Phailin, floods, now government apathy

People wait for food, water, medical aid, and assistance to rebuild homes

 
By Ashis Senapati
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

About 4 million people in Odisha have been rendered homeless by cyclone Phailin and subsequent floods (photo by Ashis Senapati)

It's almost a month since Cyclone Phailin subsided and the government of Odisha patted itself for averting many deaths through timely warning and disaster preparedness. But the government has not been so prompt in providing relief and rehabilitation to those who survived the cyclone and the subsequent floods. Post-disaster monitoring is only just beginning in the worst-affected parts of Odisha.

It is for the first time after the Super Cyclone of 1999 that the state has witnessed a cyclonic storm that has had such severe impact. After the cyclone, heavy to extreme rains caused flooding  in the rivers Baitarani, Budhabalanga, Rushikulya, Subarnarekha and Jalaka, affecting the downstream areas in the districts of Mayurbhanj, Balasore, Bhadrak, Keonjhar, Jajpur, Kendrapada and Ganjam.

Administration collapse

All across the deluge and gale-affected districts there is clear evidence that the state administration is unable to provide relief to the 3.9 million people rendered homeless by Phailin that struck coastal areas on October 12; subsequently, many rivers breached their embankments and flooded over 1,600 villages.

Hema Behera (65) of Puranabandha village in Ganjam district is yet to come to terms with what happened. "Can you take me back to my village? I am feeling desperately alone," she muttered. She is staying in a camp along with her daughter-in-law and three-year-old grandson.

About 4 million people in Odisha have been rendered homeless by cyclone Phailin and subsequent floods (Photos: Ashis Senapati)

The question on the minds of cyclone victims now is: how soon will the breaches in the embankments of rivers get repaired? Shortage of food, clothing and essential medicines seems to be the biggest problem facing the survivors. Many camp inmates have tied cattle outside their temporary shelters, hoping to start life afresh once they can return home. Being a largely agricultural community, cattle is their main source of income and livelihood.

"We have lost everything in the floods and are planning to start life afresh in our villages," said Jagannath Sahoo of Bichanalali in Ganjam district. Memories of the floods and cyclone still give him nightmares.

"Thousands of homes have been destroyed. It is the rural poor who've lost their homes, farms, livestock and belongings. Now they're in critical need of food, clean water, shelter and medical care," said Rabindra Mohan Sahoo, a social worker of Puranabandha village in Ganjam district.

Receding floodwaters mean just the beginning of a nightmare for survivors like Sabitri Sahoo (28) of Dandisahi village in Kendrapada district and her family; worries over food, shelter, and disease outbreaks are constant companions. After fleeing the floodwaters that ravaged her village, Sabitri had no choice but to walk five kilometres from one camp to another, desperately seeking food for her three children.

Even before the floods, Sabita Sahoo (26) and her husband Manas (30) were poor, but the two had a home and work. They owned two cows, six sheep, two goats, and five chickens. Life wasn’t always easy, but the family was content. On October 14 many the people of their village fought bravely to save their homes from floods. But on October 15, a second wave of flood arrived when the river breached the wall of sandbags and stone that  had been erected. The residents had just 15 minutes to flee.

"The water came with a deafening roar," said Sabita. "It was as high as five metre in places. It was fast, and people had to run for their lives. The whole village was running. Everyone fled, leaving behind their belongings." Sabita , Manas and their children ended up taking refuge on an embankment, where they have kept their livestock. While Manas goes out in search of relief supplies, Sabita stays behind to look after the animals. When the couple returned to their village on Friday, they found their thatched home destroyed. Like Sabita many affected residents hope that the authorities will provide them help to rebuild their houses and future.

But little help has come their way. A sepulchral silence reigns over the affected villages.
 
“Leaders of political parties visited our villages to help us last month. But they only shed crocodile tears. Our fate is hanging in balance,” said Basanta Behera of Gopalpur village.

“We are still living in darkness. The government promised us power supply restoration within two weeks,” said Sankarshan Rout of Hinjilicut village in Ganjam district.

P K Mohapatra, Special Relief Commissioner of Odisha, however, said reconstruction work is being undertaken on a war-footing. “In Ganjam district alone, 2,812 villages have been affected. Power supply, water supply system and communication system were totally disrupted,” he said.

He reeled off some more statistics: “3,961,262 people have been affected in this flood and cyclone; 407,307 houses were damaged and 15,0511 ha of farms have been affected in the floods. As many as 7,462 have been affected.”

Losses pegged at Rs 21,770 crore
 
Odisha, through two requests to the Central government, has estimated the losses caused by Cyclone Phailin and subsequent floods at Rs 21,770 crore. This is more than the state's annual plan outlay of Rs 21,467 crore for this fiscal. "The loss is definitely huge. We will take years to recover," said Odisha’s special relief commissioner P K Mohapatra.

For the state that has been witnessing a disaster almost every alternate year, this is a big setback. After being battered by the super cyclone in 1999, the state economy has revived only in the past five to seven years.

During the Ninth Plan period (1997-2002), Odisha was ravaged by a series of disasters. On the eve of the Tenth Plan (2002-03), the entire state was facing severe drought. The total loss of livelihood and damage to capital stock because of calamities between 1998-99 and 2001-02 stands at Rs 13,230.47 crore, according to the Tenth Plan document, Government of Odisha. This is close to 60 per cent of the state's total plan outlay of Rs 19,000 crore for the Tenth Five-Year Plan.

Natural calamities have seriously affected livelihoods in the state and the income level of households. These also led to serious setback for capital formation process in the economy. Consequently, the state's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been substantially depressed, says the State Human Development Report of 2003.

The impact of disasters on Odisha’s economy is evident. The state's per capita income declined rapidly in the second half of the 1990s, disaster-wise the worst phase. It is now half the national average. An average of 900,000 ha of agricultural production is lost every year because of disasters. Similarly, between 1980 and 2000, agriculture's contribution to the state GDP fell by 16 per cent.

Cyclone and the 1999 Super Cyclone in Orissa : a selection of papers and studies on the cause, science, impact and disaster management

Management of super cyclone and flood in Orissa

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