After cyclone Fani, women in a migrant fishing community start resilience fund

  • Women in a migrant fishing community in Odisha have created a resilience fund to shield themselves from disasters in the aftermath of cyclone Fani.
  • Parts along the Odisha coast are vulnerable to cyclones, erosion and sea-level rise.
  • Mapping resilience of women-led households and learning from their behaviour can provide insights to prepare better for the future.

The salty air in Penthakatha’s slum, a speck at the edge of the Bay of Bengal, stings mildly with the stench of dried fish. Streams of dirty brown water meander amid a mosaic of palm-leaf roofed huts, tents, and cemented structures, fronted by folk art. This squalid coastal slum, home to a migrant fishing community, is located in the heritage town of Puri along the Odisha coast spanning the bay.

The east Indian state of Odisha is home to 46 million people and is often referred to as the disaster capital of the country, for the deadly cocktail of floods, cyclones, and droughts that regularly ravages it.

One of the first states in India to formulate a comprehensive action plan to address climate change, the state with its 480 km coastline is prone to “climate-mediated cyclones and coastal erosion”. Penthakatha in Puri district sits in the Mahanadi delta that drains into the Bay of Bengal. Studies show most of the coastline (65 percent) is facing erosion. The scenario is likely to worsen by the end of 2050.

In May this year, a rarest of the rare summer cyclone, Fani, flattened Puri and neighbouring areas as it made landfall there. It was the first summer cyclone in 43 years to hit Odisha and one of the three to hit in the last 150 years. 

Six months after the disaster, the Penthakatha slum thrums with restoration-related activities. Vehicles ferry bricks through narrow passages as construction goes on to rebuild property flattened by the storm.

Waves lash around boats and fishing gear pummeled by the cyclone. Children, who suffered in the days following Fani from a lack of food, play on the beach, oblivious to the incoming peril.

Penthakatha’s 45,000 residents are mostly migrant settlers from neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh lured by the deep-sea catch off the Odisha coast.

For residents of the Doni Nageswarao Baraf, one of the migrant colonies in Penthakatha in Puri, of immediate concern, is the upcoming post-monsoon “cyclone season.” Used to cyclones and evacuations, residents (particularly women) were, however, blindsided by Fani’s intensity.

“We thought it would be like cyclone Phailin (2013) or Hudhud (2014). But Fani took us by surprise in its ferocity. It was tough to see our children go hungry for days following the storm. It took time for us to get cooked food through relief efforts,” recalled 35-year-old Koda Uma, whose family of seven was scattered across cyclone shelters in the ensuing evacuation.

A mosaic of tents and cemented houses make up Pentakatha’s colonies. Photo by Sahana Ghosh.

“We did not know where all of my family members were. Our housing arrangements were destroyed. We lived in makeshift polythene sheets. Health issues such as skin infections emerged after the cyclone. Many had fevers. We had no cash to go and buy food and medicines later,” Koda Uma, told this visiting Mongabay-India correspondent.

Saving for a rainy day

But Koda Uma and 652 other women from neighbouring Penthakatha colonies refuse to be complacent.

They banded together to create a resilience fund. A go-to fund they can use to take care of small expenses and activities linked to pressing needs that follow immediately after disasters.

“We started talking as we regrouped after Fani. So as a start, all 653 of us belonging to 60 hamlets (slums) in Penthakatha contributed Rs. 200 from the Rs. 2000 we received as compensation from the state government after Fani,” explained 43-year-old Malle Narsamma.

Residents of severely-affected districts of Puri and parts of Khurda, including the Penthakatha fishing community, received 50 kg of rice, Rs. 2000, and polythene sheet from the Odisha government as mandated under the National Food Security Act.

Koda Uma explained that as word spread through the colonies of a common fund, more and more women came up to contribute.

“As of now, we have slightly over Rs. 1,30,000. Each month we will contribute Rs. 10 towards the fund to build it up,” Uma said.

42-year-old Gauri Satyawati, a construction worker and one of the 253 women from Doni Nageswarao Baraf, has pledged her share to ensure the resilience fund’s longevity, especially in the light of the alcoholism plaguing the migrant community. 

