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Life after Phailin

Having survived death, living is now proving a big challenge for thousands affected by the destructive cyclone

BS Reporters 

A Kameswar Rao is a worried man. After the devastating Phailin cyclonic storm robbed 35-year-old Rao of all his belongings, he is clueless about how he is going to face the future. Rao, a native of New Buxipalli village in Odisha's Ganjam district, had four fibreglass boats worth Rs 6 lakh and fishing nets valued at Rs 3 lakh. Until the night of October 12, he never imagined the assets that sustained his living would be lost to a cyclone.

Like Rao, many of Ganjam's fisher folk are faced with no option but to look to new ways to fend for themselves and their families. "We have lost our livelihoods. We are now planning to migrate to Tamil Nadu and Kerala in search of jobs," says a fisherman in Markandi, another fishing village.

These people of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh are among the tens of thousands affected by the cyclone on October 12. While the governments of the two states, with help from the Centre and the Meteorological Department, successfully carried out mammoth evacuation work to prevent heavy loss of human lives (23 people died in the calamity), they still face the daunting task of helping people get back on their feet. Having survived death, life is suddenly a challenge to around a million people who have lost their homes and livelihoods.

Army engineers are currently helping state agencies to reconstruct the power infrastructure in both Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. They are re-erecting high-tension power poles that were battered down by the high winds. A total of 46 National Disaster Relief Force teams, each comprising 40 personnel, are stationed in Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. While no immediate funds have been released by the Centre, the two affected states have some funds in their state disaster response coffers.

983,642 people evacuated
21 died in cyclone, 17 in floods
39,500 people in relief camps
20 million people affected by cyclone and flooding in 16,000 villages
419,052 houses destroyed
Over 300 fishing boats destroyed
1,651,300 acres of cultivable land devastated
1,840 km of high-tension power lines damaged
13,000 km of low-tension power lines damaged
300 power distribution sub-stations need replacement

"We survived the Phailin storm, but we do not know if we will get any help from the government," says an anxious M Arreya, a fisherman in Kataru village in Ganjam. People like him are now looking at the government for assistance in starting anew. The government, having done exemplary work in preventing deaths through the timely evacuation of places in the path of the cyclone, is now assessing the damage and working out rehabilitation schemes.

"Though the exact loss in the fisheries sector is yet to be calculated, at least 200 fibre boats, over 100 mechanised boats and several fishing nets were blown away in the cyclone," says a fisheries department officer.

The destruction wreaked by the cyclonic storm on standing crops, including paddy, has brought in similar suffering for farmers in Ganjam. Krushna Sethi, 35, of Krusna Chhai village died of a heart attack on seeing his paddy and sugarcane crops devastated by nature's fury.

"We expected a bumper paddy crop this time," says Sundhir Rout, a big farmer in Balipada village. But, rues Sahadev Majhi of Augusti Nuagaon village, "Not even a single crop will be produced this year."

Ganjam collector Krishan Kumar says, "Preliminary assessment suggests 2,06,900 hectares of cultivable land where paddy and non-paddy crops were raised in the district have been destroyed." Now the farmers expect the government to announce a compensation and write off agriculture loans. "If the government does not declare any contingency plan for them, the farmers will not show interest in raising sugarcane," says Samir Pradhan, general secretary of the Ganjam District Sugarcane Growers' Association. "Aska Cooperative Sugar Industries should also give the farmers some compensation," he adds.

Besides damage to standing crops, man-made assets and infrastructure have also been ravaged. The kutcha and semi-pucca houses damaged number 4,19,052. Out of a total cultivable area of 3.6 million hectares (8.8 million acres) in the state, crop area of 6,68,268 has been affected, pegging the initial estimated agricultural loss at Rs 2,300 crore.

The cyclone also brought floods in its wake, but remarkably, the government again did not falter. Till the last government report available, 171,083 people had been rescued from the five flood-hit districts of Balasore, Bhadrak, Jajpur, Mayurbhanj and Keonjhar. Seventeen people died in the floods.

"Our priorities were zero casualty in the cyclone and relief work in top gear," says Minister for Revenue & Disaster Management S N Patro whose home district, Ganjam, was hit hardest by the cyclone. Chief Minister Patnaik, who too is from Ganjam, has now asked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for an advance of Rs 1,000 crore to carry out emergent relief and restoration work. A memorandum, detailing the quantum of damage, is in the works.

State Chief Secretary J K Mohapatra says the estimated cost of rebuilding the ruined infrastructure will be known after a detailed assessment, expected in 2-3 days. But with a corpus of Rs 523 crore available in the State Disaster Response Fund for 2013-14, relief and rebuilding work are in full swing.

"We are releasing funds without delay as and when requested by the government departments and agencies concerned," says Special

Relief Commissioner P K Mohapatra. Fortunately, the floods have not triggered any health concerns. "Only some isolated cases of measles have been reported in Ganjam district. All the affected people have been vaccinated. We have also disinfected all tube wells in the district," says Mohapatra who is also the health secretary.

