It’s like that saying about waiting for buses . . .

Preparing for and dealing with coronavirus has been one thing, but then along comes a cyclone which promises to be the worst in twenty years, bringing back dreadful memories of the 1999 cyclone which took so many thousands of lives.

Two things saved Odisha from the worst impact. The cyclone headed north, aiming for Bengal and Bangladesh, rather than hitting Odisha’s coast head-on. Even so, winds reached over one hundred miles an hour in our mangrove project area, and there was a serious tidal surge.

The government is well prepared for these situations, with the National Disaster Response Teams standing by. In our mangrove project area 32,000 people were evacuated to cyclone shelters and other relatively safe buildings (120,000 people altogether along the Odisha coast). The situation was exacerbated by issues such as quarantining and social distancing, but this seems to have been well-managed, and no lives have been lost in Odisha due to the cyclone.

However, there has been serious damage to trees, homes, fields, crops, water and electricity supplies. The following are quotes from local press reports:

“Almost every house in our panchayat has suffered damage of some or other kind. Mud and thatched houses have been damaged extensively,” one villager said. Torrential rains added to the woes of the people, especially those living in low-lying areas. And the tidal surge means that large areas of land which were ready for planting are now saturated with salt hat it will be some months before it is possible for it to be used for growing.

One man, whose vegetable crop has suffered extensive damage, cited the case of two migrant workers, Ganesh Swain and Nabin Mallick, who had returned recently from Kolkata, where they worked as welders in a now-defunct iron foundry. He said they are now lodged in a quarantine centre within the gram panchayat area. “Both come from poor families in the neighbouring village. The cyclone has left their families devastated. How can they repair their damaged houses when they don’t have enough to eat?” asked Swain.

Former Balikuda MLA Dr Lalatendu Mohapatra said while the government was correct to move people to safety before the cyclone’s landfall, it was not implemented properly at the ground level. “The government knows very well that it depends heavily on panchayat level representatives to deal with such situations. But it still did not take steps to keep them happy and well equipped to deal with the crisis. Many of the sarpanches who are yet to be compensated for the expenses incurred on running free kitchens during cyclone Fani last year were reluctant to show the same kind of generosity towards the cyclone-hit people this time. Besides they wanted to avoid having to deal with large gatherings as the fear of the spread of COVID-19 continues to play on their minds,” said Mohapatra.

The bigger challenge for the government, according to Mohapatra, would be providing livelihood opportunities to the cyclone-hit poor who were already struggling to eke out a living in the wake of coronavirus-induced lockdown. “The government keeps making big claims about creating jobs but so far there are no jobs in sight and the poor continue to struggle. It is like the government’s claim about arranging transport for migrant labourers passing through Odisha, but still thousands of them continue to walk daily. Let’s be realistic and let the government keep its promises,” averred the former MLA.
Sanjay Mohapatra, a Gadkujang-based social worker agrees. “The harsh truth is that the miseries heaped on the people by the coronavirus pandemic have aggravated due to the cyclone. The poor cannot survive on empty promises,” he said.

There is great relief that Cyclone Amphan has passed without loss of life (for Odisha, at any rate), and that is thanks to long-term development of government systems and structures, working at local level with organisations such as our partner, CHALE CHALO. However, the social and economic disruption at local level is very serious and villagers in our project area will need continuing long-term support. As usual, we do this not by direct provision of relief supplies and support, but by working with local communities to enable them to claim the government support to which they are entitled. Meanwhile, repairs to the thatch of our MANGRO Centre will be carried out in the coming weeks before the monsoon arrives. There is much hard work ahead of us, but a genuine sense of relief that it wasn’t so much worse.

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