Natural Disasters

Cyclone Titli: Can Odisha protect vulnerable tribal districts?

In the wake of IMD's warning over Titli, Odisha mobilised resources to protect coastal districts, but the cyclonic storm took an unusual turn

By Jyoti Prakash Brahma
Published: Friday 02 November 2018
For two days, Gajapati district recorded an average rainfall of over 200 mm. According to official sources, 40 people have died here (Credit: by special arrangement) For two days, Gajapati district recorded an average rainfall of over 200 mm. According to official sources, 40 people have died here (Credit: by special arrangement)

For a state that takes immense pride in disaster preparedness, severe cyclone Titli, which battered Odisha from October 11-14, came as a rude shock. After the storm subsided and heavy rainfall stopped, the Odisha government realised its fierce nature and unusual behaviour. An overconfident state machinery had initially mobilised its entire resources to minimise destruction in the coastal districts of Jagatsinghpur, Ganjam, and Puri. But after its landfall at Palasa in Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh in the morning of October 11, Titli suddenly changed its direction in the next 12 hours and headed towards the southern interior districts of Gajapati, Rayagada and Kandhamal.

The India Meteorological Department (IMD) issued a warning as early as October 5 about the formation of a low pressure area over south Bay of Bengal. By the evening of October 10, the depression had turned into a severe cyclone. This was when IMD predicted that it would most likely move towards Gangetic West Bengal and turn weak. But it did not happen.

The abrupt change in the nature of Titli, which affected some 6 million people, has forced the state to reframe its cyclone preparedness plan. On October 22, the state executive committee on disaster management, a nodal government body, chaired by Chief Secretary A P Padhi met in Bhubaneswar to chalk out cyclone preparedness plan for the interior hilly districts usually not hit by cyclones.

As part of the new plan, the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority (OSDMA) will soon undertake a study with other organisations, which have expertise on landslide mapping. It will emphasise on the need to build cyclone shelters in hilly areas for the vulnerable populace, besides selection of suitable sites for relocation if necessary, the minutes of the meeting read. As per latest official estimates, 61 people have died and 16 are missing. The state requires Rs 2,770 crore for undertaking restoration work.

In the eye of the storm

Even IMD has called Titli the “rarest of rare” occurrences. Not only it made a detour, but the cyclone remained static over the tribal Kandhamal district and its neighbouring Gajapati, both of which received heavy showers usually observed during cloudbursts. For two consecutive days, Gajapati recorded an average rainfall of over 200mm. Kandhamal received 231 mm rainfall on October 12, according to IMD.

Due to heavy rains, three families of Baragarh village in Gajapati tried to take shelter in a cave located in the base of a nearby hill. But it proved fatal, as water gushed down from the hilltop, resulting in a landslide. As many as 15 people perished at the spot. A similar disaster occurred in Kainphul gram panchyat where eight died. According to official sources, 40 people died in Gajapati district. Crops have been damaged in 0.273 million hectares in Gajapati, Rayagada, Kandhamal, Mayurbhanj, Cuttack, Khordha, Balasore, Puri and Ganjam and 57, 131 houses destroyed.

“Our prediction about the cyclone’s track proved correct. We had issued a red alert saying southern Odisha would receive heavy rains,” says H R Biswas, director of the Bhubaneswar Meteorological Centre. Padhi’s press briefings admitted the lack of preparedness to deal with interior Odisha. “It is difficult to predict a cyclone. Nobody was able to say surely that the cyclone would move towards Rayagada. We did not expect rains in Kandhamal,” he told the media.

Faulty government policy

Till now, Odisha had concentrated on protecting its coastal districts from storm surges and tsunamis. As a result, embankments and some 562 cyclone shelters have come up in Kendrapara, Jagatsinghpur and Puri. Even OSDMA had identified about 328 villages, all situated within 1.5 km of the coastline, way back in 2012. Cyclone shelters and development of early warning systems are totally missing in the hilly areas as they are not usually affected by storms. This explains the extensive damages in the two non-coastal districts in comparison to coastal ones.

“We were not warned about the cyclone’s severity. People here are not used to storms and landslides of this magnitude,” says Haribandhu Karji, a former sarpanch of Gangabada panchayat in Gajapati. Odisha Special Relief Commissioner Bishnupada Sethi admitted that 22,303 people had to be evacuated from the district in the aftermath of Titli. It seems that the state government has not learnt any lesson from the 2013 flashflood in Malkangiri and the 2014 Hudhud cyclone. The latter had crossed over Koraput, Rayagada and Gajapati. During the flashflood, the Bonda tribe in Malkanagiri bore a massive brunt. In fact, like now, then also people died due to floods. Massive casualties in Gajapati have shocked even the state government. Initially, when deaths were reported, the government was reluctant to admit the fact. But after images of dead bodies were beamed across TV channels, officials paid a visit to assess the situation.

According to Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, Odisha has never witnessed such massive landslides in the mountainous areas. Many people residing in hilly villages are now willing to shift to the plains where they have been promised concrete houses. It remains to be seen whether the government can bring the entire state under its protection by not leaving out vulnerable tribal districts.

IMD under scanner

In Maharashtra, angry farmers have turned against the India Meteorological Department (IMD) for making worng predictions. On October 15, a farmers' delegation from Beed district led by Member of Parliament (Lok Sabha ) Raju Shetti protested in front of the IMD Pune office.

According to Shetti, farmers under the banner of Shetkari Sangharsh Samiti demanded that the weather office should be locked up due to inaccurate rainfall forecasts, which caused them huge losses.

Earlier, Shetti had pointed out wrong predictions on IMD's behalf. It had forecast 104 per cent long period average rainfall this year, but Marathwada, of which Beed is a part, is facing drought at present. We carried out sowing based on IMD's forecast, he explains.

In July 2017, Beed resident Gangabhishan Thaware had lodged a complaint at the Dindrud police station against IMD for inaccurate forecast.

(This article was first published in the 1-15th November issue of Down To Earth under the headline 'Wrong track').

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