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Paralysed Cities, Ravaged Fields: Did We Underestimate Super Cyclone Fani?

Odisha is gradually waking up from the vicious bite of super cyclone Fani that claimed 41 lives and left a trail of agricultural and infrastructural destruction. With a wind speed of more than 274 kilometres per hour (kmph), Fani caused death, destruction and crippled several parts of the state.

Due to the successful evacuation of 1.2 million people from the coastal areas, Fani claimed 41 lives. In comparison the super cyclone of 1999, with almost equal wind speed at its core, had resulted in the deaths of 10,000 people. Sadly, the survivors of the 1999 Super Cyclone still await succour and this raises and an alarm for a state that has witnessed a series of natural calamities and 227 farmer suicides in the last five years. This speaks in the face of various government departments preparing loss estimates and counting tragedies.

The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) had forecasted Fani to have a maximum wind speed of 200 kmph at the place of landfall but Hrusikesh Panda, officer-in-charge of Puri Meteorological Centre, told Hindustan Times, “The anemometer in our centre broke after clocking gusts of 148 knots (274 km per hour). This was the strongest cyclone I have ever experienced in my life.”

A resilient city crumbles

The relatively small but “smart city” Bhubaneswar, best known to host a diversified population and culture, is being abandoned by its proud inhabitants due to the aftermath of Fani. Facing severe water scarcity, cash crunch and negligible mobile network with no electricity supply in the city, lakhs of people have already left the city in search of temporary shelter in neighbouring towns and villages.

The major cities of Odisha plunged into darkness with a loss of total 53 transmission towers, eight power grids, 43,643 kilometres of transmission lines, 64,304 distribution transformers and 79,485 km of low tension lines.

The state capital which was being hailed as the fastest growing smart city and a hub for education and IT industry had never seen such a calamity. Fani managed to cripple Bhubaneswar much more than the super cyclone of 1999, as the city was able to resurface from the magnitude of 1999 in just a week. But this time, the post-disaster condition has left the city incapacitated.

With little hope of timely recovery and situation worsening every day, many have deserted the capital and have moved to either their ancestral villages or with friends and relatives outside the cyclone-affected area.

Several others are taking refuge in hotels and lodges into nearby towns like Dhenkanal, Berhampur and Gopalpur. Ticket counters in Bhubaneswar Railway Station and Baramunda bus terminal have suddenly witnessed a huge number of people, mostly residents of other states who work or study in Bhubaneswar, trying return to their native places till normalcy is restored.

Some have to stay behind and bear the brunt of this disaster. Sulochana Devi, a homemaker and a mother of two, explains why she has no other option than to live without water, electricity and mobile network in 45 degree Celsius summer. “My 59-year-old husband is a public servant and he is on a compulsory government duty for last one week. He is working on 14-15 hour shifts to make sure that the city survives through these hard times. I’ll have to be at home to take care of him. We left our ancestral village 40 years ago and are unable to afford week-long hotel stays. We have nowhere to go. Even If we had, how can I leave my home and everything in it in a deserted city which dips into darkness every evening? It will be a feast for burglars,” she said.

A feast for burglars?

With cyclone paralysing the city, several reports of theft and robbery are trickling in from various localities. Various incidents of hoarding and black marketing of necessary commodities are rampant all across the city.

“They are charging 70-80 rupees for a simple hand fan, which used to cost 10 rupees before the cyclone. Every single commodity which a person needs in such a situation is being sold at 5-10 times higher prices. People are paying 30-40 rupees for a simple 5 rupees candle while a bottle of mineral water is being sold at 80 rupees. Food and vegetable prices have also skyrocketed. I have paid 4 thousand rupees to hire a generator for 1 hour so that I can pump groundwater to my tank,” said Siddharth Ray, a young businessman from Bhubaneswar’s posh area Shaheed Nagar which has been severely damaged by the cyclone.

“The very few vendors selling necessary products at a fair price are failing to meet the demand, this is at a time when hardly 20 per cent of ATM machines in the city are functional. Many banks have put a maximum withdrawal limit to serve as many people as possible. Almost exactly what happened during demonetisation. Amid a severe cash crunch, how a poor or middle-class family is supposed to pay for these extremely overpriced commodities?” he asked.

