Large parts of Bhubaneshwar city and Puri district remain without electricity a week after Cyclone Fani hit Odisha on May 3, even as the government struggles to distribute relief material and assess damage.
Forty-one people are reported to have died so far in the “extremely severe cyclonic storm”, which sustained wind speeds of almost 200 kilometres per hour when it made landfall in Puri district. In all, 1.5 crore people in 159 blocks of 14 districts have been affected by Fani, according to information released by the state on May 9.
That estimate is likely to be increased as relief workers reach areas that have been inaccessible so far.
As many have pointed out, Odisha has over the years put in place measures that have dramatically reduced the number of potential deaths in cyclones. When the 1999 “super cyclone” hit the state, for instance, 30,000 people lost their lives. However, disaster relief and rebuilding work after Fani will take months to be completed.
In Bhubaneshwar, Civil Society Responds to Fani, a group of more than 30 civil society organisations, has banded together to help with relief operations and coordinate with the state, and to release information to the national media.
The group’s network of volunteers have visited nine affected blocks so far, in addition to the cities of Bhubaneshwar and Cuttack. They have shared their observations in a letter to the state government. They noted that cooked food and drinking water are not being distributed, that Dalits are being discriminated against when supplies are being distributed, that people are stealing relief supplies, that water bodies are contaminated and that residents are hesitant about clearing debris before an official assessment of damage, lest they lose out on potential compensation.
The state has issued regular situation reports twice a day since the cyclone hit, quantifying the losses. However, Scroll.in was unable to contact Bishnupada Sethi, Disaster Relief Commissioner of Odisha for comment.
Scroll.in spoke to workers in the field and looked at the official updates to prepare this snapshot of the situation in Odisha.
Food and water
In their letter, the civil society group noted that cooked food is not being distributed to affected people. With limited fuel on hand, survivors will not be able to cook supplies they may receive. For instance, until the afternoon of May 6, Dalits who had taken shelter in Satapada’s undergraduate college had received only 200 grams each of uncooked flattened rice and no cooked food, the letter said.
The state has said in a situation report that the Odisha police has begun to distribute cooked food in four places in Puri district, including two in Puri town, one in Brahmagiri and one in Satyabadi. It is not clear how many people these kitchens can serve.
In Khordha district, there are 152 kitchens which serve around 20,000 people. Only between 1% and 6% of the 50-kilogramme rice component in the Chief Minister’s relief package has been distributed in Khordha, Bhubaneshwar and Cuttack districts, the report said.
In Ranapada near Brahmagiri town, people had not received food from the public distribution system for two months, said Manas Ranjan Mishra, who runs the Forest Rights Act advocacy group Vasundhara and has been making visits to Puri district.
The dealer finally opened his godown after the cyclone, but his stocks had been damaged by the cyclone, rendering around 25% of his rice inedible. Drinking water, the group says, is urgently needed as water bodies may have got contaminated with debris.
Large parts of the affected areas remain without power and mobile networks a week after the cyclone toppled electricity and phone towers, in addition to damaging other infrastructure.
In all, 1.23 lakh km of 33-kilovolt lines, 11-kilovolt lines and low tension lines have been damaged, as have at least 53 electricity towers, the state said in a situation report on May 9.
All telephone and mobile networks are down in Puri district, the situation report says. Telephone and mobile connectivity has also been severely affected in Khordha district, which includes the city of Bhubaneshwar.
On Tuesday, the state government asked the Centre for help in restoring power and mobile networks in Puri and Khordha districts. Three hundred and ten groups are working to restore electricity.
“The capital city is still dark a week after the cyclone,” said Jagadanand, former information commissioner and co-founder of CYSD, a non-governmental organisation in Bhubaneshwar. “Puri district is still dark. Nobody can say when it will come back.”
Jagadanand said that even after the 1999 super cyclone, power services were restored in a few days in Bhubaneshwar.
The absence of electricity ripples out in several ways: hospitals have difficulties running machinery, particularly x-ray machines; borewells that are critical for water supply even in cities are not working; coordinating relief efforts is difficult; news broadcasts are affected and the summer heat is building.
For now, the Civil Society Responds to Fani group is planning to set up four volunteer hubs where it will place at least 100 solar-powered battery charger sets that are being donated by a group in Bengaluru. The hubs will enable volunteers to reduce their travel time to send updates.
