14 years ago. Sarat and his wife Gita look after me. I built a brick-and-mortar house with the compensation money which I received from the government for the death of my family members in the cyclone,” adds Mandal.

Manorama, Arati, Sandhyabala, Basanti and Kalpana Giri of Kankana village, also under the Earasama block, lost their husbands in the disaster.

“Our husbands took us to the village school with our children due to which we survived. But the violent tidal waves washed away our men as they stayed behind in our seaside thatched house in the middle of the village,” said Manorama and Basanti.

They added, “We built a four-room brick-and-mortar house in the village with the compensation money. We have also formed a self-help group with financial help from the government and are making golden grass items to eke out our living. Our children are now engaged in fishing and other businesses in the port town of Paradip. The government also built two cyclone shelters in our village due to which we now feel safe.

The fishing village of Sandakuda, near Paradip in Jagatsinghpur district, is testimony to Nature’s fury and government apathy. The village, with a population of over 3000, saw around 480 deaths on October 29, 1999, when a tidal wave engulfed it in the wake of the Super Cyclone. The incident left behind many widows, widowers and orphans. Malati Patra is one such widow.

“That night changed my life. We were a happy family. My husband was doing a business in dry fish. We had everything. Then, the storm came and I lost my husband Madan, parents-in-law, two sisters-in-law and my two sons aged six and four,” said Malati.

Like Malati, October 29, 1999, is a day 45-year-old Rajaram Pal, also from the same village, will never forget as he lost his wife, parents, two brothers, a sister and two children in the Super Cyclone.

“All my five family members were washed away in the tidal waves. But as luck would have it, I survived by holding on to a tree. This calamity compelled me to restart a new life. I married Malati, a Super Cyclone widow, in 2007 to restart my family life. Now, we have a nine-year- old son and seven-year-old daughter,” said Rajaram. 

The couple have slowly rebuilt their lives. “Many people advised me not to live in Sandakuda village as it is close to the sea. But I told them that I am a marine fisherman. I cannot live faraway from the sea.  In the last election, many candidates had promised to build a cyclone shelter in Sandakuda. But they failed to keep their promise. Because of this, I have decided not to cast my vote in the coming poll,” said Pal.

Time is the greatest healer for the family members of the cyclone victims. But large numbers of surviving family members are still grappling with the emotional aftermath even after 20 years of the incident, said Biraja Pati a social worker in Kendrapada. 

The ruling Biju Janata Dal hopes that it will be lucky this time as well. “Two decades ago, the Super Cyclone took hundreds of lives and changed the coastal areas forever. Finally, the tide is beginning to turn. Coastal areas are being rebuilt, livelihoods are returning, and life in general is improving for many survivors,” Prasant Muduli, the sitting Member of Legislative Assembly from the Earasama-Balikuda assembly segment told DTE.

He added, “Voters in the cyclone-hit areas voted in support of the Biju Janata Dal in all the four polls since 2000 as the state government did many developmental works for them. In the upcoming polls too, they will also vote for us.”

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