Cuttack: “It has been so long since Fani hit, and we haven’t been able to rebuild the house, yet,” says Tulasi Deuri, 40, while trying to restore the broken parts of her dwelling’s roof. Her youngest son hands her a rope while holding on to the bamboo ladder, as they get back to work. When cyclone Fani made landfall in the neighbouring district in May this year, Deuri’s thatched ceiling was blown away instantly. The house was a single room that served as the bedroom, kitchen and sleeping space for a family of five.
Deuri arrived at Cuttack, with her husband and two sons, about 13 years ago from Mayurbhanj. In search of better income and means to sustain, they settled in a basti on the bed of Mahanadi river. She worked as domestic help and her husband started a betel shop. Earning just enough to sustain themselves and provide basic education for their children, they had stood firm in their endeavours until the disaster struck.
For days after the disaster, Deuri’s family was forced to live with whatever little food they had managed to procure. “They told us to vacate the place and we went to a nearby semi-constructed pucca house. We slept hungry for some nights. No help has arrived until today,” she recollects.
Her neighbour Mamta Sahoo was trying to put a tarpaulin sheet over the four-walls and an open roof. “This is what we have to do to survive,” she says, “we did not receive anything except these sheets.” Sahoo, who arrived in the basti after her marriage and has lived there for a decade, has been rendered homeless overnight. Her husband and their two children have nowhere to go.
However, Deuri and Sahoo weren’t the only families forced to start from scratch. About 40 families in the basti have shared a similar fate. With their homes destroyed, they were stranded without any help either immediately or until months after.
State’s partial success
On May 3, 2019, cyclone Fani swept through the state of Odisha with wind speeds reaching 240 kmph, flattening everything that came its way. The damage was severe in coastal districts. A total of 1.6 crore people were affected, and the revenue loss was estimated to be more than Rs 9,000 crore.
The Odisha government ran an extensive evacuation programme, shifting over 12 lakh people from vulnerable areas to safer spaces in 24 hours. The evacuation was appreciated in the international media, and rightly so. A remarkable feat, and a major improvement from the past, when both civilians and administrators were caught unaware, leading to huge casualties. According to the revenue department’s official report, 9,885 people died due to cyclones in 1999. The figures have fallen considerably in 2019.
Although the casualties dipped due to the government’s alertness, disaster management as provisions of comprehensive aid was not fulfilled; it was clouded by the rampant exclusion of relief to entitled individuals.
Officially, Deuri and Sahoo’s instance would be recorded as successful evacuations because they were shifted to safer places before the cyclone hit. However, this is only partially true. No necessary aid was provided to them before and after the disaster. “We took shelter in an under-construction house during Fani since the evacuation centre was full. Without any aid, we have somehow managed to survive,” they recollected.
Deuri’s troubles did not end there. For days after the cyclone, she received only 5 kg of chuda and rice when she was entitled to 50 kg along with Rs 2,000. “It was very little for us to live with. The food was not even enough for a day. No one gave us water too,” she recollects. They spent many nights in cramped, half-built structures along with others, without proper clothes and medicines.
Adding to the existing limitations, Aadhaar haunted many families. When Deuri’s attempted to get a tarpaulin sheet to repair her broken roof, she was asked for an Aadhaar card. “When everything was swept away, where will I get the card from?” she asks.
Bini Behera, another resident of the basti lost all her belongings and had no food for days after Fani. “We received ration after spending hours in a queue, but the rations were not enough to fill five stomachs,” she says. “Thankfully, I had my Aadhaar, so I could get a sheet over our head,” she says. A family of five, including her three children, she had barely enough to eat for days.
The relief code of Odisha guarantees that clothes, medicine and food are fundamental needs that need to be guaranteed in the pre- and post-disaster times. But many like Deuri and Behera who stay close to urban settlements fall through the cracks.
Disaster management, for the government, is myopic with attention strictly limited to the evacuation process. A timely warning, evacuation of millions of people to safety, coastal sirens and public address systems had saved lives, but improper relief and reconstruction has worsened lives of many.
Natural disaster, unequal disasters
“Pre-existing conditions of vulnerabilities and caste discrimination are often seen to assimilate with the systemic and social exclusion during disaster relief,” noted a recent study by National Dalit Watch.
About 17% of Indians live along the country’s 7,500-km coastline, which receives 10% of the world’s tropical cyclones. Every year, at least two to three are severe ones. Between 1891 and 2002, 98 cyclones made landfall in Odisha, the most any Indian state has faced. About 40% of the total population in Odisha belong to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
Deuri, Behera and Sahoo were Dalits who lived on the Mahanadi river bed and faced the disaster’s ill-effects unevenly. “We could not procure food from the market at sky-rocketing prices. Most did not have ration cards or they had been swept away, making it impossible to pass through the identification barriers for being eligible for rationing,” they recollected.
They could not buy water, like the city dwellers who did so with heavy costs. Mostly daily wage labourers who had migrated to the cities to search for jobs, the families had very little resources at hand, leaving them hungry and homeless.
This was not an isolated event in Odisha. Earlier, many reports surfaced about Dalits not being allowed to enter the shelter-houses meant for safe accommodation in Puri. Disasters could be natural, but their effects on people are determined by social standings of caste, class and gender.
Although the disaster management codes explicitly mention caste, class and gender as markers that must be followed to distribute and plan relief materials, they remain only on paper. The authorities’ failure to implement these processes jeopardises many lives. “In disaster management, we don’t think about minorities or majorities, rich or poor, all people are eligible for relief,” said Laxminarayan Nayak, state project officer at Odisha Disaster Management Authority.
Deuri, Behera and Sahoo, who inhabited the edges of the city in kutcha houses, experienced the disaster in a starkly different manner compared to the upper-class citizens of the same city. Later, the policy decisions did not take into account the differences of these realities, pushing them into further vulnerability.
“It won’t be easy to stand on our own feet again. It will take time, but it may not be possible to reclaim the same level of security we had,” Deuri says.
Abinash Dash Choudhury is an independent writer and activist. He is pursuing his postgraduate studies in comparative literature at Jadavpur University, Calcutta. Warsha Thakur is an academic associate in the economics department at IIM-A. Her primary research area is urban planning and governance of cities.