Dalits stranded in Puri community shelters a month after Cyclone Fani

They remain highly vulnerable to disaster, with weak resilience.

Sulochana Das, a 35-year-old woman in the nondescript village of Sainsa Sasana, had little choice when her four-member family rushed to take refuge in a roadside shop as cyclone Fani menacingly hurtled towards the Odisha coast on May 3.

A month later, Ms. Das’ family cannot just think of moving out of the 10 sq. ft. one-room shop because the place where her home existed before is now a vacant area. Creating a liveable shelter appears to be distant dream for her family.

Many families face a similar ordeal. The adjacent Sainsa Sasana Panchayat office is still occupied by seven families. After the State government discontinued the free kitchens, these families have set up separate hearths out in the open, leading a life of destitution in their own village.

Just two kilometres away from Sainsa Sasana, the Bhagabatipur school accommodates five families.

Almost all families still taking shelter in community houses or government buildings are Dalits.

Tales of loss

Close to the Chilika Lake, about 80 km away from here, 30 Dalit families continue to reside in the Satpada College premises. The little known ASHA Multipurpose Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Centre at the Pachaspola hamlet under Puri Sadar block houses 28 Dalit families.

“Disaster does not spare people along caste lines, or as rich and poor. But after the cyclone Fani ravaged Puri district, a clear pattern has emerged that vulnerability to disaster among the social excluded [Dalits] is high, while resilience is very weak,” said Bimal Pandia of OXFAM, a leading voluntary organisation.

Mr. Pandia said, “Hundreds of Dalit families are still in community shelters like Panchayat offices, schools and other government offices as they are not able to erect even makeshift houses.”

At Bhoi Sahi, a Dalit hamlet of Sainsa Sasana, houses of 10-12 families have been completely razed to ground. “We have received 50 kg rice and ₹2,000 from the government. It has been more than a month since we have been able to get any wage employment. The little savings we had has been exhausted,” said Pabitra Das, one Dalit villager.

The polythene sheets supplied by the Puri district administration have been blown away by thunderstorms, exposing the household articles of Dalit families to the vagaries of nature.

On the other hand, the upper caste families have all gone back to their respective homes after getting a helping hand from the better-off families in their neighbourhood. They, unlike their Dalit counterparts, are lucky to get loans from their communities to repair their houses and return to their workplaces.

Impending doom

With the Southwest Monsoon likely to reach Odisha in ten days, the possibility of having a roof for protection appears slim for the Dalit families. When schools reopen in the third week of June, they apprehend losing the community spaces, too.

The Puri district administration, which has deployed hundreds of teams for house damage assessment, received the report two days ago.

“We will finalise the list in three days and send the same to the government for fund allocation by June 5. Upon getting the government sanction, house building assistance will be disbursed immediately,” said Balwant Singh, Puri District Collector.

The village dynamics in Puri is such that voluntary organisations or corporate houses cannot reach out to poorest of poor or socially excluded as all villagers are demanding an equal share of assistance. Playing safe, the district administration is reportedly insisting on 100% coverage in villages, which could lead to delays in help reaching the Dalits.

Meanwhile, the Puri district administration remained on mission mode while trying to restore normalcy in the district.

‘At least a month’

“We will take at least a month to restore power supply completely. Now, our immediate concern is to complete assessment and disburse assistance to beneficiaries,” said Mr. Singh.

As of now, the Puri district administration has already distributed cash of ₹70 crore, while ₹30 crore is being paid to villagers.

The extremely severe cyclonic storm Fani, which made landfall on May 3 near Puri, affected 14 districts of the State. Puri was the worst-affected district. Nearly 1.65 crore people were affected due to the disaster.

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