Bhubaneswar: Akhila Behera, 45, a resident of Baghlanji village of Puri district in Odisha, has a family of five. He earns his livelihood by fishing in the 1200 sq km of Asia’s largest brackish water lagoon — Chilika.
Behera used to earn Rs 10,000-Rs 15,000 on an average each month. However, due to reasons like siltation, weed deposits, illegal ‘gheries’ — temporary barricades for prawn cultivation — and encroachment of fishing areas by non-fishermen, his income had already dwindled over the past few years.
His agony worsened after cyclone Fani struck the state’s coast on May 3 and ravaged 14 of the 30 districts. Behera's boat and nets were washed away, much like those of other fishermen living adjacent to the Chilika lake. There are thousands of such people whose daily livelihood depended on fishing in the lake.
In many places like Baghalanji, Chilika waters have eaten up lands and even entered temporary jetties where boats and nets were sheltered. Baghalanji village, with 200 households, is on the banks of the lake and has no cyclone shelters.
However, while there is a shelter about 3km away, people living here did not leave the village despite repeated cyclonic alerts due to their attachment to the land.
“We don’t want to leave this place. Our ancestors lived here and had survived devastating storms in the past. Our properties and all personal belongings are here… Chilika is like our mother. How do we leave her to save our life?” says Rabindra Das, a villager.
About 90 boats in the village have been damaged. A few wooden pieces were found nearby and many boats are still untraceable.
Bapina Behera said almost every household in the village suffered losses due to the cyclone. “It will take a few more months for us to get back to our basics,” he said, adding that Fani took them “20 years behind”.
As Chilika’s ecosystem largely depends on changes in the Bay of Bengal — three of the lake’s mouths open into the Bay of Bengal in Ganjam and Puri — the lake and its dependent communities are vulnerable to all kinds of natural hazards, especially tropical cyclones.
The fishing community had suffered huge losses during the Odisha super cyclone in 1999, Phailin in 2013, Hudhud in 2014 and even during cyclone Titli in 2018.
Dooryodhan Behera, 53, from Barakuda, a neighbouring village, has similar troubles. Barakuda has 150 households, all of them are traditional fishermen. Behera had borrowed money from a fishing cooperative to buy nets and taken a boat on rent.
But with an income of about Rs 300, it was difficult to pay back the loan, and manage rent and other household expenses. And then, his boat was broken to bits by the cyclonic storm.
Explaining their current situation, Parthsarathi Behera from Barakuda says his community has been “sitting idle for almost a fortnight, just watching the lake”.
The people here say while the government may announce compensation packages, they are almost certain it will not be sufficient and also that they would have to “go to moneylenders again”.
According to government estimates, more than five lakh houses have been fully or partially damaged in 14 affected districts.
As of now, the state government has announced financial assistance of Rs 40,000 for a new FRP (Fibre Reinforced Plastic) boat and Rs 10,000 for nets for the affected Chilika fishermen. Similar packages have also been announced for inland fishermen and assistance for freshwater and brackish water fish farming.
The state government has also sought central assistance to rebuild houses and provide other help in these areas.
Harihar Behera, a community leader and president of the Primary Fishermen Cooperative, said the government must announce interim assistance for fishermen in the area, “otherwise they will migrate to other states in search of jobs”.
Odisha is situated in the eastern seaboard of India and has been exposed to periodic tropical cyclonic storms. Over the last two decades, five major cyclones have struck the state and left behind trails of devastation and causing irreparable loss to the state’s economy.
And during the last 50 years, 35 of such extremely severe cyclonic storms have hit Odisha.
Almost 60% of the tropical cyclones that take shape in the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal region also hit parts of Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal. The Bay of Bengal region is the sixth most vulnerable zone in the world as far as tropical cyclone storms are concerned.
Bishnupada Sethi, Special Relief Commissioner (SRC) and Managing Director of Odisha State Disaster Management Authority (OSDMA), says because of its geographical location, “482km of the Odsiha coast is exposed to all kinds of tropical cyclones, some of which are severe in nature”.
The 1999 super cyclone, which killed 10,000 people, was the first major cyclone that brought the state’s development to a grinding halt. It was the first major natural disaster in the post-liberalisation era that took the state 50 years behind.
Meanwhile, the Odisha government has estimated Fani-related losses at Rs 12,000 crore and submitted a memorandum to Centre.
The Union government had already released Rs 340 crore before the cyclone and after an aerial survey, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised further assistance of Rs 1,000 crore.
According to initial estimates, the total affected population stands at about 1.65 crore and the death toll at 64.
And while the government has stepped up its relief and restoration work, it is to be seen how long it takes to restore the livelihood of severely affected communities like the state’s fishermen.
(The author is a Bhubaneswar-based journalist and researcher)