August 7, 2001


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The Rediff Special/ P V Unnikrishnan

Devastation revisited

Four-year-old Rinku looks warm but exhausted as she snuggles in the comfort of her mother's arms. But her mother, Gita Biswal, 26, is busy trying to simultaneously soothe her eldest daughter Keena, whose raging fever hasn't abated for five days. Marooned in what officials call a "cut-off" (jargon used here for villages made inaccessible by surrounding water) village, the Biswal family is a survivor of the untimely flood that inundated 15,579 villages in 21 out of Orissa's 30 districts.

The Biswal family survived because, as the water rose rapidly along the embankment that protected their village Dihakarada, part of the coastal Puri district, Gita, her 35-year-old husband Abhaya, their three children Keena, Rakesh and Rinku, and Abhaya's 70-year-old father Pandav fled to safety in country-made boats. As did 300-odd other people from their village.

"We knew we would die otherwise," says Pandav now. En route to a village called Edbance, which was located on a higher level and therefore presumed to be safer, Abhaya saw two villagers being washed away by the current. He leaped from the boat into the swirling waters to rescue them, only to be swept away to his death. As the result of his impulsively brave act, an uncertain future awaits Gita and her family, who are just one of the thousands of victims of the flood that recently devastated Orissa.

The unexpected deluge was caused by heavy rainfall in the early part of summer this year. Between June 1 and July 25, the state recorded 930.4 mm of rainfall as against the 505.5 mm that is normally recorded in this period. As a result, the Mahanadi, Vamshadhara, Subarnarekha, Baitarani and Brahmani rivers and their tributaries started overflowing. The swelling waters caused breaches in more than 941 embankments, washing away the villages, homes and fields that they were meant to protect.

This year's flood has completely devastated families like the Biswals, who were just rebuilding their lives after losing almost everything in the supercyclone that struck Orissa in 1999. Over eight-and-a-half million people were affected; 86 people lost their lives; 13,126 cattle perished and 228,247 houses were damaged in over 15,579 villages by the floodwaters.

According to media estimates, the flood submerged over 23,000 tube wells; 860,000 hectares of crop area was affected; and 231,002 houses damaged. The government's initial estimates put the financial losses at Rs 451.664 million. Almost 600,000 people have been evacuated.

The flood has given rise to public health problems. Over 20,438 diarrhoea cases were reported by July 30. In a post-flood phenomenon, many people succumbed to snake bites. The problem was aggravated by an acute shortage of anti-venom in the affected areas, leading to the hoarding of supplies. Cases of skin diseases, respiratory infections and pneumonia have also been reported.

Many villages lack clean drinking water, even as non-government organisations allege that water is being sold for profit at several places. Humanitarian agencies have warned of the possibility of water-borne and vector-borne epidemics breaking out.

Mental health does not figure in the administration's response system, despite the fact that five districts in the state are facing Nature's devastating fury in the short span of two years. Medical personnel are also worried about psycho-social complications.

All this has happened much before the actual flood season has even begun in the state; which is flood-prone thanks to its long coastline and network of rivers and tributaries.

The following districts were severely affected in the current flood: Cuttack, Jajpur, Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapara, Angul, Dhenkanal, Khurda, Nayagarh and Puri in coastal Orissa; Kalahandi, Bolangir, Deogarh, Bargarh, Sambalpur, Jharsuguda, Boudh and Sonepur in the drought-prone western Orissa; Bhadrak and Balasore in north Orissa; Koraput and Nowrangpur in south Orissa.

The people of Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapara, Jajpur, Cuttack and Puri districts, who faced the fury of the cyclone in 1999, were once again devastated by this untimely flood. Meanwhile, western Orissa has also been hit by a drought for the second consecutive year.

If the unusually heavy early monsoons coupled with huge amounts of water released from the dams in the state caused the disaster, it was the lack of preparation as well as an irresponsible administration that aggravated it.

In its attempt to cope with the series of disasters, the government has changed its chief relief commissioner five times in the last two years. Yet, say humanitarian agencies, it has yet to get a grip on ground realities in the wake of the current flood.

Relief officials insist the situation is under control. But on July 27, contradicting its own claims, the government admitted that there were over 86 "cut-off" villages still awaiting relief.

Humanitarian workers have found that though relief supplies such as rice and dal and, at times, beaten rice, has reached many places, the quantity and frequency were not adequate. Apparently, the relief suppliers also forgot to take into account the lack of cooking facilities in flood-affected households.

Though non-governmental organisations and aid agencies responded promptly to the disaster, their teams could not reach many places where their services were badly needed. Moreover, they have also failed to highlight the magnitude of the disaster in the media, leading to a general sense of indifference from both the media and, in turn, in government circles.

The flood was not declared a national emergency as a result of which it lacked charity appeal. Even some reputed international aid agencies with a special focus on the 'poverty-stricken' areas of Orissa adopted a 'wait and watch' policy in view of the lukewarm response to the disaster.

The fact that the flood did not become a big disaster is providential. But the lax response might also mean that a repeat performance could be quite disastrous. This flood is yet another reminder that the nation badly needs a comprehensive disaster management policy.

Dr P V Unnikrishnan, co-editor of India Disasters Report, is a medical doctor who works on humanitarian issues with Oxfam India as its coordinator: emergencies. He was in Orissa for two weeks following the floods.

Design: Dominic Xavier

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