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When I meet with 48-year-old Kumari Ghadei, tears run down her face as she recalls with horror the night cyclone Phailin struck her village in Odisha last October. As the powerful storm swept through her village, she and her family found themselves trapped between the heavy winds and surging waters overflowing from the nearby Dhanei dam. “We were lucky to escape, but we lost everything that night: our house, our food stocks, our belongings, and our livelihoods”, she recalls. Her husband being ill and unable to work, she and her son were the only bread winners of this family of six, making a living by weaving bamboo baskets.
As is often the case in India, this family of ‘Dalits’ (also known as ‘untouchables’) which is at the bottom of the caste hierarchy, was not adequately informed about the dangers of the approaching cyclone and its indirect impact. They fell through the cracks of a wide government-led evacuation effort in which over a million people were reportedly brought to safety before the cyclone hit the coast. Lucky to escape, the family found refuge at a nearby school where they stayed several days.
Faced with widespread discrimination and human right violations of all kinds across South Asia, Dalit communities often end up being left out of relief efforts. A recent report by the International Dalit Solidarity Network highlighted that Dalits did not receive adequate assistance during major natural disasters such as the 2004 Tsunami, the 2008 Kosi floods in India and Nepal, nor the 2010 floods in Pakistan. Due to their “untouchability” in the eyes of other castes, most Dalits live in peripheral areas of villages, cut off from appropriate access to information. Often missing out on the early warning signals in an impending disaster situation, Dalits end up more vulnerable to natural disasters. Such was the case with Ms. Kumari’s family who received mixed information: “we had heard of the cyclone coming but nothing about the risk of floods”, she says.
Since October, extensive relief efforts are underway to help communities get back on their feet as part of an inclusive humanitarian response. For example, a project implemented by Plan International and funded by the EU is providing cash to vulnerable Dalit families, such as Kumari Ghadei’s, whose precarious existence was dealt a severe blow by the cyclone.
“This was a very timely support. Without it, we would have struggled for our survival since we lost everything, from utensils to the roof on our head”, said Kumari, jubilant after receiving some cash-in-hand aid. With a cheerful smile on her face she explains that she is using the money to buy food and bamboo for basket weaving besides repairing her damaged house.
The cash will help her buy food for a month, by which time she would have already secured a source of income by selling bamboo baskets. Plan International will also help her gain access to a government programme which aims to provide vulnerable families, hit by the cyclone, with a permanent shelter.
As a humanitarian worker, seeing her improved situation today is particularly encouraging to me. I had been deployed to Odisha the night before Phailin hit the coast, and had undertaken a rapid assessment of that area immediately afterwards. At the time, there was only devastation wherever my vision reached, even children bore sombre and pale faces as if they had forgotten the very notion of joy. Coming back after a gap of six months, I can see a sea change in the lives of these same people. Of course there are still huge unmet needs given the magnitude of the disaster but our intervention, particularly the cash transfers, have undoubtedly made a huge difference in the lives of local villagers. Looking back on the day after the cyclone, I cannot stop thinking that our small contribution has turned back some of the sombre faces into smiling ones.
Please see original publication on the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) website.
Factsheet: India January 2014