About 10 days after Cyclone Gaja stormed through the coastal and delta districts of Tamil Nadu on November 16, destroying homes, trees, farmland and power lines in its wake, the majority of affected people are still in relief camps. The government is struggling to restore power in some places and to deliver drinking water and relief materials in others.

The absence of local governance bodies, whose members normally help rebuild the lives of people following such natural disasters, is being keenly felt.

The Disaster Management Act, 2005, mandates that states must have district-wise disaster management plans to organise and manage resources during such disasters. It lays down the responsibilities of the authorities at the village level, block level and district level – all of whom form an integral part of any disaster management system.

But Tamil Nadu does not have such representatives in place. Elections to its local bodies – 200 urban wards and 12,524 panchayats – were last held in 2011. Polls were to be conducted in 2016 but were stalled by the Madras High Court after the Opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam raised questions about the speed at which the process was being conducted. A few months later, though the court ordered the Election Commission to conduct the local body polls, the state government sought time for delimitation process to be completed. As a result Tamil Nadu has not had any local body representatives for the last two years.

This has crippled the relief and rebuilding process.

When devastating floods and landslides hit neighbouring Kerala three months ago, it was these officials who helped accelerate the rebuilding work. Local body leaders were present in flood-affected areas, noting down the needs and demands of people and reporting them to the district administration higher up. Even at the time of the disaster, people were able to contact the local panchayat leaders and members to seek immediate help.

No local governance bodies

When Cyclone Gaja first struck, bringing with it winds measuring up to 120 kmph, the state administration quickly evacuated nearly 2.5 lakh people and lodged them in relief camps across 12 districts. Though 63 people were reportedly killed when walls and trees collapsed during the storm, leaders of Opposition parties applauded the ruling All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam for its preparedness in evacuating people and preventing the loss of more lives.

But two days after the cyclone hit, some parts of Tamil Nadu saw angry protests. For instance, people affected by the cyclone in the villages between Vedaranyam and Nagapattinam in the worst-affected Nagapattinam district, in southern coastal Tamil Nadu, blocked roads to draw the government’s attention to their plight. The News Minute reported on November 19 that protestors had set ablaze five government vehicles in Kothamangalam in Pudukottai district. In Thanjavur district, farmers held protests demanding drinking water in front of the house of Peravurani MLA M Govindarajan. Other reports said that angry villagers in Nagapattinam did not allow ministers to visit affected areas as no officials from the district administration had reached interior villages so far.

Ramamoorthy, a former panchayat leader in Vettaikaraniruppu village of Nagapattinam, said that if local governance bodies were in place, they would have helped distribute relief materials even to the remotest villages. “The bureaucracy is slow in responding,” he said. “The officials have still to visit the interior villages. I saw only a few of them going today [Monday].” He added that the government should have at least formed a committee of local residents to help assess the needs of the affected people. “Even the media has failed to report in detail about the extent of damage caused because of the cyclone and the problems that people in these areas continue to face,” he said.

R Elangovan, a doctor from Thanjavur who is part of a volunteer group that is distributing relief material in affected areas, spoke of how some farmers have not yet cleared the coconut and teak trees that have fallen on their land as they are waiting for officials to assess the losses for compensation. This is because officials from the revenue department, who would normally make this assessment, are engaged in providing relief. “When farmers ask us whom they should contact to get the loss incurred by them assessed, we do not have an answer,” said Elangovan. He added that a large number of farmers in the delta region are dependent on these trees for their livelihood.

The cyclone destroyed 56,000 homes. Thatched huts, especially in the colonies where Dalits lived, are completely destroyed, leaving several thousand people homeless. Scroll.in had earlier reported that children in the interior cyclone-affected villages are suffering as they are not being provided with adequate milk or food.

The villagers in Nagapattinam are also dismayed by the intrusion of sea water into their land during the cyclone. “It will now be difficult to cultivate the once fertile land because of this intrusion,” said Ramamoorthy. “People have also lost their cattle because of this.”

Since surplus relief materials have reached camps in villages in Thanjavur district, voluntary goups such as the one Elangovan is working with are diverting these to the worst-hit coastal villages between Vedaranyam and Nagapattinam.

‘Lack of planning’

Environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman said that the government’s action plan for natural disasters was “deficient”. He said that both the state and central governments should recognise that climate change has had an impact on the environment and tweak these plans accordingly. “Cyclone Gaja might not be the last one to hit the state this year,” said Jayaraman. “We will be facing similar problems every year.”

He said that the state’s action plan on climate change could not be called a “plan” by any stretch of the imagination. Any action plan must lay a roadmap on how agriculture, transport or energy sources have to adapt to the change in climate. During disasters like cyclone Gaja, the government has to anticipate all the problems that people will face. “But we have not paid enough attention to this,” he said.

Instead of concentrating on providing people with basic needs, the government is working on luxurious projects like bullet trains, he said. He suggested that the government should at least prioritise the laying of underground electricity cables. He said when Cyclone Vardha struck Chennai in 2016, it took five to six days to restore power to some areas. “It could be done faster in a few places because of the presence of underground cables,” said Jayaraman. “Despite being aware that underground cables are efficient, we are still using overhead cables.”

The lack of power also means a shortage of water, and the cyclone-affected areas are looking at a severe scarcity. The availability of drinking water determines the resilience of people, said Jayaraman. “If there is no water, we cannot sustain ourselves for more than three days.”