Flood fury in Orissa

Print edition : August 04, 2001

First the supercyclone, then the drought and now floods. Life has been a struggle for the people.

SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADHYAY in Jajpur, Cuttack, Bhubaneswar

FOR the third consecutive year, Orissa has been subjected to the ravages of nature. First it was the supercyclone, which devastated the entire coastal belt in 1999; then came a crippling drought; and now it is the turn of severe floods in the coastal belt. With over 82 lakh people affected, and crop loss estimated at over Rs.32 crores, the floods may be ranked the worst ever since Independence.

The view from an IAF relief helicopter on July 25.-MANISH SWARUP/AP

The supercyclone, which damaged 1.5 million hectares of the total agricultural land of 2.5 million ha, pushed back the State's predominantly agricultural economy by at least 10 years. Last year's drought affected over 120 lakh people in 12,327 villages. At least four lakh people, most of them from the western Orissa districts of Bolangir, Kalahandi and Nuapada, migrated from their villages in search of employment and food.

The calamities have left the State's finances in a mess. The debt burden stands at 51 per cent of the gross State domestic product, against the all-India average of 22.5 per cent. The State's cumulative loan burden is Rs.21,035 crores, on which it pays an annual interest of Rs.2,900 crores.

"The State's agriculture has been destroyed and its economy has been shattered. There is no way out unless we are given heavy subsidies in seeds and fertilizers," Finance Minister Ramkrishna Patnaik told Frontline. According to Chief Secretary D.P. Bagchi, about a million hectares of cultivated land is still under threat. "We are trying to restore the situation partially by encouraging the cultivation of a short-duration variety of paddy," Bagchi told Frontline.

The agriculture department estimates that more than 60 per cent of the crops for the year have been destroyed. How of the rest can be revived will be known once the flood waters recede. "The situation is bad, but we are leaving no stone unturned to tackle it. We have enough seed supplies. Once the waters recede we will see if replantation can restore the situation," said an official in the Agriculture Department.

Of the 6.3 lakh hectares that have been badly affected, 5.18 lakh hectares are under paddy. In Puri district alone 90,620 ha of paddy and non-paddy land has been submerged. The other badly affected districts are Kalahandi (83,240 ha), Cuttack (over 73,000 ha), Jagatsinghpur (71,000 ha), Kendrapara (55,000 ha), Jajpur (48,000 ha) and Khurda (42,000 ha).

Where the State highway was washed away at Balakati in Khurda district.-ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY

Natural disasters are nothing new to the people of Orissa, but three of them coming in a row have shattered their psyche. The floods have taken away whatever little was restored to them in the course of the continuing rehabilitation work after the supercyclone. The worst hit, as always, are the poor, living in mud houses in the rural areas of the coastal belt.

Seventy-six persons have died, according to official estimates put out in the last week of July. The figure could have been higher but for the effective early warning systems which enabled timely evacuation. Two lakh people are still marooned. But an unofficial estimate puts the figure at around 3.5 lakhs. According to official figures as of July end, 380 houses have been washed away, 12,261 have been destroyed and 60,578 have been damaged. Over seven lakh people have been displaced and are dependent on relief supplied by the government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

"There is nothing we can do. We may be a cursed people," said Niranjan Das, whose house in Niali block in Cuttack district had collapsed. He had come to Bhubaneswar with his wife Radha and three children in the hope of living with his brother. But his brother had apparently left the city and Niranjan found himself shifting from pavement to pavement. "We come from a proud family and have never begged. Now we have to do just that to survive."

The confidence of the people is badly shaken. Whatever they have tried to build is being destroyed. It is like going one step forward and being pushed two steps backward. Saroj Kumar Jha, inter-sectoral team leader of the United Nations agencies operating in Orissa, told Frontline: "We have a team of 50 U.N. volunteers in the worst-affected blocks, actively involved with the people there. We are trying to boost their morale and working on community building.''

