More than a week after the cyclonic storm Gaja ravaged Tamil Nadu, it seems life cannot return to normal in the coastal Nagapattinam. At least not anytime soon.

The storm damaged 201 power substations, upstaged 886 transformers and snapped 53,21,506 electricity connections. The lack of electricity led to the deaths of Sumathi, 40, Amudha, 60, Rajakumari, 39, and Saroja, 38. The women, from Neermulai village, were staying in a relief camp, set up at the local primary health centre. They were sitting by the unlit roadside after dinner when a vehicle mowed them down. Manikandan, 15, lost both his legs in the same accident.

No power means no piped water. In Nagapattinam’s fishing villages, where groundwater is saline, this has resulted in an acute shortage of drinking water. Coastal regions of Thanjavur and Tiruvarur districts are facing the same problem. The Tamil Nadu Electricity Board has been trying to restore electricity to the affected villages at a war footing but it may still take at least a month. In the meantime, farmers and agricultural workers in Tamil Nadu’s “rice bowl” are going without adequate food and water.

The cyclone has left lakhs of people homeless. In Talaignayiru block of Nagapattinam, hamlet after hamlet is now a heap of fallen thatches and mud. “We got out, drenched to our bones, in these same clothes,” said Priya, a young graduate from Sadayan Kottagai. “We have nothing, not even dry clothes to change into.”

She showed us her home, a heap of debris, under which lie buried her family’s meagre possessions – clothes, utensils, school bags and books. Nearby, elderly women and children shivered in the cold.

While the state is still assessing the scale of the destruction, relief, public and private, is barely trickling in. The state took almost a week to restore the supplies of drinking water and essential food items to the affected people, and even then not enough. Most relief camps are able to cook only one meal a day. Children from interior villages, which resemble a war zone, are suffering the most as there is barely any milk or food for them.

Nothing remains’

The abundance of thatched-roof houses in this cyclone-prone region shows the majority of its people live in chronic poverty. Yet, it didn’t attract any state intervention before Gaja ripped it apart. The loss of livestock and coconut trees has only pushed them deeper into economic hardship. In village after village, women lamented that the storm took away the meagre assets they had built up through years of hard labour. The villages were shocked and protested when Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami announced what they saw as a “paltry and insensitive compensation package” without so much as sending an official to assess the damage.

Not least because the government is limping with its relief effort – not to mention its failure to ensure food security, health and hygiene – this region is a relief worker’s nightmare. The villagers are only asking for some rice and tarpaulin sheets. Incessant rain and inadequate relief camps mean the people are struggling to stay warm and fed. To add to the misery, relief material is scarce as the scale of destruction along the coast and in interior areas has hardly made it to the headlines. “No one has even visited us so far” is a recurring lament.

Nagapattinam is home to nearly three lakh landless farm labourers, the majority of them Dalit, who make up 31.5% of the district’s population. They have been hit hardest by the cyclone just as they were by last year’s drought. In any disaster, it is the loss of property that usually determines state compensation. This logic of the assessment of damage and the calculation of compensation, by definition, excludes working people who do not own property.

So, for Nagapattinam’s landless labourers, homeless and bereft of their livestock, rehabilitation appears distant. “I built my house with 10 years of hard labour,” said Meena from Nagakodayan village. “Now its gone. Nothing remains. I am sitting on the road, constantly hungry. I cannot even imagine how many years it will take me to rebuild my home. I just can’t.”

It is the same story for lakhs of people in this coastal region, left by a natural disaster at the mercy of an insensitivity state machinery.

Revathi R, a former journalist, is engaged in relief work in coastal areas of Tamil Nadu affected by Cyclone Gaja.