The increase in frequency and intensity of cyclones and floods in Odisha necessitates a thorough response to disasters beyond evacuation and initial relief. What has earned good name for the Government of Odisha, and rightly so, is the effective and timely evacuation and distribution of instant relief. For Cyclone Fani, the relief package contained 50 kg rice, cash of Rs. 2000/- and a polythene sheet or Rs. 500/- extra in lieu of the polythene sheet. After four months of the landing of Cyclone Fani, affected communities are asking a few questions. We need to find answers to them.
The first related to the timeliness of the distribution of housing compensation. The rainy season followed the landing of the Cyclone Fani, but the housing compensation did not reach people when they needed it the most, before the onset of the rainy season. Why could not that have also been distributed in a timely manner? Why has electricity still not been restored in the remote affected villages in Puri district? Livelihood compensation packages have still not reached people. Why have not these essential rehabilitation measures been taken to help communities regain self-reliance on the issue of livelihood? Employment guarantee programmes could have been activated so that people could have used innovatively these projects to clean the debris, rebuild their livelihoods and even rebuild their houses. Why did not occur to administrators to tweak existing schemes in the light of what was needed by communities in the districts affected by Cyclone Fani?
Unless these lessons aren’t learned, these questions may get repeated disaster after disaster. Communities, their leaders, media and all stakeholders, especially the government, need to think beyond the initial evacuation and relief, which in the case of the State of Odisha we can be justifiably proud to say that we have by now almost perfected.
The international conventions which provide directions to this sector of disaster response and preparedness can guide us. To start with, under the Sendai Framework, a 15-year non-binding agreement reached under the aegis of the UN Office of Disaster Risk Reduction, provides directions for us with four priorities of action outlined – understanding risk; strengthening disaster risk governance; investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience; and lastly, enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response and to build back better in recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction. Adhering to the last three points is crucial for Odisha; we need to sharpen the local-level disaster risk governance and invest in it and see to it that we build in disaster response, recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction.
More specifically we need to focus on two things, firstly we need to sharpen our response beyond evacuation and initial relief and build local capacities (Panchayat/block/district-level) to face disasters. Secondly village infrastructure also needs to be built in such a way that it can be disaster resilient. Individual houses, cyclone shelters, roads and school buildings, need to be disaster-resilient and Panchayat and district authorities need to have funds to do the initial relief work. This is true for Odisha and is also relevant for the rest of India.
The Sendai Framework puts the main responsibility of disaster risk reduction on local government. It places governments at the center of disaster risk reduction with the framework emphasizing on the need to strengthen disaster risk governance. It also puts emphasis on addressing the causal factors of the risk of not only natural but also man-made disasters. Sendai Framework rightly puts emphasis on social and environmental vulnerability. Social vulnerability is crucial, and it affects the community’s capability to access government measures like evacuation to cyclone shelters, access to compensation packages. We have observed in many disasters including the Cyclone Fani in Odisha, Dalits in some areas in Puri district faced problems in accessing the cyclone shelters and preferred to take shelter precariously under the trees or nearby pucca houses. Some of the remote villages in Gop block did not even receive the warning of the cyclone. The key takeaway from this is that we need to factor in the social vulnerabilities and make special arrangements for Dalits and other vulnerable sections including tribal communities, minorities, if any, persons with disability, the elderly, women and children. In fact, the highest number of casualties in Titli cyclone in October 2018, was from tribal communities as they did not know about the severity of the cyclone. The non-coastal districts of Odisha are also witnessing cyclones; the Titli cyclone affected Gajapati district the most.
The Sendai Framework also indicated the need to pay attention to integrated environmental and natural resource management approaches to reduce risk. It is an extremely important thing to consider, both in slow and rapid onset disasters. The best way of dealing with repeated droughts in India is to revive the traditional water harvesting structures and build new ones to conserve water and practice climate-resilient agriculture using traditional seeds. An inspiring example can be seen brought about in a Paudi Bhuyan settlement in Kiri village, Mahulpada Panchayat Lahunipara Block, Sundargarh District. The Paudi Bhuyan are a particularly vulnerable tribal group. They escaped the wrath of drought in 2015 in Odisha and in subsequent years because of their robust water harvesting structures and traditional agriculture. We have a lot to learn locally while adhering to international standards of risk reduction!
Along with the Sendai Framework, the Core Humanitarian Standards (CHS), initiated in 2014 through a global consultation process, of which ActionAid International was also a part, is also important to use as a guide to improve the quality of disaster response in Odisha and elsewhere in the country. There a nine CHS, and the first two underline the need for communities and people affected by crisis to receive assistance that is appropriate and relevant to their needs and at the right time. As mentioned earlier, the evacuation was timely in Odisha, thereby saving a lot of lives, and so was the early relief package distribution by the government. However, the housing compensation packages announced by the state government have not yet reached people. The affected households are suffering a lot without a roof on their heads or some without even a house or with walls all cracked up. Although communities affected by Cyclone Fani know about their rights and entitlements, they don’t have enough access to information and opportunity to participate in decisions that affect them, nor do they know as to how to speed up delivery of the compensation packages. As per CHS, communities and people affected by crisis should have access to safe and responsive mechanisms to handle complaints. We need to build transparency mechanisms, that are currently missing, and set up accountability structures so people can know whom to approach for the quick disposal of their complaints and grievances. In Odisha we have heard people in affected villages complaining that their houses have not been appraised for compensation, while ones without any damage have been cleared for compensation. These complaints need to be addressed. The idea of social audits of compensation packages, transparency boards on criteria of selection and list of beneficiaries is crucial in this case. The civil society organizations working in this sector should also adhere to the core humanitarian standards and donors should insist on transparency boards, social audits and complaint boxes. There is no dearth of resources to face disasters and prepare and act on a robust preparedness plan but the accountability practices like those mentioned above will see to it that the resources are well spent for the right people at the right time and in the right spirit.
In conclusion we must resist the tendency to focus exclusively on emergency response and neglect engaging with communities for disaster preparedness. In face of the prospects of frequently occurring disasters, this is not a good strategy. We must recognize the best success is achieved when affected communities and their networks, working with the government and civil society organisations complement each other’s interventions. It is only the coordinated response by the local government, civil society and communities at large that can ensure that we not only save lives but also see to it that more and more people are less affected by disasters and those affected recover quickly.
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