Category Archives: India

Reflections on Cyclone Phailin

This is a short summary of insights and inferences I have drawn upon from my experience in Oxfam India Cyclone Odisha response programme implemented in Puri, Ganjam and Balasore districts in 2013.

With the help of practical observations and direct implementation of the programme, I came across these challenges and reflections.

 

The critical nature of emergency response warrants for immediate short-term measures to save lives: some of the issues that crop up hence are related to targeting the most vulnerable vs. reaching out to entire communities. The impacts of such short-term decisions lie at the interface between the relief/emergency and longer-term recovery objectives of the communities. The experience was useful for me to learn how proposals were developed, how and what lessons from previous evaluations and experiences were incorporated, how consortium of different INGOs work together, how organizations retain (or do not) the experiences and learning of the consultants.

 

On resilience (in terms of preparedness) and how ensuring strict state protocol for early warning and evacuation system saved lives and important valuables. There were so many gaps and delays in govt response to the affected communities with relief items. Onslaught of secondary/multiple disaster such as cyclones and floods affecting different districts at the same time was very similar to what I observed in Assam as well – conflicts, repeated floods and erosion. The State machinery lags behind in responding to multiple challenges.

 

Few other lessons were: –

  1. Preparedness should not be the only yardstick to measure resilience. It saves lives definitely when disaster strikes, but resilience should also be determined by how communities actually recover and what are the gaps and how long it takes to recover completely. The unmet needs of communities – the most marginalized ones were livelihoods and shelter, which does not warrant adequate response from the govt whose primary mandate is relief-based. This is concurrent to what I observed even in Assam.
  2. Within each village, hamlet, district there are major groups of people who are left out – invisible groups, the most vulnerable (poor, socio – economically the lower strata)  – from the relief or rehabilitation intervention by government and even by NGOs; households who do not own the land, or fisherman who cannot afford to own boats, are left out from receiving benefits due to lack of papers to prove.
  3. This brings to mind the difference between what agencies such as Oxfam or others can do in events such as cyclones – do they respond to chronic issues of under-development or mal-development in most cases or to acute problems that arose due to the disasters.DSC01582
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Solmari: Another village lost

2013-10-16 15.57.54I said good-bye to my study village yesterday, and celebrated their festival Id with them. Gave my thanks for the time I spent there for the past two years and the support and motivation the people of Solmari gave me for my research. While unpacking resilience and recovery debates in Solmari I have discovered layers and linkages within me, and around me that were unknown to me all the while. I would like to share this particular story with all of you.

I first came to Solmari in July 2012, just when it was flooded due to the heavy rains that caused the breach in the embankment.  (Image – breached embankment). I am a photographer – researcher, so my memory and mind functions in the form of images. Lasting images that are etched in my mind are that of the run-down school and concrete community building that had borne the brunt of the breach. Few other images are of vast stretches of land filled with river water, shattered houses built under Indira Awaas Yojana, people stranded on the embankment and many others trying to salvage from the ruins. The impact of these images were so powerful in my mind, that I was motivated to return here to understand how the communities recovered post-floods.

As I had been remotely keeping an eye on how things developed here, I found news reports and Oxfam situation updates that there were consecutive waves of floods until October 2012, and people were forced to leave their villages and continue living in camps.

I visited Solmari twice this year in January and in August 2013. It was very evident, that the entire village-land was sand-casted and no agriculture was possible in this land. The repeated onslaught of floods indeed had prolonged the rebuilding of their lives and livelihoods. The urgent needs and concerns of the most vulnerable groups were met by Oxfam interventions. Resilience for them was construction of the new embankment for protection from floods, and raised platforms for shelter during floods. The Panchayat undertook construction of the new embankment, and two raised platforms. The quality and durability of these are questionable as the rains

Today I look back at Solmari, which stands nowhere, lying on the wrong-side of the new embankment, the entire community was forced to relocate without any support from the government. The crops and the tree-cover owned by few, lie exposed to the river, which is eroding the soil everyday. With a focused review of recovery processes in water, sanitation and hygiene practices, I found that it remains the primary challenge, besides land and livelihoods. But the question still remains – what makes Solmari resilient in the larger scheme of things? Without adequate support systems – either from government or non-government organizations, what will catalyze the recovery or redevelopment process?

And this is not the only Solmari in Assam, there were many other villages whose name none remember, that were washed away by Brahmaputra today – except for those to whom it belonged, there will be many more Solmaris this year and the next and in the future as well. I saw a similar pattern, and have heard about decades of erosion stories from my research in Morigaon as well? Where do we draw a line, or is it really ok if such unheard stories of villages gets lost in the relief-resilience-development conundrum?

How do recovery lessons from Assam applied elsewhere like in the case of recent Uttarakhand cloudburst or Cyclone Phailin?

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How resilient is India?

The months of June/July for emergency practitioners is the month of immediate action, for media is fodder for news and of course for the people a season that begins with rains followed by floods. The administration is often seen claiming for making adequate preparation and having everything ready for the monsoons to arrive, but often these faulty claims are washed away with the first heavy showers and downpour. In major cities like Mumbai or Delhi, gaping holes in roads, heavy traffic blocks, overflowing sewages, overflooded railway tracks, washed-down settlements are common sights of the dismal preparations by the administration. While in other regions of India, where monsoon remains a season of dread and danger such as Assam or the northern hilly regions, heavy rains and recurring floods have become a regular phenomena, integral to their lives and preparedness to deal with it. No matter how much India has moved ahead in emergency planning and disaster management, the losses and damages, as well as deaths following such ‘natural’ disasters are not validating the claims of being a ‘disaster resilient nation and people’. Where are we lacking, where do we draw our lessons and how do we implement our ideas into policy and action? These issues are debated and discussed over national television, universities, closed -door meetings, agency workshops and coordination meetings, but how close has anyone come to see any action? at any level – national or state policy, local communities or responding agencies?

How often do our lessons get lost in the complexities and interplay of politics, economics and social and administrative factors? How often are our actions rendered minuscule in the larger goals and objectives of development of regions and masses beyond any differences?

The deaths of more than 1200 people in the flash floods in Uttarakhand, variously termed by politicians as the ‘Himalayan Tsunami’ may sound as a wake-up call to many, who may discuss and promise action, but soon ignore and overlook these underlying causes and we wait another impending disaster to happen. Transforming societies in the modern age, informed and agitated youth in various other countries have showed us the power that resides in collective action for a common cause, from the Arab spring revolutions to the recent Gezi protests in Turkey. But how often is any window of opportunity maximised for a policy change and transformation within societies, agencies or nations? India has a challenging role to play, being a leader in the South Asian region, and a functioning democracy and emerging economy in the global South, how does it treat its commons and the issues they suffer in their day-to-day lives?

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