India: After the Flood

Originally published
Niall Roche, a member of Concern's Emergency Response Team in Orissa, reports on the aftermath of the 'supercyclone' that hit the impoverished Indian state last October.
The three women had heard that a cylone lay off the coast. In the days leading up to October 29 some warnings had been broadcast and passed on by those in the village of Gohala* with radios. But there was nothing to warn of the ferocity to follow.

Ramina, Surati and Bhanumati - all in their late forties - were preparing their (once) daily meal of rice and dal (lentils) when the 'supercyclone' hit.

As the winds gathered strength the women sought shelter with others in one of Gohala's two concrete buildings. There they remained for the next two days, as their village was literally wiped from the face of the earth.

Inside the shelter, there was no food and the only drinking water available was rain that ran off the roof. One woman gave birth on the first night, but the child died shortly afterwards.

When the three women finally emerged, the village lay in ruins. Their straw and stick dwellings had been obliterated. The crucial rice crop had been completely destroyed and over 200 of the village's domestic animals - an important resource - had been killed.

And yet, in some respects the villagers of Gohala were lucky. No uprooted trees crushed their shelter, as had happened elsewhere in Orissa. Equally, the village is located just far enough inland to have avoided the tidal waves - as high as 30 feet in some places - that claimed a still unknown number of lives.

Officially, the death toll stands at 9,500. However, assessments carried out by the Concern team strongly suggest that figure could treble. But Ramina, Surati and Bhanumati do not feel particularly lucky. All three belong to what are known as the 'scheduled castes' placing them, in effect, on the very lowest rung of India's socio-economic ladder.

That status is reflected in their work, as all three are landless and earn a subsistence living as farm labourers. Traditionally, their chief source of income comes from the annual harvest. With the rice crop destroyed, work will be in short supply this year.

The women have also lost the food stores they had managed to accumulate. They now survive on one meal every two days. Most nights they sleep in the open, although there is occasional shelter available in what remains of the local school.

None of the three has blankets and there is neither straw nor bamboo available with which to rebuild homes. The nights are cold and there is a heavy dew in the mornings. Consequently, the risk of pneumonia and other respiratory infections is high.

The three say that perhaps death would have been better, easier than the hardships they will have to endure in the coming months and years. They say it will take years before the people of Gohala begin to recover.

Concern supported Ramina, Surati and Bhanumati with emergency supplies of rice and dal. We have also distributed essential plastic sheeting - to build temporary shelters - blankets and clothes.

They are but three of almost 200,000 men, women and children to whom Concern is supplying emergency relief. Their stories are repeated daily among the 20 million people affected by the October 29 'super-cyclone'.

Concern has already allocated £100,000 to emergemcy relief for Orissa, but anticipates spending £500,000.

* Village of Gohala lies approx 30 minutes drive north of Orissa state capital, Bhubaneshwar.

Author: Niall Roche
Phone: 1850 410510
Concern, Upper Camden Street, Dublin 2.