Several affected areas remain inaccessible to the volunteer groups, said Mishra of the Forest Rights Act advocacy group Vasundhara. This has made it difficult to assess the full extent of damage. Even the government admits that it is yet to distribute relief in several areas.
Only 64 of 560 roads reported damaged have been cleared in Puri district, for instance. Puri is the worst-affected area. Twenty teams of Odisha’s Disaster Relief Action Force and 14 teams of the National Disaster Relief Force have been deployed in Puri to clear roads.
In Puri district, there was a rasta roko where people burned tires on Monday, Mishra said. There were reports of another rasta roko on Wednesday.
Thefts are becoming common, Mishra said, so relief materials are being shifted to police stations from district revenue offices. He added that he had confirmed from multiple sources that people in the Brahmagiri block office in Puri district had looted relief materials, including polythene and tarpaulin sheets. The block development officer was also beaten up.
Damage assessment teams are refusing to head out into the field without police protection, Mishra said.
Tarpaulin sheets such as the ones stolen in Brahmagiri block are in high demand not just for shelter, but to protect paddy from further damage.
“In the Satapada area of Brahmagiri block, you will see all roads are covered with paddy that has been spread out to dry,” Mishra said. “People badly need tarpaulin to protect their harvest.”
The state procures the bulk of its paddy in the winter season, not during the summer season. As much of the paddy harvested at this time has been damaged, farmers might begin to make distress sales. The price for paddy dropped from Rs 1,500 per quintal to Rs 1,200 per quintal in just three days after the cyclone, Mishra said. Without intervention, it could drop further.
The civil society group has urged the state to ensure the procurement of paddy regardless of the quality of the crop. It has also asked the authorities to distribute tarpaulin sheets larger than the current 8-foot by 9-foot dimensions in rural areas.
According to the state’s situation report of May 9, an estimated 26.15 lakh livestock have died due to the cyclone. Of these, 26.12 lakh were poultry and the rest were cows, buffaloes, goats and sheep. Since poultry tends to be owned by small landholders and sharecroppers, who also are economically and socially backward, this may result in a disproportionate loss in their sources of income.
“By our estimate, around 75% of the poultry birds in these areas have died,” said Mishra. “Broiler farms are usually in fields, slightly away from the village, and have no protection. They also need to have tin roofs and greaves or jalis in the walls, which exposed them further to the wind.”
In its situation report, the government says that all carcasses have been disposed of. However, Mishra said that poultry farm owners are selling the dead birds to people to eat, which could be dangerous as the meat could be contaminated.
“Our experience in previous disasters has been that the larger the animal, the more likely its loss will be compensated,” he said. “This should not happen this time.”
He added that until around six years ago, the National Disaster Relief Force did not have any norms on compensating the loss of poultry. It was only after the advocacy of Dalit groups that they began to be included, with a recommended compensation of only Rs 50 each, he said.
Debris and rebuilding
Residents are continuing to stay in shelters as they gradually clean out their homes. But in several instances, people are afraid to clear the debris until revenue officials can assess the extent of damage, as they fear this might impact their compensation, said Rajesh Mahapatra, former editor-at-large of the Hindustan Times, who is a coordinator of the civil society group.
“As revenue officials are unable to reach all locations yet, we want the government to declare a minimum compensation so that people will be able to begin clearing debris,” Mahapatra said.
The group has also asked the government to change norms under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act to include debris clearing and other cyclone-related work in the list of sanctioned jobs.
For now, the Department of Energy has announced 1.5 times the wage rate for skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers from within and outside the state for cyclone restoration work, the state said in its situation report. They will also receive a daily wage of Rs 150 above this for food.
With the monsoon fast approaching, people will also need their homes to be rebuilt quickly. In Puri district alone, 1.89 lakh houses have been damaged, particularly kachha houses, the situation report said.
“We need a social housing movement and also make construction material available at a cheaper rate,” said Jagadanand. Most tin and asbestos houses have been flattened, he said, as they could not withstand wind speeds. “This will be a major challenge for the government and people in days to come.”
The group has urged the government to ensure that there is no discrimination in the aftermath of the cyclone.
“While there are laws [to ensure that there is no discrimination in the distribution of relief], they do not get implemented,” Mishra said, talking about how common it was after disasters for upper caste people to corner relief materials. “One way to tackle this is to ensure that all government rehabilitation should have disaggregated information about caste and gender at every level, including during damage assessment.”
He added that it would not make sense to simply say that relief was distributed in proportion to the population of marginalised communities, when they are likely to have suffered disproportionately higher losses.