On 3 May this year, Cyclone Fani hit 14 districts of Odisha. Fani was the second-worst cyclone to hit the region in twenty years with the wind speed reaching around 200 kilometres per hour, and most severely affected the state’s Puri district. That day, the prime minister Narendra Modi announced that the central government had released Rs 1,000 crore in advance for states affected by the cyclone. The central and Odisha government evacuated more than 12 lakh people in the state within 24 hours. Various sections of the media, as well as politicians from across party lines, lauded the chief minister Naveen Patnaik for his prompt and effective response.
During visits to Puri between 8 May and 15 May, I discovered that these relief measures largely evaded its rural population. Most villagers had taken refuge in self-constructed shelters or the state government’s multi-purpose shelters, often without access to basic amenities such as food, electricity or water. Their desperation for assistance was evident even ten days after the cyclone—in hopes of getting relief, some of them insisted that I photograph the ravaged state of their homes. For the residents of a predominantly Dalit settlement in the area, the struggle for rehabilitation was compounded by some locals, who hindered their access to shelters and relief.
In the aftermath of Fani, the tourism, fisheries and agriculture sectors in Puri district were severely hit. A majority of the hotels were refusing service to customers because their rooms were filled with sand, and electronic devices and mattresses were soaked with water. According to the state government’s data, the cyclone destroyed over 6,000 traditional marine boats and over 7,000 fishing nets in Odisha. As a result, most of the villagers I met had lost their livelihood. Yet, the villagers struggled to access relief materials. In Puri’s Talabania area, residents of Binova Nagar slum reportedly blocked highways and flagged down vehicles passing by in protestas they were unable to get food and water. In Keutakudi village, I saw a group of women spend an entire day standing on the side of the road trying to stop relief vehicles.
The cyclone has also ecologically damaged major tourist sites in Puri. For instance, in the Chilika Lake, the cyclone reportedly opened four new mouths—parts where it debouches into other water bodies—which will potentially increase the lake’s salinity and harm its marine life. Eight days after the cyclone, I met members of the Blue Cross of India, an animal welfare organisation, while they were retrieving buffalo carcasses from the lake. A veterinary doctor in the BCI’s team told me that these carcasses must have released harmful chemicals in the lake, which would adversely impact its remaining aquatic animals. He added that the lake was likely to become a cesspool for airborne and waterborne diseases. The district’s Balukhand-Konark Wildlife Sanctuary, which has a wide range of fauna—such as deer, jackals, monitor lizards, olive ridley turtles—was gravely affected as well. The cyclone uprooted almost all the trees in the sanctuary.
In the face of catastrophic destruction, caste discrimination exacerbated the crises of Dalits from Bhoi Sahi, a predominantly Dalit settlement in Puri. They told me that other locals cited shortage of space as an excuse to keep them from entering cyclone shelters. Around 400 residents of the settlement then took refuge in a college and an under-construction school building. Ten days after the cyclone, they said that they had resolved to not vacate the premises until they received a fair compensation for their losses. But given the sluggish pace at which the government’s relief efforts had reached Puri, it seemed like the Dalits of Bhoi Sahi would be left waiting for a long time.