Indian cyclone exposes need for safer housing

Hundreds of thousands of people are returning to their homes along India’s eastern coast, after being evacuated from the destructive path of Cyclone Phailin a few days ago, only to find their mud and thatch dwellings in ruins.

Flimsy roofs were blown away by storm winds that reached up to 136 miles per hour, and mud walls have been destroyed by heavy rains or washed away by the floods that are still raging in 10 rivers.

On the night of Oct. 12, 45-year-old Nayana Mallick heard the gales getting fiercer, tearing at the polythene roof of her home in Vani Vihar slum in Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha State. As she squatted nervously to eat, the 30-foot-high tree right outside came crashing down, spraying her with mud. She was lucky, however, as the tree fell across the road, she told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

According to the latest data, the powerful storm damaged almost 377,000 houses, a number that is likely to rise as surveys continue. The strongest cyclone to hit India since 1999 affected some 12 million people in 17 out of Odisha’s 30 districts, according to the disaster management department.

In Ganjam district alone, where the storm made landfall, 230,000 houses were damaged.

India’s Meteorological Department had warned in its weather bulletins that high winds would likely cause “extensive damage” to mud houses in the coastal region.

“No-one will be allowed to stay in mud and thatched houses in the coastal areas,” Odisha’s Disaster Management Minister Surya Narayan Patra reiterated as the cyclone approached.

Over 1.15 million people were evacuated to keep them safe from the storm and subsequent flooding, including some 50,000 families who were taken to cyclone shelters and schools. This was not an easy task as many of India’s rural families are strongly averse to leaving their cattle behind and their belongings in unsafe houses.

Relief workers say mud and thatch dwellings in rural parts of Odisha and polythene-covered shanties in its urban slums are the region’s weakness when it comes to disaster preparedness.

More than 35 out of every 100 households in Odisha live in ‘kutcha’ houses – made of unfired bricks, bamboo, mud, grass, leaves, reeds and thatch – compared to an average of 13 out of 100 for the whole of India, according to government survey figures for 2008-2009.

The vulnerability of these dwellings makes evacuation and early warning crucial in order to keep deaths and injuries to a minimum. The system worked well with Phailin, keeping cyclone-related deaths low, at 21. Floods have since killed an additional 22 people.

That compares favourably with October 1999, when the strongest tropical cyclone recorded in the Bay of Bengal made landfall with wind speeds of 155 mph. It destroyed 2 million houses, killed nearly 8,500 people, and caused more than $2 billion in damage, according to official figures.


But while the losses may be lower this time around, the task of rebuilding homes and livelihoods will still be huge.

Sanjoy Patnaik, Odisha State director for Landesa, an international NGO that works on land tenure for the rural poor, called for the provision of better housing for poor families.

“A holistic and integrated approach to disaster management in Odisha, which is vulnerable to multiple disasters, needs go beyond evacuation, however efficient,” he said. “Pukka (brick and mortar dwellings) for the poor are a must.”

After the 1999 super cyclone, the government launched an initiative to promote safer housing for the rural poor. As part of a national welfare housing scheme called Indira Awaas Yojana (IAY), which is targeted at households below the poverty line, reinforced concrete roofs in new homes were made mandatory, replacing tin and asbestos roofing.

Grants to build a one-room brick and mortar house were doubled to 35,000 rupees ($568) per family. Earlier this year, that amount was revised upwards again to 70,000 rupees ($1,137).

Smaller rural housing schemes funded by the state government supplement the IAY. But a disaster risk management programme led by the state and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which trained masons in cyclone-resistant home construction among other things, has now completely fizzled out amid implementation problems.

Meanwhile progress under the IAY has slowed, with the scheme beset by charges of inefficiency and mismanagement.

In Odisha, where it has been running since 1996, not more than 20 to 25 percent, or less than 2 million of the 7.5 million people under the poverty line, have been able to build new houses, Patnaik estimated.

In March, India’s Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) – which audited the scheme’s implementation from 2007 to 2012 – revealed that the central government had slashed assistance of 2,239 million rupees ($36 million) after detecting serious irregularities in the use of funds at the state level in Odisha.

Around 60,000 families would have got safer houses with that amount, the CAG report noted. It also said the Odisha government had not conducted a baseline survey to assess rural housing needs, nor created a database to identify homeless people and those living in kutcha houses.

The lack of transparency in Odisha’s housing programme for the rural poor is a major concern in a state that is vulnerable to tropical cyclones, storm surges, tsunamis and floods due to river silting. It also encompasses low- and moderate-risk earthquake zones.


In Bhubaneswar, 40 percent of the city’s 800,000 inhabitants live in slums. When workers who return to rural homes at the weekend are included, the population easily tops 1 million.

As a dynamic city with a booming construction sector, Bhubaneswar has attracted an influx of unskilled rural labour – which is exacerbating housing problems.

“Migrating families have set up shanties on the Daya River’s west canal bed, on Bhubaneswar’s outskirts, which often remains dry. But heavy rains will simply wash them away without warning,” said Piyush Rout, an urban management expert.

A study by Bhubaneswar Municipality Corporation, in which Rout participated, estimated that more than 200,000 city slum dwellers are at risk from severe weather events, while only around 5,000 people have safe shelters.

“Solutions are available to provide safe shelters to the urban poor, but governance is an issue,” Rout said.

For example, in the case of Odisha the central government has approved the construction of 878 new houses and 130 transit homes that can be rented by migrants, but they are yet to be built. The authorities are also working on regulation that would compel private realtors to reserve 25 percent of space in high-rise apartment blocks for poorer people.

Yet despite moves towards better policies, municipal ward officials and aspiring politicians nurture slum dwellers as potential vote banks and often resist their removal and resettlement, other experts say.

Meanwhile, as illegal squatters like Mallick never know when their homes might be bulldozed, they do not want to invest in a sturdier roof, even if their lives are at risk.

The situation in Bhubaneswar chimes with a report released on Friday by Britain’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers, which warned that unprecedented migration to urban areas across the developing world is leading to a large increase in people living in locations susceptible to natural disasters.

“The vulnerability of these urban areas is further exacerbated by the fact that many of the rapidly developing cities also contain substantial areas of informal settlement, or slums, with inadequate levels of engineered infrastructure and poor provisions for sanitation, water and food,” it said.

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