Floods in Orissa: No lessons learnt – An article in EPW

This article by Kishore C Samal in the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) discusses how in the natural disater prone state of Orissa the authorities have not been able to draw up an effective disaster management plan and politicians continue to play politics with relief works. It argues that for dealing with these disasters and the relief and rehabilitation work that follows what is needed is the participation of the local community and functionaries of panchayati raj institutions, and coordination with national and international bodies.

The unusually high amount of rainfall in many districts causes floods in all the major rivers of the state. The Mahanadi, Brahmani, Baitarani, Rushikulya, Bansadhara, Budhabalanga, Subarnarekha, etc, are the major rivers in the state which flow towards the Bay of Bengal. The coastal districts like Bhadrak, Kendrapada, Balasore, and Jajpur are most prone to floods as the 2011 experience showed. Orissa has faced two massive floods in 1982 and 2001.

A point to be noted is that the potential impact of a natural disaster on a house­hold can be varied, depending as it does on the household’s vulnerability and capacity to cope with the consequences of natural disasters. Generally, households with the lowest incomes are the most vul­nerable.

Politicians belonging to the state’s ruling party were seen openly indulging in the “politics of relief”. Even as the state government was conducting relief opera­tions, these leaders would visit the affected areas almost daily to distribute relief materials they had collected from the pri­vate sector. In the worst affected areas the scene resembled that of the pre-poll days. It has been alleged that almost all the ruling party politicians badgered the district administration to keep their con­stituencies in mind during relief distribu­tion. Their concern was no doubt also due to the massive compensation funds that were to be distributed in the flood-affected areas and the equally huge sums that would be spent for reconstruction and rehabilitation works.

Floods have been a perennial problem in the coastal districts of Orissa since 1859. As early as 1928, a committee was set up to study all aspects of this issue and was followed by the Flood Advisory Com­mittee (1938-39). The 1928 committee considered the problem to be that of disposal of excess flood water while the advisory committee viewed it as one of proper distribution and disposal of excess rain water. It recommended a system of embankments to control the flooding. The Hirakud Dam was constructed in 1957 mainly to control floods.

Not everyone looks upon these big dams as solutions. There has been strong opposition from the local people to pro­posals for the Tikarpada project in the past and now, to the Sindol project.  In fact, the 1980 flood was blamed on the release of water from the Hirakud Dam. However, the problem does not lie with the dam itself but with its siltation. Increased run-off from the upstream catchments following deforestation (which results in increased soil erosion) seems to have rendered inadequate the original live storage of the Hirakud Dam which was designed on the basis of past trends in the run-off from the upstream catch­ments (Satapathy 1993).

There is a need for affor­estation in both the upper and lower catchment areas of big dams (e g, the Hirakud and the Rengali Dams) of Orissa. Another long-term measure could be the provision of safer houses for people who could be potentially affected. The weak shelters (i e, houses constructed of clay mud, unbaked clay blocks and bricks, field stones, etc) which are supposed to protect residents end up killing them during floods and cyclones (Arya 2003). While these and other long-term disaster management measures are urgently needed, the unholy nexus between politi­cians, burueaucrats and contractors who supply relief materials proves to be an obstacle.

However, during the unfolding of a natural disaster or the relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction work that follows, the participation of the local community is essential. It should form the core of any disaster preparedness and mitigation effort. The Tenth Five-Year Plan document also emphasised the need for community level initiatives in managing disaster. Similarly, functionaries of panchayati raj institu­tions must also be involved in relief and rehabilitation work.

It should also be kept in mind that it is not the government alone that can cope with the high intensity and sudden impact of natural disasters like the cyclone of 1999 and the recent floods in the state. There has to be the widest possible mobili­sation of various groups, organisations and institutions at the local, national and international level.

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