The Orissa government has set itself an ambitious target of reconstructing the cyclone-affected districts, but not much headway has been made in rehabilitating the victims.SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADHYAY
ALREADY reeling under heat wave conditions and facing the prospects of a menacing monsoon, the over eight million people of Orissa, rendered shelterless by the super cyclone of October 1999, once again find themselves exposed to the vagaries of nature. T hese people, belonging to 12 coastal districts, are still waiting to be rehabilitated in pucca houses.
The two-month-old Biju Janata Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party government has an enormous task on hand. It has to provide basic infrastructure - build two million houses, repair roads and bridges and restore the supply of electricity - as also draught animals and tractors to agriculturists. Reconstruction work made little progress under the previous Congress(I) government. Whenever sincere efforts were made, corruption rendered them meaningless.
Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik told Frontline that the Government's first priority was reconstruction and the rehabilitation of the affected people, "who constitutes almost half the population of the State". He said: "The government is clear in its policy. Priority will be given to housing, agriculture, power supply and education." To oversee the reconstruction work, a Cabinet sub-committee, headed by Naveen Patnaik himself, has been formed. It also includes Revenue Minister Biswabhusan Harichanda n, Finance Minister Ramkrishna Patnaik, Housing Minister Nalini Kanta Mahanty and Energy Minister A.U. Singhdeo.
The Chief Minister said that the Central government had promised to supply 20 kg of rice a month to each of the affected families until the next harvest. Meanwhile, schemes under the food-for-work programme are under way, in order to provide the people a means of livelihood. Yet unemployment is growing. The government has embarked on a number of other programmes as well to enable people to start afresh in their vocations. One such is a scheme to supply fishing boats and nets.
According to official estimates, 19 lakh houses (eight lakh houses were fully destroyed and 11 lakh partially) will have to be rebuilt, mainly in the districts of Jagatsinghpur, Jajpur, Kendrapara, Balasore, Bhadrak and Puri. Vinod Kumar, Director, Housi ng, and Managing Director of Orissa Rural Housing and Development Corporation Ltd (ORHDC), the nodal agency for reconstruction and rehabilitation, said that the State government had evolved several schemes. Under the Indira Awas Yojna, 2.5 lakh families would be rehabilitated in five phases, he said. The Centre will provide 75 per cent of the funds. Funds for the first group of 50,000 have already been sanctioned. Vinod Kumar said that priority was given to the residents of houses that collapsed. Each n ew house, a cyclone-resistant, single-room unit of 160-200 square feet, will be built at a cost of Rs.25,000. These units will be "core" houses: the residents can enlarge the houses by building around or over them.
Under another scheme envisaged by the ORHDC, with loan assistance from the Housing and Urban Development Corporation (HUDCO), 1.75 dwelling units will be built in two phases, the project cost of each phase being Rs.306.25 crores. The cyclone victims will be involved in the rebuilding process, with technical assistance from the State government and HUDCO. However, only Rs.72 crores has been disbursed for the project until now. The ORHDC is offering a credit-cum-subsidy scheme to 50,000 affected families. The State government will provide an assistance of Rs.500 crores, which is received as a loan from HUDCO, to build houses for one lakh government employees living in cyclone-affected areas.
Although the government has set itself an ambitious target of reconstructing six lakh houses in two and a half years, no progress has been made in this sector. Several senior government officials said that the target was impossible to achieve.
Criticising the Government's measures as flawed, a senior bureaucrat told Frontline that with the summer and the monsoon ahead, the government need not have gone into the time-consuming process of providing permanent cyclone-proof houses. "The peo ple need a roof over their heads immediately. The government ought to have gone in for traditional mud houses for immediate respite from the extreme weather conditions," the official said. The official also said that there was a need for 512 cyclone shel ters, for immediate and future needs. Forty cyclone shelters have been commissioned; 23 already exist. Each cyclone shelter can accommodate around 2,000 people. The cost of building a cyclone shelter is around Rs.40 lakhs.
There is a scarcity of raw materials for construction. Even though money can be arranged, the support system for undertaking reconstruction and rehabilitation is weak. The government hopes that more building centres will come up so that it can draw men a nd materials. According to the regional chief of HUDCO, Malay Chatterjee, 750 blocks, 22 bags of cement, 4.8 cubic metres (cum) of sand, 3.5 cum of chips and 240 kg of steel are needed to construct a single cyclone-resistant unit. "Where will the raw mat erial to build 19 lakh houses, or even the targeted six lakh, come from?" Chatterjee asked. With the demand for skilled labourers increasing, the cost of labour is growing. As a result, people have to be trained continually in order to maintain supply. C hatterjee also feels that with enough funds at the government's disposal, reconstruction and rehabilitation can be speeded up.
But the State government is on the brink of bankruptcy; by the Chief Minister's own admission, it is looking for means to pay its employees their monthly salaries. Trucksload of relief materials are still lined up at the Kalinga stadium in Bhubaneswar, w ith the government being unable to handle the situation. However, the Chief Minister averred that the financial crisis would not affect the reconstruction activities. "The State government is endeavouring to mobilise funds from various agencies. Negotiat ions with the World Bank for an assistance of Rs.430 crores for the Cyclone Reconstruction projects have reached the final phase," he said.
