Cyclones, Flood, and COVID-19 Upends Lives in Odisha’s Soro Block

Cyclones, Flood, and COVID-19 Upends Lives in Odisha’s Soro Block

Clutching a bag in her hand, Munia Bibi clad in a pink and yellow saree, with the palloo firmly on her head, headed towards the primary school in her village on a Sunday morning. Ration kits were being distributed to cyclone-affected families. This is all she knew. Over the last one year she has made such trips quite regularly— sometimes to the ration shop and sometimes to these distributions.

The 40-year old and her mason husband, Sheikh Jalil, have been struggling to make ends meet for over a year now. They live in Belpur village in Anantpur Gram Panchayat in Balasore district. First he lost his job when the lockdown was announced    in March 2020. For the family of six the monthly ration by the state government was the only means of survival. Then Cyclone Amphan hit the Odisha coast on 2 May, 2020 partially damaging the thatched roof of her kutcha house. She borrowed money from her neighbours to repair hoping to payback once the lockdown was relaxed. At the time when things were returning to normalcy and Sheikh resumed work, the second wave of COVID-19 swept the country—cities and villages alike—and once again he was jobless.

On 26 May 2021, severe cyclonic storm ‘Yaas’ accompanied by high floods in the Kansabansa River razed her house to ground, forcing her to take shelter in the neighbour’s house. The government had already evacuated families and for 3 days the State Government provided cooked food to evacuees and cyclone-affected people. Children were given biscuits and 20 kgs of rice was given as emergency relief.The government officials made a preliminary survey of the losses she suffered in June. (Until mid-June when Oxfam India went with ration kits she was yet to get any compensation).

Kashiron Bibi, 35, has a different sorry story to tell. Her husband Sheikh Tajuddin, an auto-rickshaw owner, used to ferry passengers from Soro on National Highway 16 to Anantpur. However, the COVID-19 restrictions on movement of transport vehicles have rendered the 10-year-old auto-rickshaw non-functional. She is no longer able to fend her family of four with the meagre earnings she makes from her small poultry farm.

Godavari Jena, 36, of Sana Biripata village under Pakhar Gram Panchayat, was leading a decent life until the first wave of COVID-19 struck. Her husband, who worked as migrant worker in Gujarat, returned home after the factory unit where he worked shut down by the second wave. The Rs 7,000 Godavari had saved before the first lockdown was exhausted by March this year. Two cyclones—Amphan and Yaas— coupled with the lockdowns and the pandemic made it almost impossible for her to make their ends meet.

For those belonging to the fisherfolk community in the coastal villages, the last one and a half years have been tough too. Basanti Mallick, 42, of Purusottampur village under Anantapur Gram Panchayat now stares at an uncertain future. Her husband Lambodar Mallick, a fisherman who earned between Rs 200 to Rs 600 a day, has not been able to venture into the sea since the first wave of coronavirus. Fishing-trawlers anchored at the fishing bays on the coast as local markets remained shut and supplies to Kolkata and other towns got disrupted due to ban on inter-state transportations.

Though the Government of Odisha allowed inter-state transport of essential items, the four-month ban on fishing on the Odisha coast from March to June for ensuring safe breeding season for marine fish species has kept Lambodar and nearly 4000 fishermen confined to their homes. Their family members are now languishing in abject poverty.

Mohammed Gulzar Alam, a 28-year-old youth who recently completed his PhD scholar from Visva Bharati University at Shanti Niketan in West Bengal, is now cooling his heels at his home in Belpur village. He wants a teaching job at a university.

Alam voices the sad state of education in his and surrounding villages since the lockdown. “Hundreds of school going children in at least 10 villages in Pakhar and Anantapur Gram Panchayats are now sitting at their homes. Most of them are unable to continue their studies as they lack android phones for attending online classes. Although a few of them have access to android phones, their parents are unable to meet the cost towards mobile data requirement. Each student needs at least 2 GB (gigabytes) high-speed data to attend four online classes. It implies that the parents have to spend at least Rs 10-15 everyday on data,” says Alam. Clearly, the poverty-stricken family are not in a position to afford online classes.

Sana Khatun, a 17-year-old college-going student, has not been able to attend a single class ever since she took admission in Plus-II Arts class in the local college. “For the last 16 months, we have been staying at home. No online classes have been organised for us. We are at our wits end as to what we should do to pursue our studies, and realise our dream to stand on our own feet and support our families in the future,” says Sana.

“With the state government partially allowing agriculture activities, many of us had undertaken paddy cultivation paddy crop in our small landholdings for self-subsistence. The crop was just beginning to ripe. However, on May 26, 2021, the cyclonic storm Yaas ravaged our rebuilt houses and farmlands. The high floods in Kansabansa that followed the cyclone washed away whatever little belongings we had with us,” says Sheikh Kurban of Belpur in Soro block.

Trilochan Panigrahi, sarpanch of Pakhar Gram Panchayat, explains “The plights of the people in the area have multiplied post the cyclone Yaas. Most of the daily wage earners who had undertaken paddy cultivation in their small patches of land lost their crop in the storm and flood. They are now facing the threat of survival”.

After the storm subsided and the flood water receded, the officials of the Balasore district administration reached the disaster-hit villages for enumeration of affected families. Immediate relief materials, including food grains and drinking water, were supplied by the government agencies to most of the affected families. However, a sizeable chunk of people were left out in the enumeration process.

Biswanath Behera, sarpanch of the neighbouring Anantapur Gram Panchayat, informs that nearly 512 families, who were left out by the government agencies during distribution of emergency relief, are now subsisting on ration provided by aid agencies.

Through Mission Sanjeevani, Oxfam India in collaboration with its local partner Pallishree distributed ration kits and hygiene kits to 515 families. Oxfam India through its volunteers carried out a detailed survey of the disaster-hit villages and identified the people who needed immediate support. Accordingly they carried out a relief operation in Pakhar and Anantapur gram panchayats for five days from 9 June to 13 June.

“We work as daily wage earners. Almost for the past two years, we have been jobless. We were literally starving, but now this timely support has enabled us to sustain ourselves and wait for the lockdown restrictions to be lifted so that we can resume our work,” said 38-year Sheikh Bhallaudin of Belpur.


Akshaya is a journalist with the Asian Age in Odisha. 

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