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SPOTLIGHT

Flooded by disaster

When disasters strike again and again, the sufferings can break the resilience of a people. Orissa has been ravaged by natural calamities in the last 10 years. GOUTAM GHOSH wonders why this happens every year.

GOUTAM GHOSH

Remains of a hut ... is this defined as partial damage or total damage?

THE floodwaters have receded in Orissa. This year's flood was another crippling blow on the already swollen shin of life there. Wasted paddy — brown, stiff and bent — refused to sway in the breeze that blew occasionally across the flood plains. Fertile tracts were robbed of the crop by the floodwaters of the Mahanadi, the Vamsadhara and the Indravati that swept away in its wake the hopes of farmers as well.

The scene of destruction was everywhere: a mud wall of a hut which crumbled after standing partly submerged in water; marks of the water line on brick house walls; a patched-up breached embankment leading to a village in Kendrapara district; stretches of water that refused to quit even two weeks after the floods ended officially on September 12.

What happens after floods hit is a familiar tale. How Orissa is during a flood depends on where you are. If you are in a helicopter, you will see a picturesque stretch of water with trees and huts like blobs of green and brown on a canvas of ochre-blue. You cannot assess the flood damage from the air. You must visit the marooned villages to know what life is like.

If you live in a flood-prone district — Puri, Kendrapara, Jagatsinghpur, Jajpur, or any of the 23 flood-hit districts — and you see the water level rising fast, you may just have time to rush to the roof (if you have one) with whatever valuables you possess. What happens to you and your family after you reach a safe height or an elevated embankment depends on how the rest of humanity, including the policy makers, responds to your plight. You wait for relief, survive on whatever you get, and after the floodwaters recede you assess your loss at leisure.

When disasters strike again and again, it can break the resilience of a people. Orissa has been ravaged by natural calamities the last 10 years with four floods, five droughts and a supercyclone. After a devastating flood in 2001, a drought in 2002, floods have hit the State this year. Despite a system that responded with alacrity, organised relief and resource persons from within the State, one wonders why this must happen again and again in Orissa. Is there any flaw in the State policy that could contribute, however remotely, to the persistent vulnerability of its people?

One must first laud the State administration that met head-on the impact of the calamity. "Given our experience after the floods in 2001, we decided to keep stocks of relief material, including medicines, in the districts. We had helicopters in stand-by but reached the marooned villages in boats because distributional efficiency is higher. Air-dropped relief may not reach all the affected people. All the resources were organised from within the State. We did not seek outside help," said the Special Relief Commissioner, R. Balakrishnan. He was the Additional Relief Commissioner in flood-hit Jajpur in 2001. To overcome the problems of communication after a natural disaster, the administration armed its officers with mobile phones "... that aided the co-ordination of relief and rescue operations this time," said Balakrishnan.

Just as any other State does, Orissa too appealed for additional relief from the Centre to meet the contingencies. The glossy memorandum, with colour pictures — a benchmark in relief memorandum — submitted to the Centre could not mask the inconsistencies. Table 5.7.1 showed the figures "in crores" though it was obviously in lakhs. When added up, the figures yielded a total of Rs.1699.78 lakhs, not Rs.2299.78 lakhs as printed. The mistake could cost the Central Government Rs.6 crores if it were to take the figures at face value.

Consider the house building assistance of Rs.15.5 crores claimed. According to the report, 1.85 lakh houses were damaged. The average allocation for a damaged house is therefore Rs. 838, which may not even suffice to repair a partly damaged hut, leave alone replace a fully damaged one. Orissa's demand for Rs.1793.05 crore relief and 9.4 lakh tonnes of food (mainly to replace the foodgrains which were redirected from food for work programmes to flood relief) may be justified by the circumstances but what is the State doing to insulate its people from natural hazards? Raising the embankments or building new ones is no solution. One is reminded of the central theme of Fukuoka's One-Straw Revolution — learn to live with Nature.

"The Hirakud dam was one of the three which were to have been built for irrigation and flood control. Hirakud was intended mainly for flood control," said S. Patri, chief engineer, Hirakud dam. The document of 1947 showed that three dams were recommended at Hirakud, Tikarpara and Mundali. The Tikarpara dam was to have been multipurpose and largest of the three, but Hirakud was the one that was built and became multipurpose — for irrigation, water supply, power generation and flood control. As a result, its role in flood control was compromised.