Those who can afford are buying mineral water and hiring generators at an inflated price. But most of the people are compelled to stand in long queues near tube wells and municipality tankers to get enough water to drink and cook food.

As if the artificial inflation was not enough, derailed condition of medical services is also causing difficulties to the people of Bhubaneswar. Most government hospitals either have no electricity or just enough to keep ICUs running. Costly, generators are hardly able to keep fans running for patients admitted before Fani struck the city. In this chaotic condition, private hospitals are allegedly refusing to admit serious patients due to the scarcity of resources and emergency ambulance services are hardly functional.

Farmers dread the worst

Fani caused damage to approximately 1,52,985-hectare area in 88 blocks of 14 districts, informed Odisha’s Information and Public Relations Secretary Sanjay Kumar Singh, in a press conference in Bhubaneswar, yesterday. An assistance of Rs 145.45 crore is needed according to the preliminary estimations, Singh said for crop loss less than 33 per cent in 1.21 lakh hectares. Of the total crop damage 12,277 hectares of perennial crops have been affected.

Photo credit: Govt of Odisha

Conflicting reports are circulating in the media, as according to one Orissa Post report, revenue inspector report of about 16,228 hectares of crops being damaged in Jajpur.   Groundnut, pulses and vegetables are grown during this season there.

According to the latest situation report by the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority (OSDMA), approximately 26,15,738 livestock were reported dead, 980.69 km of river and saline embankments broken and 65 Cashew fields in Khurdha, Cuttack, and Jajpur damaged. Approximately 3290 community lift irrigation projects were damaged in Puri, Khordha, Cuttack, Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapada, Nayagarh.

The report states that 6,321 traditional marine fishing boats, 7,044 nets, 2,524 fish ponds of area 587 hectares, three fishing harbours, six fish landing centres, five fish farms, building and other infrastructures have been fully or partially damaged.

Photo credit: World Vision India

Surprisingly, a total of 227 farmers had committed suicide in the last five years in Odisha and the state agriculture minister Pradeep Maharathy attributed all these deaths to every possible reason other than loan burden and crop losses. Replying to a query of a member of legislative assembly Sanatan Mahakud, the minister claimed that the reasons for the farmer suicides were mental disturbance, illness, depression, consumption of alcohol and family quarrel, even in the presence of an ongoing investigation.

However, a report, Why farmers quit? A study on farmer suicides in India – by non-profit Indo-Global Social Service Society (IGSSS), says 30 per cent of total 732 farmers suicides between 2010-2015 were because of crop loss and 23 per cent of suicides were because of loans. Thirteen per cent of suicides were due to family quarrel and 10 per cent were because of the pressure of marrying one’s daughter.

The investigation by the state government into the “alleged” farmer suicides, 11 in 2013-14, five in 2014-15 and 175 in 2015-16, is still going on.

All is well, claims the govt

Despite such a bleak picture, the state government is apparently satisfied with all its work. Ministers and officers have been repeatedly highlighting the successful evacuation of more than 1.2 million people and counting the fewer death tolls as an achievement.

Photo redit: Akansha Joshi

But the distressed people have a different story to tell, Gautam, a resident of Kalinga Basti in Bhubaneswar, says: “They have saved many lives thanks to the timely evacuation, but we are living in hell. Post-disaster management is worse than the disaster itself. I have no Idea why are they taking so long to repair the power supply lines. Does anyone care how we are living without power and water in this scorching summer?”

A senior government official who is currently deployed in relief and restoration work said the city administration is facing the same problems and with the resources available with the state government, the restoration of normalcy could take more than a month.

“Our administrative system has become highly dependent on mobile phones and internet for communication and coordination.  We are not used to working without them. Initially, the lack of communication and coordination derailed the administration entirely. We were given satellite phones a few days after the cyclone. Fani left around 3.5 million people without power supply. No one anticipated destruction this big,” he said on condition of anonymity.

However, he hopes that once the skilled workers and officials from neighbouring states reach Odisha, the work will be expedited.

(Author is a journalist and a media academician)

Hrushikesh Mishra

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