By Vasudha Chhotray
October is the month of Durga Puja and like in the rest of the country, a warm festive spirit hangs in the air in Odisha. There is a sense of life at its fullest. Memories of Friday the 29th this same month in 1999 temporarily retreat to the background amidst the hope of celebration. Is it surprising that an event 14 years ago should at all be a part of collective memory? Those who have seen the scenes of catastrophe in 1999, or spoken to people caught in it directly, will understand why the super-cyclone or mahabatya (in odiya) has become a marker in time of sorts. Life before and after the mahabatya was how many in cyclone-affected villages told their stories.
The super-cyclone was a watershed moment for the state machinery of Odisha too. Every single triumph of the government in ensuring the safety of nearly a million people after the occurrence of Cyclone Phailin owed itself to the systematic and thoughtful measures put in place after the debacle of 1999. This was clearly a government that had paid attention. Institutionalising a dedicated disaster management authority with a considerable mandate has been at the centre of its strategy. This body has overseen the modernisation of warning and surveillance systems, the establishment of a large number of multipurpose cyclone shelters, the creation of disaster rapid action force units, and a process of sensitisation of local bureaucrats and elected functionaries to remain alert and prepared. We know now that each measure, amongst others, has played its part in minimising the body count. The “million strong evacuation” is a rousing achievement, and it has warmed the hearts of many Indians, tired of cynical politics, that a government in this country is actually capable of such a feat.
Phailin is firmly in the past, and people are coming home. What they will see, or are already seeing, will remind them of 1999, and the government’s timely heroism will matter a little less. Scenes of collapsed mud huts, still pathetic homes to the vast majority of coastal residents, and wasted property, are irrefutable proof of state failure to transform the landscape of housing in vulnerable areas. In the days and weeks after the super-cyclone in 1999, the government and many well-meaning NGOs offered assistance to create temporary shelters by providing materials like tarpaulin and bamboo. Help was given to reconstruct these mud