Coming home after Phailin

The Odisha government's timely heroism will matter less when people return to collapsed houses and destroyed livelihoods. The state's work is not yet done.

Published:October 21, 2013 4:09 am

By Vasudha Chhotray

October is the month of Durga Puja and like in the rest of the country,a warm festive spirit hangs in the air in Odisha. There is a sense of life at its fullest. Memories of Friday the 29th this same month in 1999 temporarily retreat to the background amidst the hope of celebration. Is it surprising that an event 14 years ago should at all be a part of collective memory? Those who have seen the scenes of catastrophe in 1999,or spoken to people caught in it directly,will understand why the super-cyclone or mahabatya (in odiya) has become a marker in time of sorts. Life before and after the mahabatya was how many in cyclone-affected villages told their stories.

The super-cyclone was a watershed moment for the state machinery of Odisha too. Every single triumph of the government in ensuring the safety of nearly a million people after the occurrence of Cyclone Phailin owed itself to the systematic and thoughtful measures put in place after the debacle of 1999. This was clearly a government that had paid attention. Institutionalising a dedicated disaster management authority with a considerable mandate has been at the centre of its strategy. This body has overseen the modernisation of warning and surveillance systems,the establishment of a large number of multipurpose cyclone shelters,the creation of disaster rapid action force units,and a process of sensitisation of local bureaucrats and elected functionaries to remain alert and prepared. We know now that each measure,amongst others,has played its part in minimising the body count. The “million strong evacuation” is a rousing achievement,and it has warmed the hearts of many Indians,tired of cynical politics,that a government in this country is actually capable of such a feat.

Phailin is firmly in the past,and people are coming home. What they will see,or are already seeing,will remind them of 1999,and the government’s timely heroism will matter a little less. Scenes of collapsed mud huts,still pathetic homes to the vast majority of coastal residents,and wasted property,are irrefutable proof of state failure to transform the landscape of housing in vulnerable areas. In the days and weeks after the super-cyclone in 1999,the government and many well-meaning NGOs offered assistance to create temporary shelters by providing materials like tarpaulin and bamboo. Help was given to reconstruct these mud houses with some material assistance and meagre cash “compensation” (Rs 3,500 for fully damaged kutcha houses in that year) from the Calamity Relief Fund. Predictably,these were not enough to recreate even what had been lost,let alone to actually improve or upgrade to a superior,cyclone-re1sistant dwelling. In most cases,the money was spent on food or medicine even before the cyclone victim could think of physically and emotionally undertaking the reconstruction. People helped each other in the initial hours,days,even weeks,but certainly not months or years. Nor could they be expected to. These are small farmers and landless wage labourers who also lost their livelihoods in a stroke,and continue to feel the damaging effects of 1999 till today. For many,these effects are reinforced by recurrent floods,which strike Odisha on a regular basis.

In a handful of cases,NGOs or catholic missionary organisations attempted to seek the involvement of the people,in cash and labour,to build more permanent pucca housing. These were isolated cases,and often regarded with contempt by locals. A disaster like that created massive expectations,far beyond what was available,continuously stoked by unprecedented media attention and floods of visitors. With time,offers of help also dwindled. The state’s premier housing assistance programme,the Indira Awas Yojana,is targeted at SCs/STs,as well as non-SC/ST rural poor households. With a grant-in-aid now of Rs 70,000 towards the construction of a new unit in plain areas (previous rates were considerably lower,around Rs 22,000 in the years after the super-cyclone),this intervention should have given a serious leg-up to households in their efforts to build a stronger,more durable house. It has not. Cyclone-prone coastal districts in Odisha are dotted with miserable,partial structures,built of inferior materials. All too often,households choose not to live in these,preferring their older kutcha house next door. IAY money has simply not been enough to produce the kind of house that will not fall down when wind speeds are more than 200 kph. Many do not succeed in completing the first stage of construction necessary to get the next instalment. The connections needed to influence official discretion are often lacking.

The most important lesson from 1999 for post-cyclone reconstruction now is that ultimately,the state needs to do more than physically lift people when the warning strikes,by consistently improving the capacities of people living in cyclone-prone areas. The picture of an elected government “even forcibly evacuating” those unsure and unwilling to move to safety sends a strong message of a muscular state concerned for the wellbeing of its people. This is also how it would like to be remembered. But memory comes with forgetting,and we must not allow our collective memories to lose sight of the suffering that has already begun to unfold. This is a suffering that reeks of the state failing in its obligation to its citizens,whom it has a duty to remember,even when they are not at the verge of Phailin,or its unborn cousins,no doubt lurking around in distant Octobers over not so distant seas.

The writer teaches at the School of International Development,University of East Anglia,UK. She conducted a UNDP-India supported study on the lessons learnt from the 1999 cyclone in Odisha

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