“Most of us (women) work and we can manage to contribute Rs. 10 monthly. Initially, we didn’t pay heed to the cyclone warning thinking it won’t cause much damage, but as updates trickled in through social media, our children alerted us and we were forced to leave our huts. My husband was drunk when the evacuation was in progress,” she says with a laugh.

“There was no cash in hand. It was pure luck that we all survived,” Satyawati said.

The community fund has been banked safely, courtesy Varsha Mishra, a social worker who helped with the paperwork to facilitate the creation and banking process for the Telugu-speaking residents who have very limited or no connection to the Odiya-speaking community of the state.

“What worked in their favour is the fact they take care of the financial aspect of fishing. Their spouses are at sea for most of the day and when they come with the catch, it is the women who sort through and decide the marketing aspects of the catch,” Varsha Misra, a native Odiya speaker and chief functionary of Puri-based NGO Spandan, explained. 

Spandan is working with SEEDS (Sustainable Environment and Ecological Development Society) to protect the lives and livelihoods of people exposed to disasters through local, sustainable solutions.

M. Narsamma, in brown saree, and K. Uma in pink, gather at the temple to discuss preparedness. Photo by Sahana Ghosh.

Mishra believes the resilience fund will also come in handy to bridge the gap between disaster and the time taken for relief to come. “As relief workers, we also were impacted by the cyclone and it took us five days to set up community kitchens. So if there is cash with the community then they can take action in that time it takes relief to come,” she said.

Mishra elaborated that Koda Uma and her peers were born and brought up in the Penthakatha slum. “Their parents and grandparents came here and settled at least over a century ago. Out of 12,000 households, 6000 have land rights in the form of pattas (record of rights). The community experiences language-based and caste-based discrimination from the mainstream society,” said Mishra.

Koda Uma and her peers requested Mishra to help bank the money by opening up an account. A self-help group was created with 10 women and the money deposited in a bank as a group representing the 653 women. They urged Mishra to be one among the 10 as she could help with the paperwork. 

“This was also necessary because as a self-help group they can’t access the money through ATMs. They need to go to the bank branch and withdraw cash,” said Mishra.

“If the men collect money then they will end up spending the money on unnecessary things. Because we manage the household, we know where to add and where to subtract and maintain a balance. We can wear a low-cost saree and be happy, so a minimum contribution every month is possible. We can forego consuming curry for a day and donate Rs 10 to the fund every month. We can also use the money for other community needs,” asserted Malle Narsamma.

People-centric solutions for disaster management

Varsha Mishra added that disaster relief for the migrants is also delayed because of their relative isolation from the mainstream native Odiya speakers.

Saudamini Das, development and environmental economics expert with the Institute of Economic Growth said community resilience funds are absolutely essential for migrant communities, who are at the top of the vulnerability ladder.

Boats and fishing gear destroyed by Fani lie along the beach beside the slum. Photo by Sahana Ghosh.

“They are migrants, they stay separate from the mainstream population, their social contacts are their family members in Andhra, they have very limited or no connection with the local Odiya community and they enjoy no social security (help from neighbours, etc.) during a calamity,” Das said.

“Money is very important as they can buy stuff only if they have cash,” Das told Mongabay-India.

Das said, for example, Bangladeshi migrants in Odisha’s Jagatsinghpur district suffered the maximum loss during the 1999 Odisha super cyclone as they were an isolated community.

“Migrant communities, especially the women who manage household finances, have skillsets and capacities that can reduce the risk of disasters. They are not just beneficiaries. Disaster management is not about state policies but local and people-centric solutions such as a resilience fund,” Panda added.“So far disaster management has been looked at as a response system. But it goes beyond response and evacuation in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Especially, for migrant communities, who are considered outsiders and are difficult to integrate into the system. Our economic policies also need to back the marginalised in times of a disaster,” said Odisha-based environmental activist and researcher Ranjan Panda.

According to Garima Jain, co-author of the study ‘A Road to Longterm Recovery for Odisha‘, fishers in Penthkatha hadn’t started fishing even three weeks after the cyclone as there was no electricity for ice production.