The 2003 floods, according to Patri, were because of the downstream catchment beyond the Hirakud dam. The official rule curve (on inflow and discharge) shows that the water was stored at the dam longer and the discharge was only after the inflow peaked from the upper catchment areas in Chhatisgarh.

But it is not just the dam. Why is it that there are droughts almost every alternate year, sometimes in successive years? Is it because the irrigation system is inadequate to supply the much-needed water for crops in remote districts?

Let us consider two States: Orissa and Gujarat, both of which have comparable figures of population per sq.km and almost a similar size. According to the ``State's Economy in Figures: Orissa 2002'', Orissa has a higher rural population, lower literacy rate, and nearly double the percentage of population below the poverty line even though the per capita food output was nearly double that of Gujarat, according to the 1999-2000 data. Obviously the people in Orissa did not have the means to buy the foodgrains. The average size of land holding in Orissa was nearly half that in Gujarat, which is probably because of its larger rural population.

In industrialisation, Gujarat (rank 2) was way ahead of Orissa (rank 15) whose net domestic product was only 43.6 per cent that of Gujarat. But Orissa has a much wider network of roads and railway lines than Gujarat, and has significant mineral deposits (coal, bauxite, iron ore and more). That the network of roads in Orissa is in bad shape on an average is hardly an issue because roads can be improved if the policy changes in favour of surface communication facilities.

To blame the status of Orissa on natural calamities alone would probably be close to the ostrich paradigm. Why is it that private entrepreneurs hesitate to invest in the State? How can they take a chance when the State has very little to offer in terms of communication (roads are uniformly in bad shape) while industrial estates hardly exist?

The State offers nothing to promote and reward entrepreneurship. One of the most enduring ills in Orissa is that it has inadequate facilities for primary education. Though awareness does not imply an automatic desire to work hard to raise one's quality of life, it is a valid starting point.

Orissa has shown that it can handle a severe flood all on its own. Lapses are expected — there was no doctor in Ambahana public health centre in Gop, Puri district but where medical relief was distributed to the flood-affected people by the non-medical staff.

Orissa also cannot boast of an impressive track record in relief fund usage. In 2001, several cyclone relief centres were seen which were never completed. The Government has again raised its demand for funds to build cyclone relief centres.

The State is blessed with a powerful bureaucracy where hierarchy disappeared after the calamity this year. Therefore, the State can do wonders if the highly educated and aware bureaucracy decides to make a difference.

As Pratip K. Mohanty, Chief Secretary said, "It will happen." One hopes he keeps the promise — with total support from the elected representatives of the people.

Safety compromised?



Fishing at the reservoir ... what about the dam's security?

HIRAKUD dam across the Mahanadi lies prone — strong, stable, static and deceptively deep. To hold a wall of water 630 ft deep at the dam after a good spell of rain (this is more than two-and-a-half times the height of Qutub Minar in Delhi) it has to be strong. As the Collector of Sambalpur, Surendra Kumar said, "If the dam were to break? We won't be around to alert Bhubaneshwar... The security is abysmal. The dam measures five kms across. Just imagine the volume of water it holds," Kumar said.

The proof of the abysmal security was seen in the afternoon. The rectangular column of water shooting out through two sluice gates, hitting the paraboloid break wall, creating a wall of water several metres high and a spray that moved like a pendulum in the breeze was a sight to behold. That the water meandered to a tame flow about a 100 metres downstream was irrelevant. What mattered was to see, and record, the power of water as it gushed out. "You should have watched when the water was released from all the gates during the floods to prevent topping the dam," Kumar said later.

The lone security man at the barricade refused to allow entry even when Government employees tried to persuade him. After a call to Bhubaneshwar, a senior Government official alerted the Collector who immediately came on line. He spoke to the sentry who meekly allowed the group of four, including the correspondent, to enter the sterile area. Photographs were taken from the top. There was no need to visit the innards of the dam — a highly sensitive zone.

"How did the sentry know that I was the Collector? Just because he spoke to me on the mobile phone? And said that I was the Collector? It could have been anybody pretending to be the Collector," said Mr. Kumar. What he implied was that terrorists could, therefore, enter the sterile zone the same way. Or someone could swim up to the dam from upstream, fix an explosive and blow it up using remote control. Given the damage potential if the Hirakud dam collapsed, the State must tighten the security at and around the dam.

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