IN the months following the cyclone disaster, the inefficiency of government employees in Orissa was exposed fully. HUDCO had sanctioned a reconstruction and rehabilitation package of Rs.1,116.5 crores to build 2.75 lakh houses, four model villages and 2 0 building centres. By March 31, Rs.547 crores had already been released in parts. According to informed sources in the government, senior officials did not use the money in view of the February Assembly elections.
Bureaucratic corruption reached unprecedented levels: when Naveen Patnaik inspected a tehsil office on April 15, he learnt that the staff charged Rs.200 to accept housing loan applications.
In the immediate aftermath of the cyclone, the dysfunctional State administrative machinery was thoroughly exposed: officials did not visit the affected areas, the distribution of relief materials was chaotic and was delayed, and the law and order situat ion collapsed. Chief Minister Giridhar Gamang ordered the suspension of Special Relief Commissioner D.L. Padhi in November for alleged irregularities in the procurement of polythene sheets. The action followed complaints that polythene sheets had not yet reached 25 lakh affected people. The suspension order was, however, not issued.
A month later, on December 14, the police arrested 11 officials of Jagatsinghpur district - including Balikuda Block Development Officer (BDO) Madhusudan Prusty and the local panchayat samiti chairperson Kaminibala Sahoo - for allegedly stealing relief m aterials worth over Rs.2 lakhs. Prusty and six other junior officers were suspended. According to police reports, 2,100 kg of basmati rice, large quantities of oil, ghee, utensils, bleaching powder, one roll of polythene sheets, 10 blankets and a number of dhotis and saris were recovered from their houses. Balikuda was one of the worst affected blocks, in the district after Ersama. It is alleged that blankets received for free distribution are sold in the markets.
The people are convinced that government employees are neither responsive nor dynamic enough to handle any kind of crisis. The cyclone-affected people are disenchanted with the Congress(I) government and the present BJD-BJP one for the way they handled t he post-cyclone crisis. "No concrete measures have been evolved so far," said Alok Majhi of Padampur village in the worst-affected Ersama block.
THE situation in Ersama block remains particularly bleak. In Shiyali, a coastal village, 80 cyclone-resistant units were planned but only two have been taken up for construction. These units are financed by the Red Cross, and HUDCO provides the technical know-how. The villagers are not convinced that these dwellings will protect them from another cyclone. According to Rudra Maiti, "the waves that submerged our villages were twice the height of these units. Moreover, how can these structures withstand a wind speed of 200 km an hour?" Most parts of Ersama are without electricity, and some parts are still without motorable roads. As a result, materials from the building centres cannot be reached to the block.
Dinabandhu Behra of Padampur village wondered why there was no improvement in the rehabilitation work if the Government had already received a Central assistance for the purpose. He said 90 per cent of the houses in the village were severely damaged. Onl y one portion of his house has a roof, and the scorching heat has made his house a furnace.
Radheshyam Raut, the sarpanch of Garia village in Gadaharishpur gram panchayat, said that the government's statements were confusing. On the one hand it said that a lottery scheme would determine who would get priority in rehabilitation, and on the other it said that it would go by the extent of damage in each case.
Providing draught animals and tractors to farmers for resuming agricultural operations is a major worry. Naveen Patnaik admitted that a solution was yet to be worked out. The issue came up before the high-level meeting in New Delhi on April 6, which was attended by Defence Minister George Fernandes, Union Housing Minister S.S. Dhindsa, Naveen Patnaik and State government officials. It was suggested that cattle and fodder could be obtained from neighbouring States and tractors purchased with soft loans.
The financial crunch has also delayed afforestation activities. The cyclone destroyed a major part of the State's green cover. According to experts, the State's coastal ecosystem needs to be revived in order to check natural calamities and restore ecolog ical balance. Over the past 20 years, timber merchants have depleted the forest cover in the coastal districts. The cyclone swept away whatever was left of it. More than nine crore trees are needed to be planted in the 12 districts. The United Nations ha s agreed to extend $5 million for afforestation programmes.
An area in which the government has been reasonably successful is the management of agricultural crops. It was feared that the submergence of vast areas of agricultural land would render such lands infertile for at least a year. However, according to the State Agriculture Department, 12.72 lakh hectares of farm lands have been covered under the rabi programme. Department officials say that during the just-concluded rabi season, the State government provided 1.31 lakh quintals of seeds of different crops at subsidised rates, and 18,277 quintals of seeds were obtained from the Centre, other States and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
ON the health front, the situation is more or less normal. A number of malaria cases were reported recently in the districts of Kendrapara, Bhadrak, Balasore and Jagatsinghpur, and the number of deaths from suspected malaria has been put at 18. The gover nment claimed that it was equipped to combat the threat as drugs were available and special camps for testing blood had been set up in all the affected districts. The heat wave has so far claimed eight lives, and State government, along with U.N. volunte ers, has set up monitoring centres all over the State. According to Saroj Kumar Jha, the U.N. inter-sectoral team leader in Bhubaneswar, a major problem resulting from deforestation is an acute lack of shade to beat the heat. The Government, along with t he U.N. volunteers, has decided to build 400 traditional mud houses in 250 villages along the coast. "This project is expected to be completed by the end of April," Saroj Kumar Jha said.
Another area of concern is skin afflictions caused by unhygienic conditions after the cyclone. Kendrapara has reported 2,878 such cases, the highest number. Although the health crisis has been more or less brought under control, the health centres and th eir sub-centres that were damaged in the cyclone are non-functional. The government is yet to initiate a programme to restore them. Meanwhile, a State Bureau of Health Intelligence has been set up to monitor the situation.