Bringing Back Smiles in Cyclone-Hit Odisha

As Kumari Ghadei, 48, recalls her experience of Cyclone Phailin – the strongest storm to rip across India’s east coast in 14 years – tears flow down her face.

Listening to her story takes me straight back to that fateful night last October, when I was deployed the night before Cyclone Phailin made landfall to monitor its movement and impact.

Now, I am back in the affected areas as Plan International’s Cash Transfer in Emergencies Specialist, part of the global food and nutrition unit, to monitor the impact that our work is having on the community.

I get goosebumps as Kumari tells me about her family’s harrowing experience of when the cyclone hit the Ganjam District of Odisha (formerly known as Orissa).

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Losing everything
They lost everything – their house, their food and their belongings. The 7-strong family was trapped in between the cyclonic wind and the floods, which led to the nearby Dhanei Dam overflowing. As a result, Kumari and her family had to take shelter in the nearby school for 4 days.

With Kumari’s husband unfit to work, she and her son had been the main sources of income – earning their living weaving bamboo baskets. With the bamboo all but destroyed, their income was gone and it would take time to weave more baskets. Where would they live? What would they eat? How would they survive?

I clearly remember the impact the cyclone had on the community, as I conducted my rapid-needs assessments immediately after the disaster. Wherever I turned, there was devastation. Adults and children were sombre and pale, as if they’d forgotten how to smile.

Given the impact of Cyclone Phailin, it was understandable.

The cyclone packed wind speeds of up to 220km per hour. Winds were followed by heavy rainfall, which caused flooding, displacing over 171,000 people, according to the government of Odisha.

According to Sphere India, 44 people lost their lives, while over 13 million people in over 18,000 villages were affected.

In the aftermath, the government was lauded due to its decision to evacuate over 1 million people who were at risk of the cyclone, a prime example of disaster preparedness.

The forgotten ones

The Dalits, or the untouchables as they were once known, were hit hard by the cyclone, with approximately 20% of the population in the affected areas impacted. Dalits are known to work as manual scavengers or daily-wage labourers and many do not own titles to their land, which means they are particularly vulnerable in disasters – yet often sidelined.

According to the International Dalit Solidarity Network, Dalits did not receive adequate assistance during the 2004 tsunami, the 2008 Kosi floods in India and Nepal or the 2010 floods in Pakistan, and despite affirmative government measures in South Asia, widespread violations of the fundamental rights of Dalits remain common.

At Plan International, our priority in disaster situations is to ensure children, women and vulnerable communities receive the aid they need and our response always aims to be inclusive.

Dalits are vulnerable, as most live in the peripheral areas and are exposed to natural disasters. Often, they do not even have appropriate access to information, meaning they can miss out on early warning signals in an impending disaster situation.

For Kumari, a Dalit, she and her family received mixed early warning information. She was aware of the risks of the cyclone, but not of the floods.

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Emergency cash transfers

Building from previous experience of working with disaster-affected communities, Plan decided to distribute emergency cash transfers following Cyclone Phailin. According to Plan’s assessments, Kumari and her family were in desperate need and received an Unconditional Cash Transfer (UCT) of INR 7,500 (€100) via bank transfer.

“This was a timely support otherwise we would have struggled for our survival since we had lost everything including all our belongings, from utensils to the roof over our head,” says Kumari.

As her tears fade into a hopeful smile, Kumari says: “The cash transfer gave me the choice and flexibility on spending the money I received. I used it to purchase food materials worth INR 3,000, bamboo for INR 1,500 and I repaid debt amounting to INR 3,000.”

By purchasing enough food to survive the aftermath of the disaster, Kumari and her son were able to work hard and produce bamboo baskets to sell. Now they earn INR 6,000 per month, a sufficient amount for their family’s needs.

Brighter future

The cash transfer also allowed Kumari to start rebuilding her house and she hopes to receive support from the government-supported shelter scheme ‘Indira Awas Yojana’, facilitated by Plan and its partner CYSD (Centre for Youth and Social Development).

Kumari is very grateful for the bank transfer and now her future looks much brighter, while the conditions stipulated have also helped her community.

“The soft condition of ‘no one should utilise this money for drinking liquor. If this happens, the money will be taken back’ is good, and it means the men have stopped drinking since the cash transfer to ensure food security,” says Kumari. “We women are extremely happy about it and are leading a peaceful life.”

Plan has also provided UCT to 21 other women in the village and they have used their money wisely.

Having revisited the affected communities, I can see a positive change. There are still needs unmet, but these cash transfers have provided a lifeline for many people.

For me, I cannot stop saying, “Our small bit of work has transformed sombre faces into smiles”.

This project is funded by the Humanitarian Aid Department of European Commission with Action Aid as consortia lead and Plan International in India as consortia partner, in addition to ADRA, Christian Aid and Oxfam.

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