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DISASTER MISMANAGEMENT

On October 29, three years ago, a powerful cyclone ripped through the Orissa coast, killing about 10,000 people and destroying over a million homes. It was a colossal tragedy for one of the poorest states of India where the monthly per capita income is less than Rs 600. Besides causing physical damage, the cyclone also set back the debt-ridden state by another 50 years.

Three years later, Orissa shows little signs of having emerged from the abyss the cyclone hurled it into. Funds for the rebuilding exercise have dried up as international funding agencies went back on their initial promises. A cash-strapped Naveen Patnaik government, with a debt burden of Rs 24,000 crore, has choosen to go slow on the cyclone reconstruction. At places like Ersama the rebuilding exercise has been hijacked by self-serving politicians. As if man-made tragedies were not enough, the state also had to face three successive natural disasters — drought in 2000, floods in 2001 and again a drought this year. It could not have been any worse.

More than anything, the rebuilding of a financially-bankrupt Orissa has been stymied by the international funding agencies’ failure to deliver. For all the hype, the World Bank and United Kingdom-based Department for International Development have so far doled out just about Rs 52 crore between them. Though about Rs 20,000 crore is needed to offset the damages of the supercyclone, the World Bank and DFID doles would have been of some help. While the bank has given only Rs 27 crore of the promised Rs 220 crore, DFID has delivered Rs 25 crore of the promised Rs 255 crore to the Orissa state disaster mitigation authority, the executing agency for cyclone reconstruction work.

Of the Rs 2,400 crore the state received for cyclone reconstruction in the last three years, the majority has come from the Centre in the form of national calamity contingency fund grants and Indira Awas Yojana houses for the poor. The Centre gave Rs 1,320 crore for 6 lakh houses under Indira Awas Yojana, Rs 105 crore for food-for-work programmes and Rs 77.67 crore under Operation Black Board, for setting up primary schools.

Apart of the delay can be attributed to the funding patterns of the World Bank as well as the political interference in the cyclone-reconstruction work. Instead of placing the funds directly with OSDMA, the World Bank insisted that various departments of the state government would have to spend the money first and then seek reimbursement through the OSDMA. With a mounting debt burden, the state has found it difficult to arrange funds that would be reimbursed later.

The cumbersome procedures of the World Bank have meant that the state has to wait for funds endlessly. While Rs 70 crore has been spent by various state government departments, only Rs 27 crore has been reimbursed so far while another Rs 17 crore is likely to be reimbursed soon. As if this were not enough, a few months ago the World Bank allegedly declared that it would not be giving the promised amount for the next phase of the reconstruction work after several delegations had visited the state to hold talks with state government officials. With the World Bank reneging on its promise, OSDMA bosses have been left to face the brickbats for the slow reconstruction work.

Similar is the case with DFID. During the beginning of the cyclone-reconstruction work, DFID bosses had promised about Rs 255 crore. While it has delivered Rs 9 crore for rehabilitation work, of the promised Rs 28 crore, another Rs 6 crore has been given for the supply of medicines. The milk producers’ cooperative societies have been given another Rs 10 crore. The DFID is yet to give out more than Rs 200 crore for the primary school reconstruction it had promised.

As funds from international funding agencies dry up, the rebuilding target has become hard to achieve. So far only half of the 7 lakh fully-damaged houses have been completed under the Indira Awas Yojana scheme. However, more than the houses, it is the roads, almost destroyed by the cyclone, which need rebuilding.

In the Ersama block, where the destruction was one of the most severe, World Bank-assisted roads took the longest time to build because of vested interests. The Rs 3 crore road with a width of 30 feet was split among three contractors because of political pressure. It was only in August that the roads became fit for use. But even then they were not of World Bank-standard.

“How fast things can be done not only depends on logistics, but also on the work culture a society accepts for itself. The resistance to adoption of required quality standards was substantial,” says Aurobindo Behera, managing director of OSDMA, referring to the Ersama road. A quality-resistant Orissa has so far stonewalled Behera’s efforts to bring in work culture.

Lack of quality roads in the cyclone-hit areas has sent the cost of building materials spiralling. In Ambiki village in interior Ersama, 1,000 bricks now cost as much as Rs 2,300, largely due to higher transportation costs. The cost of stone chips, sand and other materials has also gone up. With a paltry assistance of Rs 22,000 for constructing an Indira Awas Yojana house, the poor have found it nearly impossible to complete building the house. In several villages, people have constructed Indira Awas Yojana houses, but do not have enough money to put in the asbestos roof.

While lack of funds was one of the many impediments, absence of political resolve also severely hamstrung the rebuilding process. Apart from inaugurating a few cyclone shelters at regular intervals and chairing official meetings on cyclone reconstruction, the chief minister has done precious little to arrange resources. His only achievement has been persuading the Centre to dole out funds for the Indira Awas Yojana houses. Besides, three successive disasters have taken the spotlight away from the damages wrought by the cyclone.

Though the state government set up the OSDMA just after the cyclone, there was no full-time managing director heading the agency for over a year. There have been four managing directors in the last three years. There have been eight special relief commissioners since 2000. Wasteful expenditure of the cyclone funds has also not helped things. The official bungalow of a senior member of the judiciary in the state was allegedly repaired at a cost of Rs 18 lakh from the National Fund for Calamity Relief.

The non-governmental sector has fared no better. Besides conducting numerous workshops and seminars at swanky hotels in Bhubaneswar, NGOs have little to show by way of achievement. Most of them, barring a few, complain about how the government has failed in the rebuilding of houses and lives. The few hundred NGOs have built only 5,000 houses though during the time of the disaster, they had hogged all the limelight. Now there are fewer NGOs in the affected areas. Most of them can now be seen at disaster mitigation workshops with slick audio-visual presentations.

As the state prepares to observe October 29 as Disaster Preparedness Day, it looks almost ironic. Orissa has 35 new cyclone shelters with another 63 in the offing, but the number is nowhere near the required 512. In several villages, the cyclone shelters can hardly accommodate one-fourth of the population. VHF networks have been installed in only 6 coastal districts of Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapara, Bhadrak, Cuttack, Balasore and Nayagarh. Collectors of only 20 of the 30 districts have been given satellite phones for emergency purposes. Community contingency plans have been in place in just 10 pilot blocks of the 200 vulnerable ones.

The only silver lining has been the setting up of 25 more cyclone warning centres in addition to the existing 11 and a cyclone detection radar of the Indian meteorological department at Paradeep. An Orissa disaster rapid action force has been set up to strengthen disaster preparedness. But once the memories of the cyclone fade into oblivion, disaster preparedness may remain another fancy word that will be mouthed only in seminars. Meanwhile, disasters would continue to visit Orissa.

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