According to the 55th survey of the Planning Commission, 42.7 per cent of the people live below the poverty line in Orissa and 38 per cent belong to the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities.

In Jajpur district, a man and his four-month-old child heading for dry land.-MANISH SWARUP/AP

"The damage to infrastructure by both the supercyclone and the floods is one of the major deterrents to industries being set up in Orissa, despite the State being rich in minerals and having a peaceful labour force," said Ramkrishna Patnaik.

THE heavy rain - the precipitation in July was twice what the State normally receives in a whole year - was caused by a well-marked low pressure formed to the northwest of the Bay of Bengal on July 4. By July 8, Kalahandi district was cut off from the rest of the State, as the major rivers that flow through it - the Tel, the Udanti, the Hati and the Ret - crossed the danger mark and wreaked havoc on the region. Jajpur and Bhadrak were also severely affected by the flood waters of the Baitarani.

As the Mahanadi started swelling, Chief Minister Navin Patnaik sounded a flood alert in the State and evacuation started. The Army and the Navy were also put on alert. On July 11, the government was forced to release water from the Hirakud dam, which had filled up to 621 feet against the optimum height of 630 feet. By then over 25 lakh people in 109 blocks in 14 districts had already been affected by incessant rain and floods. The districts most severely hit were Cuttack, Kendrapada, Puri and Jagatsinghpur. The Navy swung into action as tens of thousands were marooned. Even though the rain had stopped and the rivers started receding by July 13, the flood situation still looked grim, especially in Kalahandi, Cuttack and Jajpur districts.

Three days later, heavy rain, especially in the catchment areas of the Mahanadi, prompted the government to shift people from the low-lying areas to safer places. With over 10 lakh people in the coastal region marooned as the rivers in the Mahanadi system overflowed, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee ordered on July 18, following a Cabinet meeting, the immediate release of Rs.100 crores from the Prime Minister's Calamity Relief Fund. Of the 20 affected districts, the situation was extremely bad in Jajpur, Cuttack, Kendrapada, Puri, Khurda and Angul. And with the rivers still rising, the government was forced to release more water from the Hirakud on July 19. Even though there was no rain for the next two days, the flood situation looked grim as the waters did not recede owing to the high tide.

The rescue and relief operations were in full swing,with the Army and the Air Force taking relief materials to the stranded. From July 17, the Air Force deployed six helicopters to drop food packets in the affected areas in Nayagarh, Angul, Cuttack, Kendrapara, Jagatsinghpur and Puri. Around 1,050 government boats were deployed for rescue and relief distribution. Six columns of the Army Engineering Corps, two columns of infantry, one company of the Central Reserve Police Force, four companies of the Central Industrial Security Force, 79 platoons of the Orissa State Armed Police, nine teams of Navy personnel and five teams of Coast Guard personnel were also deployed. More than 430 community kitchens were set up across the affected regions. Rice, chuda, polythene tents and canvases were distributed.

Filling her pot from a handpump at Pipali village near Bhubaneswar.-MANISH SWARUP/AP

Besides the government and the army, local and international NGOs such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Save The Children Fund and the Cooperative for American Relief to Everyone (CARE) were active in organising community kitchens and providing relief to the affected.

However, despite the government and the State administration's claim that relief was reaching everyone, reports said that more than 80 villages in Niali and Kantapada blocks in Cuttack district had not received adequate food and relief materials.

Apart from providing relief, the main problem was the outbreak of water-borne epidemics such as diarrhoea, gastro-enteritis, jaundice, meningitis and malaria. There was also the danger of snake bites. The tubewells were submerged and in places where the flood waters had receded the tubewells had been contaminated. Health Secretary Meena Gupta said that 66 medical teams were working in the affected areas, and over one crore halogen tablets, 1,000 bags of bleaching powder and 54 lakh ORS (oral rehydration solution) packets had been dispatched. Government and the Army also distributed clean water in sachets.

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