Orissa is no stranger to natural calamities—barely a year after the state bore the brunt of a devastating cyclone, it has been at the receiving end of the state's worst floods since Independence. If it is not a problem of scarcity, it is a problem of plenty. While an insufficient monsoon last season caused drought in the coastal and western districts, heavy rains this year has put most of the state's 30 districts under water.
The flooding of the state's major river systems—the Mahanadi and the Brahmani—has affected 81.94 lakh people living in 12,925 villages. The toll in the last count was 84 and with epidemics taking over as the waters recede, this figure is likely to rise. Over 200 cases of gastroenteritis, cholera and jaundice have already been reported.
Hundreds of villages are still cut off and an estimated two lakh people marooned. With the calamity having affected almost the entire state, relief operations have followed the same dismal pattern as before. Inaccessible villages are surviving on air-dropped supplies which, by the government's own admission, are insufficient. Relief is yet to reach many villages.
There is an acute scarcity of dry rations such as beaten rice, kerosene, matches, medicines and drinking water. Though over 1,000 boats from the army, the state government and private agencies have been pressed into service, the number is still woefully inadequate.
Predictably, siphoning of relief material, hoarding and black-marketeering have added to the miseries of the victims. While kerosene, released by the Centre for the flood-affected, is being sold in the black market, 10 truckloads of relief material were recently seized from the Kendrapara district supply godown and the supply officer booked for hoarding. The town itself is partly submerged following flooding of the Brahmani in fresh rains over the past two days. There have been reports of earth and pebbles in relief packages and the Opposition has been gunning for civil supplies minister Bed Prakash Agarwal. The chief minister has ordered an inquiry into the bungling in rescue and relief operations.
Meanwhile, continuing rain in the upper catchment areas of Mahanadi and Brahmani has triggered panic among the people. Lakhs are living in unsanitary conditions in school and college buildings, on rooftops, embankments and expressways. Due to unavailability of polythene, tarpaulin or any other covering material, they are at the mercy of the elements.
Cases of respiratory infections, pneumonia and skin diseases are on the rise. But the greatest threat is from water-borne diarrhoeal diseases. Victims are being forced to drink contaminated water as potable water is unavailable, what with 23,000 tubewells submerged, and people drinking the very water which is used for ablutions.
The 83 medical teams deployed by the state government in the flood-affected areas are working overtime.
Once the waters recede, people will have to take stock of the damage and rebuild. In Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapara, Jajpur, Cuttack and Puri districts, which were badly hit by the cyclone, the people are in despair. Hopes of a good kharif crop, which had been aroused by the plentiful rains, have been shattered. As much as 15.57 lakh hectares of planted crop are under water and the damage-assessment will be possible only after the waters recede. With preliminary figures of damages plugged at Rs 401 crore, the state's economy, which was already crippled, will take years to recover.
Infrastructure—roads and bridges, electrical installations and public buildings—have been severely damaged. The loss of public property is over Rs 100 crore.
Sadly, the government doesn't seem to have learnt lessons from the past. While there was plenty of warning from the meteorological department, the administration seemed barely prepared for the havoc that followed. After the cyclone, it was expected that disaster management would be on top of the government's priorities but as usual it was caught off guard. The river embankments were not adequately strengthened and as a result when the waters rose breaches occurred in as many as 38 embankments. While people desperately tried to save river embankments by makeshift reinforcements, the district authorities did precious little.
Meanwhile, though four lakh people were evacuated, thanks to early warnings, adequate arrangements to provide them with succour were absent. In fact, victims began to get relief almost a week after the floods when the army stepped in. The floods occurred in four phases and the first bout affected Kalahandi and Bolangir districts due to the swelling of the Tel and Hathi rivers, tributaries of the Mahanadi. Flash floods cut off these districts and were an early warning for what was to follow.
Heavy rains in Chhattisgarh, which is in the upper catchment area of Mahanadi, had already increased the water level of the Hirakud dam. At this stage, preparations should have been started on a war footing to procure relief material and boats. But the government did nothing to prepare itself. The next bout of floods took place in the first week of July when Bolangir, Bhawanipatna, Cuttack, Nuapada, Nayagarh and Puri were affected.
The third phase of the floods took place in the second week of June—the state received 468 mm of rainfall in just 22 days compared to its normal 367 mm throughout the month. Heavy rains also continued in Chhattisgarh area and as the water level in the Hirakud dam reached 628 feet, all 52 sluice gates had to be opened and an unprecedented 8.5 lakh cusecs of water released into the Mahanadi river system.
As water gushed in, all the tributaries and branches swelled and overspilt their banks. Consequently, village after village in 20 western and coastal districts were submerged. The fourth phase of the floods this week flooded the Brahmani river and its tributaries affecting the northern coastal districts which were relatively unaffected. This has also forced the authorities to release water from the Rengali dam over Brahmani as its water level too was running above the danger mark.
Orissa faced its last severe flood in 1982 when 9,000 villages and 54 lakh people were affected. Prior to that floods had periodically hit the state in 1927, 1933, 1937, 1958 and 1961. The state is flood prone because of its long coastline and network of major rivers running through it. Rapid deforestation has contributed to the problem in recent years. Environmentalists point out that in 1999 the Forest Survey of India reported that Orissa's forest cover at 26,073 sq km as compared to its area of 1,55,000 sq km was a mere 16 per cent.
Rescue and relief operations are going on and will continue till a semblance of normalcy returns. The airforce has conducted 137 sorties and dropped 329.96 metric tonnes of relief. Six columns of army engineering, two infantry columns, four cisf columns, one crpf, nine navy and five coastguard platoons have been pressed into service.Some 43 army powerboats are also being used for rescue and relief. The state government is running 430 free kitchens to feed 3.25 lakh victims daily. But supplies are short and at least 160 more boats are required.
The chief minister's relief fund has released Rs 50 crore while the Centre has given an additional Rs 100 crore as interim relief. Two central team have already visited the state to assess damage and to provide more funds. Relief from neighbouring states is also pouring in but it's clearly a case of too little too late.