A year after cyclone Gaja made landfall in November 2018 with severe impacts in southern Tamil Nadu, coastal communities in Nagapattinam are still recovering from the widespread devastation. Official figures say that at least 57 people were killed but this number belies Gaja’s impact on the ground, as thousands lost their homes and livelihoods.

For many residents, this storm was a horrific reminder of another catastrophe they had faced – the 2004 tsunami. Over 10,000 lives were lost in that event and 154,000 houses were damaged in Tamil Nadu alone.

Further up the coast, the state of Odisha has also been vulnerable to frequent hazards such as cyclones and floods. For many, the worst disaster in living memory occurred in 1999, when the Super Cyclone claimed over 10,000 lives and destroyed the homes of 19 lakh families.

Both Tamil Nadu and Odisha responded by embarking on programmes to protect vulnerable communities from future catastrophes. This has largely taken the form of the large-scale construction of homes.

On the face of it, this seems impressive. But as we discovered through our two-year Recovery with Dignity research project at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, these housing projects have not helped survivors build new lives.

Building homes

In Tamil Nadu, after the tsunami, the Emergency Tsunami Reconstruction Project, funded by the World Bank, with assistance from the UN Development Project and the Asian Development Bank, planned to reconstruct over 140,000 houses in the state. NGOs and other public and private organisations were given the task of managing and executing the construction of these houses.

In Odisha, the widespread destruction left by the Super Cyclone compelled the state government to adopt a “zero casualty approach” that would minimise casualties in case of a future storm. This resulted in investments pouring into constructing cyclone shelters and sanctioning pucca houses. Reconstruction projects in Odisha have been directed through several existing housing schemes of the central and state governments such as Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and Biju Pucca Ghar Yojana, and also specific programmes such as the Odisha Disaster Recovery Project.

However, a look at cyclone-affected villages in both states tell a different story.

In Ersama, Odisha, a block that was severely affected by the 1999 Super Cyclone, a large number of households are steeped in poverty and continue to live in kutcha houses that are not cyclone resistant. A revenue official at the Ersama Block Development Office said that the funds the authorities receive from central and state governments to construct houses are often returned unspent as they are unable to find eligible households. For instance, people pucca houses built under previous schemes but were destroyed by subsequent cyclones are considered ineligible. This is because the money is available only to those who don’t have a pucca house and have not previously been the beneficiaries of any scheme.

Despite the official line that funds have to be returned as they cannot find eligible households, a large number of households like this in Ersama in Jagatsinghpur, Odisha, continue to live in kutcha houses. Credit: Zohrab Reys Gamat

For the state government, building a pucca house was the ultimate sign of recovery. But for the affected communities, it featured lower on their list of long-term priorities. “Having a job and a steady source of income is our major concern,” said Bhakta, a resident of Ersama block which was severely affected by the 1999 Super Cyclone. “If we have that, eventually, we can take care of our housing needs. What is the point of having a house but no job?’ Even after two decades, affected communities are struggling to get their lives back on track. With limited livelihood opportunities, many are forced to migrate to southern states in search of jobs.

Lack of amenities

In Kameshwaram village, Tamil Nadu, which was affected by the tsunami and Gaja, beneficiaries were identified for various housing schemes implemented after the disaster. The village, populated mostly by fisherfolk and farm labourers, is dotted with groups of identical houses. What is stark about the village, however, is the lack of amenities.

“Yes, some of us now have concrete houses, but the landscape of the village has not changed since the tsunami,” said Ramesh, a fisherman and resident of the village. “We still have the same problems, we need better roads, schools, hospitals and our children need more job opportunities. The fish stock is depleting, groundwater is saline, and our crops are withering away.”

It doesn’t seem enough to merely increase the housing stock; the type, quality and location of housing are important. A standard one-size-fits-all approach is inadequate. A common complaint among fisherpeople in Tamil Nadu is that two-storey housing is not practical, as it is cumbersome for families on the top floor to store their fishing equipment. People also frequently complain of houses being too small and insufficient as families expand.

Standard housing constructed by NGOs using government funds after the 2004 tsunami in Kameshwaram village in Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu. Credit: Yashodara Udupa

Beyond housing

Post-disaster housing reconstruction has largely been a top-down process removed from other aspects of recovery and larger development goals. Quantitative measures such as the number of units built, the cost of construction, and the number of beneficiaries determine the official narrative around success of post-disaster housing programmes, overlooking settlement-wide concerns pertaining to livelihoods, education, water, sanitation and health and the ecology of the region.

This narrow approach to recovery, wherein post-disaster measures are viewed in isolation of development efforts, often worsens existing vulnerabilities such as social inequality, the lack of job opportunities and the lack of access to basic services among the disaster-affected population, in turn affecting overall recovery.

These housing schemes have been launched with much fanfare as targets such as “converting all kutcha houses to pucca houses by 2019” or “housing for all by 2020” make for good news headlines. This rush to simply build without taking into consideration less visible aspects of recovery becomes a factor driving this total focus on housing as the means and end to recovery.

The authorities must realise that vulnerability to disaster, and hence recovery, cannot be understood only in terms of physical factors such as hazardous events and geographical location, which can be corrected with infrastructure solutions such as pucca houses, cyclone shelters and sea walls. With extreme weather events predicted to get more frequent in a warming world, there is a need for disaster management policies to go over and beyond reconstruction aid to include livelihood concerns and other settlement-wide issues in order to ensure a holistic recovery of disaster-affected people.

Jasmitha Arvind and Nihal Ranjit work at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore. They are both part of the Recovery with Dignity research project that aims to understand experiences of recovery in post-disaster situations in Odisha, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.