Odisha’s Cyclone Fani: How to See a (Natural) Disaster

It was once stated by Jim Wallis that “it takes a natural disaster to reveal a social disaster” – which is to say that disasters expose disasters, or that there are disasters in disasters.

Like Amphan in Bengal, Odisha was hit by one of the worst cyclones it has ever experienced last year – Cyclone Fani. The state authority did a commendable job with evacuating stranded citizens and communicating relevant information. Death tolls were kept within double digits, unlike a similar disaster 20 years before which had engulfed the lives of thousands of citizens.

People lost homes and their livelihood. Farmers and the informal sectors in the districts of Puri, Paradeep, Kendrapada and Khurda were ransacked much like coastal areas of Bengal and Bangladesh. Bhitarkanika and its grandeur was devastated, though on a scale much lesser than the Sunderbans. Houses were blown away, crops destroyed.

While I was on the ground doing some personal relief work, here are some observations I made.

The blueprint of recovery, relief and rejuvenation isn’t easy to map. Although people brave through such unfortunate instances, one shouldn’t glorify their resilience – it is a matter of misery, not celebration. Disasters at a point and place hit everyone equally, but not everyone succumbs to the same measurement of wounds. Moreover, not everyone recovers at an equal pace – recovery is socio-political.

Here comes the question of social capital, which is to say, natural disasters are the worst for victims of social disasters. In parts of Puri, personal experiences showed me how the priority of relief distribution was given to upper castes and Brahmins whereas backward communities suffered mostly due to state bias and social preferences. During my trip to Chandanpur in Puri, we had to separately deliver clothes collected by our team to a group of ST families fearing resentment and non-acceptance among other parts of village.

Also read: Rattled and Shook: Cyclone Amphan Put Death Two Feet Away From Us

It is foolish to think that any relief aid is either apolitical or goes un-incentivised. Relief, by definition, is political. Think about those places where demographics are such that mass relief material can’t reach? What if the ways are blocked and waterlogged or the places are somewhere deep in a forest?

Let’s say for instance the tribal villages in Chandaka forest. Strips of villages that have either recently come under state umbrella, some which do not wish to be under state organisation precisely because of their own sets of beliefs, laws and community order. At some places, multiple cycle and scooter trips have to be done because bigger vehicles just wont reach. Surprisingly these places are just outside Bhubaneswar, all shining capital smart city. I wonder how many people in Bhubaneswar are aware of the existence of these places.

Now think of those affected in the low-lying waterlogged, flooded places covered with the dense forests in Sunderbans. Most of these places are very likely to effectively receive little aid. For those with power, there is either enough incentive or potential to get back on their feet but for the powerless, it is quite rare. Hence, people with monetary as well as social capital are the quickest to heal, whereas those with neither have no option but to wait for charity or state action.

One of the most deep rooted problems lies in the governance. To put it bluntly, the duty of the state has become similar to charity. Hence, here comes the question of preparedness. Political philosopher Machiavelli tells us that the prepared are favoured in times of crisis, and that the unprepared are prone to fail.

A disaster of this scale is unfortunate, but it is an indicator to do better. It is a signal to factor in the inequality of devastation and be prepared from now on. Imagine water tankers, those which start from posh elite regions to finally reach the comparatively less well off and underprivileged who draw just enough for survival let alone basic needs. This is the nature of relief aid.

From a macro perspective, everyone might be a victim but a thorough lens would reveal that some are more victims than others. There are micro intricacies in macro tendencies that are tough to account for and there are disasters in disasters, may be bigger or smaller or not disastrous enough but disasters, nonetheless.

Disasters themselves are natural in their entirety but their nature is artificial and political and it is foolish to think otherwise. Bengal and Odisha are two parallel stories of two similar cultures, exactly a year apart that are victims of unnecessary prejudice. In fact there is much in common to both cultures to consolidate for each one to be better off.

The pain of such disasters and the neglect faced by both places gives every reason to have a common belief of healing. Disasters aren’t comparisons of pain, prejudice or politics but comparisons of empathy, of competence and preparedness and of recovery. There is much to learn from these stories, both for us and for each other(the states). This is why it is always necessary to look for the “other disasters”.

Amlan Bibhudatta is an undergraduate student in Economics at Ashoka University. His interests lie in biking around Odisha, and reading about Economics and Politics.

Featured image credit: Reuters