Fani aftermath: Civil society groups play key role in cyclone-ravaged Bhubaneswar

While government disaster response teams focus on roads, electricity and other infrastructure, local community groups and volunteers try to mobilise residents to participate in the relief work being done in their localities, and especially the low income settlements.

Cyclone Fani blew in and out of Orissa nearly two weeks back. But relief and rehabilitation of lakhs of affected people in Puri, Cuttack and Bhubaneshwar is yet to pick up pace. Pitching in, mainly in Bhubaneshwar, with the aim of getting local communities involved in the restoration works is Civil Society Responds to Fani (CSRF), an initiative by a group of state-based not-for-profit organisations.

While the state and central government’s disaster response teams are busy clearing roads and rebuilding the electricity and other infrastructure networks, CSRF volunteers are trying to mobilise residents to participate in the work being done in their localities.

Working mainly in the poorer parts of Bhubaneshwar where many people have lost not just their homes but their means of livelihood, volunteers say citizens’ response has been encouraging. “A number of people in the slums were homeless as uprooted trees crushed their homes,” said Kailash Dandapat, executive secretary of Jagruti, a Kandhamal based non-profit group which is part of CSRF. “Some were even unable to receive the relief money and ration provided by the government. Women who didn’t have an adult male member in the family and elderly persons without anyone to look after them were the worst affected”.

Urban poor among the worst hit

“Trinath Basti, near the airport, was in very bad shape when we went there,” said Hrushikesh Pradhan, 29, one among a group of volunteers of Antaranga, a district wide network of youth volunteers collectively formed by a group of NGOs after the 2008 communal violence in Kandhamal, who had reached Bhubaneshwar the day after Cyclone Fani had passed. “Many homes were buried under uprooted trees, the area was covered by debris and people were short of food. The primary task before us was to cut the trees and clear the debris”.

Besides Trinath Basti, the volunteers also set about cutting fallen trees and clearing debris in other slums like Jagannath Basti, Nabina Basti, Satyanagar Basti and Salia Sahi. “We provided food packets and tarpaulins to every household in the slums we worked in,” said Kailash, leader of the Antaranga volunteer group. “I am grateful the volunteers cut the tree that fell on my house,” said Lili Swain, 45, of Jagannath Basti. “I couldn’t have done it without their support.”

Antaranga volunteers work to remove a tree fallen on the roof of a house in a slum. Pic: Basudev Mahapatra

Underlining the importance of community engagement to effectively implement government schemes to help people rebuild their lives, Manas Ranjan Mishra of Vasundhara, one of the NGOs that is part of CSRF, pointed out that clearing of roads, cleaning of debris and restoration of power supply network was made possible in Cuttack, twin city to Bhubaneshwar, and just as badly affected by Fani, because of the active participation of its residents in restoration and rebuilding efforts.

“Like CDA Sector 10 puja committee members, who not only worked to clean lanes in their area but also helped nearby slum dwellers,” said Manas, “the involvement of Chhatar bazar puja committee members and volunteers in such post Fani activities was encouraging,” added Bishakha Bhanja, regional manager of WaterAid India, who convened meetings with various Sahi Puja Committees in Cuttack after the cyclone.

“Similar connections among communities and neighbourhoods is essential in Bhubaneswar to make rebuilding activities meaningful for all sections of the city’s dwellers,” said Jagadananda, former state information commissioner and co-founder of the Centre for Youth and Social Development (CYSD). “CSRF has initiated such interaction with different communities in the city and plans to hold them regularly to build a sense of brotherhood between them.”

Bridging the gap

Such interactions with the community will bring up issues the state administration might be unaware of and encourage people to get involved in the state’s post cyclone relief, rehabilitation and rebuilding activities. “This will certainly help the government to more effectively plan and implement programmes to overcome the impact of the cyclone,” said Abasara Beuria, former Indian ambassador, who is actively involved with CSRF which is conducting a daily review of progress and experiences of its members. The civil society forum plans to take up these issues that come up in these review meetings with the administration.

The forum also hopes to contribute to policy making to ensure no section of the society is ignored or bypassed and relief benefits reaches everyone. “With regular interaction with the administration, the civil society forum hopes to play an effective role in bridging the gap between communities and the administration by placing people’s issues before government authorities”, added Beuria.

Volunteers and members share their experience at a daily review meeting of CSRF. Pic: Basudev Mahapatra

For instance, two recommendations CSRF made as a result of these meetings – free distribution of kerosene in cyclone affected areas and that five lakh disaster resistant pucca homes be built in coastal Odisha under the Pradhan Mantri Ayas Yojana (PMAY) – have been passed on by the state government to the Centre.

Also, “since we expressed our apprehensions about distress sale of their paddy crop by cyclone hit farmers, we have come to know that the state has decided to open a mandi in cyclone affected regions ensure such distress sale does not happen,” said Manas Ranjan Mishra, who represents CSRF in its meetings with administration officials.

Identifying critical needs

While the government announced a number of measures for immediate relief to the affected populace, volunteers have observed that many of the schemes lacked in practical vision and implementation. The prompt cash dole of Rs 2000 and additional ration no doubt was a big help to the cyclone victims. But for some reason, other simple things like providing polythene sheets for people to put a temporary roof over their heads failed, as the size of the polythene sheets provided was too small and the Rs 500 given to buy polythene sheets did not cover actual costs.

With the rainy season barely a month way, large sized tarpaulins need to be provided on priority basis to all the poor families in the city’s various slums, said volunteers working with the slum residents. They also pointed out the hundreds of small vendors, most of whom live in slums, need support in the form of material and make-shift sheds and stalls to revive their lost sources of livelihood.

Reforestation of the city’s green areas destroyed by the cyclone is another aspect that needs attention. Cyclone Fani had uprooted thousands of trees across the city and caused largescale devastation of the city’s green areas like the Indira Gandhi Park, The Forest Park and Mahatma Gandhi Park. CSRF has urged the forest department to work on restoring these green areas and offered to help in this effort in any way it can. The forest department, however, is yet to respond on this. “This forum will surely help highlight and address such issues,” said Jagadish Pradhan of Sahabhagi Vikash Abhiyan.

But probably the issue that needs urgent action is to control water and mosquito borne diseases. “Unless the administration deals with this issue urgently, it could lead to epidemics like malaria and dengue”, warned army veteran and Ex-DG (RR) Lt. General K P Dhalasamant. Pointing out that cases of dengue have already been reported in hospitals, Professor Viyatprajna Acharya of the Clinical Biochemistry department of Bhubaneswar based SUM Hospital and Medical College said the government needs to immediately take steps to “disinfect water logged areas and initiate mosquito repellent measures.”

Added Dr Alok Lodh, a Noida-based doctor who had earlier worked in a Bhubaneswar hospital: “These are the usual threats posed by such disasters, and the government should integrate adequate preventive health measures in its post-cyclone planning”.

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