12 years after Super Cyclone 1999 The Storm Still Rages
Super cyclone of 1999 was a tragedy of unprecedented dimension. It continues to haunt a number of people affected from about 97 blocks of 12 districts, state capital Bhubaneswar and Cuttack city, 28 NACs. It affected around 125.9 lakh people of Odisha. The super cyclone claimed a heavy toll of life and property in 1846 Grama Panchayats’ affected 14000 villages and 1650086 households.
The devastating gale swept the Odisha coast on October 29 and 30, 1999, which was perhaps one of the most ravaging natural disasters that mankind has ever experienced in modern times. The gale crippled the economy of 12 districts in the state. This caused a colossal loss of human lives as well as huge destruction of property. After passing of 12 years complaints are rife that tall promises by the state government of reconstructing affected districts have been conveniently forgotten. Their agony has been compounded because of terrible mismanagement and chaos.
Ironically, the state government remembers this disaster day—October 29—every year by launching a new set of programmes and plannings to combat natural disasters. It states: “We shall overcome and now shall be well prepared to meet any eventuality if any natural calamity strikes the state.”
As the state government prepared for the anniversary certain realties stare us in the face. There is no denying the fact that thanks to official apathy and irregularities, several victims of the tragedy are yet to get compensation. Similarly, the reconstruction work in several areas has also been less than satisfactory, and it has compounded the tragedy of the victims after passing of 12 years.
After the super cyclone the state government basically laid emphasis on relief and rescue operations still in progress but very negligible importance has been made over the preventive measures to be adopted to combat the gale in the long turn.
Popular criticisms surface as though relief was pouring from all parts of the world after the gale but it was not reaching the victims due to improper management. There was a plan to construct multi-purpose cyclone shelters at 1 km distance each along the state coastsline, which has been incomplete. Other major programmes pending to implement include proposed coastal highway between Gopalpur and Digha along the 480-km-long coast, conservation of declining mangrove forests, forestation and drainage improvements, improvements of saline and river embankments, proper forecasting and other curative measures.
After the cyclone the state government did not know where to begin and how to face the destruction. There were bodies all around gathering in heaps. Many who escaped the fury were holding on to the tree branches, desperately waiting for some one to rescue them. Official report indicates that super cyclone claimed 9885 people, 4.45 lakh livestocks perished, 13 lakh hectare of paddy crops damaged. There was no house left undamaged in Jagatsinghpur and Kendrapada districts. An estimated 9 million trees were uprooted, 3425 high schools and 14001 primary schools were razed to the ground, and highest casualties had reported—8119 deaths in Jagatsinghpur district during the gale.
After the super cyclone Odisha State Disaster Mitigation Authority [OSDMA] was set up by the state government as an autonomous and non-profit-making organisation, and charitable institution, to formulate community-based disaster preparedness and extended a key role conducting activities on various state government departments, NGOs and long-term strategy on disaster management and preparedness. Meanwhile Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force [ODRAF] was created for the purpose and people were trained to meet the demand during calamites.
The post-cyclone restoration measures did not suffer due to BJP-led NDA government was at the Centre and its alliance BJD was ruling in Odisha. The then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Bajpai had categorically assured Odisha government that money would not be constrained for the Odisha’s reconstruction. So money and assistance was poured from the union government but the Odisha government and its officials are guilty of being insensitive towards the victims of the cyclone. They must take the blame for the slow pace of reconstruction drive in the state after passing of 12 years. The OSDMA formed in the wake of the gale has apparently failed to monitor many of the post-cyclone restoration measures and to launch a long-term project to combat with any future disaster.
Taking instances of irregularities official figures indicate that about 7090 people in Jagatsinghpur district were killed in the gale. So far 4232 families have been given compensation to the tune of Rs 75,000 each and 2648 cases have been rejected while 210 cases are still pending for sanction.
Even the strategic 327-km stretch of saline embankments which act as a barrier against the inward surge of tidal waves has been a victim of neglect. Therefore, several times during the last twelve years sea water has entered coastal regions through the unplugged portions of these embankments.
According to government sources almost all the damaged schools have been repaired or rebuilt. However, maintenance remains a challenging task, as people allege that ceilings of many of the newly constructed buildings leak even after slightest drizzle. This is allegedly because of the poor quality of materials used in construction.
The dense mangrove forests which grew naturally in Odisha coast was providing a permanent barrier against cyclones and tidal surges, but the unscrupulous clearance has made the coast bare and exposed the vagaries of cyclone in 1999. So restoration of mangrove forests require an urgent attention, suggested few environmentalists. Ironically Odisha government implemented the suggestion very late. Besides recently as many as 2 lakh trees were axed in Kujanga coast to clear land for the much-hyped Posco project. Deforestation is rampant in coastal region and forest department remains a mute spectator, as it has no major afforesting plan after the gale has struck the state.
However, the government defends that after the super cyclone of 1999 the government agencies have reoriented their approach in providing relief. Also projects are in progress to construct RCC cyclone shelters. The shelters can be used as schools and community centers in normal times. Housing schemes have been encouraged to cyclone resistant construction. Each cyclone centres has designed as per specification of IIT (Kolkata), which suggested a host of equipment like a high power torch and ropes. Each center can house about 4000 to 5000 people. OSDMA has taken endeavours to implement curative disaster management measures during the past few years.
“In the past twelve years people in Odisha have never felt ignored at the time of natural calamites. The state government has taken every crisis seriously and rushed helping people. The super cyclone was a lesson to the government and people of the state. We are now well prepared to meet any eventuality,” government officials from different departments inform.
By Kahnu Nanda from Jagatsinghpur