'First COVID-19 and now Amphan': Farmers in coastal Odisha stare at an uncertain future as cyclone destroys crops, only means of livelihood
Cyclone Amphan made its landfall in the Sundarban area of West Bengal, but before that, on its way, it left destruction in hundreds of villages in Odisha's Balasore district
On, the early morning of 20 May, Ashok Rout, a 32-year-old farmer in Kankadapal in Chaumukh panchayat of Balasore district woke up to a wet and windy morning.
“It was raining and wind speed was not that much,” recalls Ashok, adding “I was only thinking about the fate of my betel vine field and groundnut crops, on which my family depends heavily.”
A day after, Ashok is thinking what he can do to feed his family of five, incuding his father, mother, wife and his three-year-old son. The Cyclone Amphan (pronounced UM-PUN) which ravaged through the eastern coast during 20-21 May has left his groundnut crops submerged in one feet deep water and the betel vine fplant has been severely damaged.
Ashok blames, not Amphan, but his poor luck.
“Luck has never been on my side. Nothing is coming to my mind now; I don’t know why it happened. What shall I do?” asks a visibly disturbed Ashok.
Cyclone Amphan may have made its landfall in the Sundarban area of West Bengal, but before that, on its way, it left its stamp of destruction in hundreds of villages in coastal Balasore district. Amphan has hit them where it hurts the most: livelihood. The Cyclone has battered the livelihood of thousands of people like Ashok and shattered their hopes.
Kankadapal, home to 420 households, is one of the 12 wards under Chaumukh revenue village/panchayat. They are mostly into farming betel leaves, paddy and groundnut, and fishing.
“All of them have been badly affected. Kuchcha houses of many have been damaged,” says Chaumukh sarpanch, Narayan Khatua.
By 21 May, in less than 24 hours after the cyclone passed the area, Khatua received more than 1,200 applications from the people whose kitchen/cow sheds have been damaged.
Recounting the day of horror, Ashok says, overnight drizzle had turned to rain in the morning. Hours later, gradually, as intensity of rain grew and wind speed increased, he and his fellow villagers had a clear hint of the tough times in store for them later in the day.
They knew from the television bulletins that severe cyclone Amphan was about to cause devastation in Balasore district, and therefore had gathered basic essentials, like potatoes and grocery items. Rice and muri (puffed rice) was in stock, at homes.
Without taking any risk, Ashok and his family had a ‘somewhat heavy’ breakfast of muri with potato fries around 10 am, before moving out to their neighbour's house — a few feet away — for safety.
Muri is mostly consumed across Balasore and in many places in adjoining Mayurbhanj and Bhadrak districts. Some eat it with with aaloo dum (a spicy potato curry) and other curries.
According to ex-IAS officer Aurobindo Behera who belongs to Balasore’s neighboring Mayurbhanj district, they can’t survive without muri. “Muri with mutton curry is always a delicacy,” Behera puts.
Ashok recalls that as they sought shelter, most elders in his locality prayed to God, few even chanted prayers at a low voice, seeking refuge from the cyclone.
"Everyone was scared," says Ashok
Perhaps the prayers worked, as no human casualty was reported in the locality.
Reports said that two people died in Odisha due to the cyclone. However, it has impacted, as per initial assessment, over 45 lakh people in Odisha. In Balasore district, approximately 3,000 villages and in the neighboring Bhadrak, close to 1,400 villages have suffered damages. Bhadrak was carved out of Balasore and made a separate district, a couple of decades ago.
Those in Puri and Bhubaneswar, who experienced the fury of Category 4 cyclone Fani on 3 May, 2019, think Amphan was a ‘sober’ storm. However, it has caused crop loss in 1 lakh hectares of land, while, 44 lakh consumers experienced power supply disruption. In Chaumukh panchayat, electric wires are lying hopelessly on the ground.
Ashok’s father Birendra, 62, has just begun walking after five years of treatment following a stroke. Ashok says that his father still requires support while walking. His mother, Basanti, on the other hand is undergoing medication for hypertension. The onus of running the family is entirely on his shoulders.
By his own admission, Ashok used to earn Rs 50, 000 from groundnuts. But, it was the betel vine field that looked after the family’s needs, throughout the year.
“First, COVID-19 slapped us really hard and now, Cyclone Amphan has served a second blow. What's next?” asks Ashok.
According to a school teacher in Chaumukh, betel leaves are a principal source of income for the people of Chaumukh and its adjoining sea side panchayats — Dagara, Narayanpur, Betagadia, Langaleswar, Nikhra, etc. In normal times, the locals demanded and get, easily, Rs 50 for one kada of pan (bunch of 50 betel leaves), sometimes it goes up to Rs 100 for the same numbers.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the entire economics associated with betel leaves trade. With tobacco chewing and spitting becoming a punishable offence, pan shops have been closed across the state. The result: buyers are absent. “Today one kada of paan (betel leaves) fetches Rs 5 only,” informs a farmer in Baliapal. That too, after much difficulty.
“We have to plead before the traders to buy our produce,” he adds.
A senior officer in Baliapal block promised that the administration will carry out the assessment quickly and the affected people will receive compensation from the government.
“The concerned revenue inspector (RI) will do the assessment in a couple of days. Compensation will be provided to the affected ones,” the officer said on phone.Cv
Chaumukh sarpanch Khatua claimed that he heard from someone that the RI had visited the village on 21 May. “But I haven’t met him,” he said.
Well-known activist Jagadananda though says that in emergencies the government’s response has to be quick. “There should be minimal gap between rhetoric and the reality,” said Jagadananda.
According to internationally acclaimed disaster and development management expert NM Prusty, in a post-cyclone scenario, the time of response is most critical.
“Government should use technology and engage drones for rapid assessment,” Prusty said, adding, “It (government) should encourage and engage civil society organisations, corporate houses in the task, too.”
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