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HindustanTimes Sun,20 Apr 2014

Braving the storm: Odisha struggles to recover in the aftermath of Phailin

Chetan Chauhan , Hindustan Times  Odisha, October 19, 2013
First Published: 23:35 IST(19/10/2013) | Last Updated: 20:12 IST(20/10/2013)

Seated on the verandah of his small mud house, 90-year-old Durba Chandra Behera heaved a sigh of relief when he learnt Cyclone Phailin that made a landfall the night before had blown over the coast of Odisha.

He was relieved that his village on the state's northern coast had escaped the fury, that there were few human casualties where Phailin had hit hard, that the fear of a 1999-like super cyclone wouldn't be repeated.

But that didn't stop him from reliving the memories of the storm that devastated him 14 years ago. Behera lost half of his family to the super cyclone that killed more than 10,000 people and decimated 2.75 lakh homes along a 200-km stretch of the Odisha coastline.

"No food was made available for about seven days," said Behera, his voice trembling. He recalled the miseries caused by government apathy, the absence of any concrete plan of rescue and rehabilitation, and the abject lack of communications with the mainland making him feel being left at the mercy of the nature's fury.

Then and now

Cut to 2013, a lot has changed. Most villages are connected with roads. Cyclone shelters or government buildings are within a one kilometer of a village. Installation of Doppler radars has meant the Indian Meteorological Department's Phailin warning reached the Naveen Patnaik government four days before the cyclone struck on October 12.

A deep penetration of communication tools -- television sets and mobile phones - earned Odisha government accolades for a time-bound evacuation of 900,000 people.

Then why are people like Behera assailed by doubts? Despite the state government's pro-active handling of the disaster and noteworthy centre-state coordination to bail minimise casualties, the doubt remains whether rehabilitation will be robust. Will the victims of the current disaster face the same problems that beset Behera in 1999?

The storm surged up to 15 feet in Behera's village in Balipatna, Jagatsinghpur district, 200 km north-east of Bhubaneswar. His mud home vanished and the family's only source of income -- a fertile paddy farm --turned into a waste-land. He with other villagers spent two nights on the rooftop of a school building flooded till the first floor.

"There was no television or mobile then," Behera recalled. A school teacher had rushed to the village hearing the cyclone warning on radio at Ersamma, about 20 km away. He took three hours on his bicycle to deliver the warning and by then the super-cyclone was about to hit.

Signs of trouble

The signs of government relief, despite the headway made, shows that little has changed since 1999. Post-Phailin, the relief has been slow and inadequate. Hindustan Times found that food supplies at majority of cyclone shelters in Ganjam was not adequate, leave alone in villages, even 48 hours after Phailin struck.

"We are going back to our village as there is not enough food for all of us here. Back home we can get some local fish," said 55-year-old Narayan Pradhan, while boarding a bus, he had himself arranged, at a make-shift shelter in a school at Ganjam's Barkul village.

Debashish Kar, a government-appointed volunteer, admitted of the food shortage saying the trucks carrying relief material were stuck on blocked roads. It happened because the Odisha government sought food from neighbouring states a few days before Phailin struck. This helped the hoarders to make maximum of the IMD's precise cyclone prediction.

Prices of essential items such as vegetables, cereals, candles and kerosene soared within a day, making it impossible for victims to purchase from local grocers.

The alternative – fishing in sea – was also not possible because of high tide and damage to the fishermen boats. Hundreds of people, including children, were seen wading with nets in their paddy fields looking for fish in the saline water. "This is the only food I will ask my wife to cook for my family," said Balaram Parida, while showing the half bag of fish he got after four hours of toil at Arjapalli village in Ganjam.



The scenario was totally different in Jagatsinghpur's Saili village where 64 people had died during 1999 super cyclone. The villagers on their own had stocked ration for 10 days including vegetables and chura (flattened) rice to feed around 500 people on the first floor of a cyclone shelter. Resources were pooled to buy utensils for community cooking.

A villager Vikram Kesari Bandoupadhyay knew from experience that the government help would come late. "The first government action in the 1999 super-cyclone was rice dropped from helicopters after seven days. We know the government never delivers what it promises," he said.

The promise to redeem farm soil had proved false forcing the villagers such as Behera and Kesari to shun paddy cultivation and take up less remunerative betel (paan) leaf cultivation.

Some other villagers have turned to shrimp production by digging ponds in their erstwhile paddy fields. The concrete cyclone-proof home Behera got by way of a rehabilitation package, have become inhabitable and is now used to house cattle and wood.



Losing a way of life

The loss in agriculture income has caused distress migration. Behera's son takes up work in the industrial areas of northern India to ensure that his family gets to eat like about third of the male population from the 1999 cyclone-hit areas.

The same fate may be awaiting people of Ganjam and others areas where Phailin brought more than two lakh hectares of farm land under saline water.

Salt slows down movement of water from soil into the roots leading to drying of plants. "Half of the rice production from coastal Odisa would be lost," said Surya Narayan Patra, Odisha's minister for disaster management.

The Odisha government clearly has its task cut out. Assistance to farmers to reduce soil salinity and alternate agriculture options should be priority.

Relocating villages close to the sea should be taken, said KM Singh, member, National Disaster Management Authority. The gram panchayats, the village power centre, should be roped in, in evacuation and relief. The victims of a disaster should be at the helm of a plan to help themselves.

Read more: From sarpanch to state minister, all were in Phailin duty, says Naveen Patnaik

Read more: Picking up from the ruins

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more from Phailin, eye of the storm

This time from sarpanch to state minister, all were in Phailin duty: Naveen Patnaik

Choosing not to celebrate his birthday, Naveen Patnaik was holding rehabilitation and relief meetings with senior officials with focus on restoring electricity in the worst-affected Ganjam district. He spoke to Shishir Gupta in an exclusive interview in Bhubhaneshwar.

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