The state government is providing families in "very severely affected" villages with food assistance for 14 days in the form of 50 kg of rice and Rs 400 in cash for each family to buy dal. The families in "severely affected" villages will be entitled to 25 kg of rice and a cash component of Rs 200 per family for dal. Fishermen who were barred from venturing into the sea are being provided 10 kg of rice against loss of livelihood. Farmers who have lost their standing crops due to inundation of large tracts of cultivable area will be provided due assistance after assessment of the situation by the district authorities.

But the biggest challenge is to restore the ruined power infrastructure in Ganjam district. "It will take three weeks or more to restore power fully in the district," says Secretary (Energy) P K Jena.

Jena's concerns are not far-fetched. Nearly 1,600 km of 11 KV lines needs to be reconstructed, while 241 km of 33 KV lines have to be rebuilt in Ganjam district alone. Besides, 300 distribution sub-stations have to be replaced. Also, 13,000 km of low tension lines have been damaged due to the severe cyclonic storm. Out of 220 extra-high-tension towers, 54 have to be replaced. And, in the flood hit districts, 1,182 submerged transformers have to be replaced.

"Thanks to the state government's schemes, we had stockpiled 6,000 transformers that can now be used for restoration work. Else, placing fresh orders for transformers and receiving them would have taken nearly six months," says Jena.

90,000 people evacuated
2 died
20,000 people in relief camps
1,200 houses destroyed
Over 100 fishing boats destroyed
35,000 acres of coconut cultivation devastated
44,000 acres of crops and vegetables flattened
925 electricity poles uprooted
200,000 household left powerless

Chief minister N Kiran Kumar Reddy was unusually quick in his response to a communication his office received on October 8 from Commissioner for Disaster Management T Radha. It was about a cyclone, later nicknamed Phailin, moving towards the Andhra coast. Reddy meet with senior officials the same evening to discuss ways to tackle the situation. From October 10, a massive evacuation exercise took place. "We even succeeded in bringing back 400 fishing boats from the sea before the cyclone hit the coast," says Radha.

Andhra Pradesh was fortunate to avoid a large-scale devastation of the kind that Odisha has experienced because the cyclone veered towards Odisha after initially appearing to be headed for the Andhra coast. It made landfall at Ganjam, just 25 km from Srikakulam, from where two deaths were reported.

But while lives were saved by the timely interference of the government, the future has been snuffed out by the winds that hit the area at speeds of over 200 kmph. "In a single night, I have lost my entire investment and source of livelihood," laments Balleda Krishna Rao, a coconut farmer in Pegada Puttuga village. He has taken bank loans totalling Rs 10 lakh and does not know how he will clear his debts after the cyclone wiped out his 20-acre grove of coconut trees. "The only alternative I have is to work as a daily-wage labourer," he says.

Thousands of farmers like Rao are looking at the government to help them restore their fields and to feed their families. More than 80 per cent of the families in Kanchili, Kaviti, Tekkali, Palasa, Vajrapukotturu and Santhabommali mandals in Srikakulam have lost their entire income sources.

Over 35,000 acres of coconut groves have vanished. More than 40 per cent of the palms were uprooted, another 30 per cent had their crowns blown off by the gale force, according to L Srinivasa Rao, additional director of horticulture.

According to a government report, 14,800 acres of paddy also suffered, mostly due to inundation of the fields. Around 362 houses were damaged in Srikakulam, 38 of them completely. One reason for the relatively little damage to housing is that most dwellings are now pucca houses because of the housing programmes implemented in the state since the 1980s.

"After the 1999 super cyclone, farmers here were growing other crops in the coconut groves for additional income," points out Pudi Hari Narayana, 55, a farmer in Jagati village who has been awarded twice by the state for good farming practices. "But now the entire income is gone. What is more, labourers are demanding Rs 200 a day to remove the uprooted coconut trees," he says. According to initial estimates by district revenue officials, 20,000 acres of paddy, maize and sugarcane crops and 14,000 acres of cashew, papaya, banana and vegetable - all grown as inter-crops in the coconut groves - have been damaged.

Power supply has not yet been resumed in several villages. Of the 925 transmission poles that collapsed, only 285 have been restored so far, leaving nearly 200 villages and 200,000 households in darkness. Authorities say it is going to take a few more days to fully restore power supply in all areas.

Around 1,200 houses were damaged. Most of these houses belong to fishermen who were living close to the shores. About 100 small fishing boats and fishing nets have also been damaged. Revenue officials are still engaged in estimating the actual loss caused by the cyclone. The state has over Rs 220 crore in its State Disaster Response Fund, but that may not be enough to rebuild the infrastructure and compensate the people for their losses. The Centre may step in with some financial help.

The authors: Jayajit Dash, Hrusikesh Mohanty, B Dasarath Reddy & V D S Rama Raju

(Sahil Makkar in New Delhi contributed to this report)

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First Published: Fri, October 18 2013. 21:50 IST