“We noted that due to electricity not being restored, and diesel generators being expensive, they could not store their fish on ice. This was the primary reason for not resuming fishing activities,” Jain of Indian Institute for Human Settlements, told Mongabay-India referring to the study.

The analysis was conducted to assess the potential long-term implications of cyclone Fani and to direct attention towards the disaster-affected people apart from the business-as-usual short-term response, relief, and rehabilitation work.

Jain said it is a must that affected people, such as the women in the fishing community of Penthakatha, are consulted immediately and consistently for a long period so that their changing needs are met and they are supported to move forward on the road to long-term recovery.

“In the last several cyclones and other disasters, we have been able to save a lot of lives. But are the people satisfied and have they had a convenient stay in cyclone shelters? We now want to focus on sheltering with dignity and minimising inconvenience,” said Prabhat Ranjan Mahapatra of Odisha State Disaster Management Agency.

The state of cyclones

The 2018 World Disaster Report “Leaving no one behind” proposed five different reasons that affected people may not receive the assistance they need: they are out of sight, out of reach, out of the loop, out of money, and out of scope.

The bedrock of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, a non-binding agreement adopted by UN member states, is to ensure that no one is left behind, including migrant communities, indigenous people, women and the elderly.

Records show the state has been struck by 128 tropical cyclones over 200 years (1804 to 1999). Included in these was the supercyclone of October 28 to 30, 1999, which killed 10,000 people.

The subsequent setting up of the state’s disaster management authority, improvement in weather forecasting technology and disaster preparedness that followed were globally lauded. In 2013, before cyclone Phailin struck, the state had successfully evacuated millions of people averting a major disaster. Ahead of Fani in 2019, a “record 1.2 million people in 24 hours” were evacuated to shelters before the cyclone made landfall in Puri.

According to an IPCC report it is likely that there will be fewer or the same number of tropical cyclones but more intense tropical cyclones (including tropical storms, hurricanes, and typhoons) in the future.

During this correspondent’s visit to Penthakatha, the women were actively discussing the incoming Cyclone Bulbul which was brewing in the Bay of Bengal. 

“We can tell when a storm is coming. The seawater that hits the beach turns muddy. There are other signs as well. If someone explains to us about their severity then we will be better prepared,” said Narsamma.

There were 14 cyclonic disturbances (depressions and cyclones) over the north Indian Ocean and adjoining land regions in 2018 against the long period average (LPA) of 12 disturbances per year, according to a government report.

Of these, seven turned into tropical cyclones-against the annual average frequency of 4.5 cyclones per year in the north Indian Ocean region. The last such development of seven cyclones in a year occurred in 1985 (33 years back), it said. Private weather forecaster Skymet said it is very likely that in 2019, India may surpass the 2018 figure.

Skymet said generally, Bay of Bengal witnesses a higher number of disturbances than the Arabian Sea and that too more in the post-monsoon season as compared to pre-monsoon. Meanwhile, the Arabian Sea sees more storms in the pre-monsoon season and slightly less in the post-monsoon season.

However, this year, there have been some exceptions with the Arabian Sea seeing two storms namely Vayu and Hikaa in the monsoon season. Meanwhile, two more storms came up in the post-monsoon season namely Kyarr and Maha. Pre-monsoon did not see any Cyclone in the Arabian Sea. The Bay of Bengal saw Pabuk at the beginning of the year, Fani in the pre-monsoon season, and Bulbul in the post-monsoon season.

In the context of projections and past experiences, Das said mapping resilience of women-led households makes sense.

“Learning from their behaviour can provide much insight to prepare better for the future. Women headed households proved to be more resilient during Cyclone Hudhud, their role during Fani needs to be explored,” she added.

The slum buzzes with construction activity after cyclone Fani. Photo by Sahana Ghosh.

Banner image: Over 600 women living in the Penthakatha slum started a resilience fund post-cyclone Fani.

(Sahana Ghosh visited Odisha as an inaugural Solutions Journalism Network ‘LEDE’ fellow. The fellowship is aimed at spreading solutions journalism around the globe.)

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