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Odisha floods: Monsoon rains pour miseries on women

Sep 05, 2014

By rotation, floods, droughts and cyclones afflict the east Indian state of Odisha each year leaving millions to pick up the pieces, writes Sarada Lahangir.

Bhubaneswar : Sakuntala Sahu, 30, of Kanash block of Puri district tried to console her two crying children, a six-month-old son and daughter of two years, with little success. It had been seven days since they had scrambled on to the roof of their home as the furious River Daya inundated their home and they were famished.

The swirling waters had swept off every bit of food grain and all their worldly belongings. While other villagers had been able to reach the temporary shelter house fashioned out of plastic sheets on the nearby embankment, Sahu had got left behind as she was trying to take her ill mother-in-law along.

Although her husband had managed to bring some dry rations – two kilos of flattened rice and jaggery – from the shelter, it was not enough to feed her family of six. In any case, that food had come their way nearly four days ago and since then they were all desperately hungry. Tired and starving, Sahu had not been able to nurse her baby boy as well. They were hoping for some miracle to save them from this bleak situation. “My son has been crying for milk but I haven’t been able to breast feed him as the milk has dried up. I haven’t eaten properly in days now,” she stated, with distress.

Elsewhere, Kuntilata Mantri, 29, was reeling under the shock of a sudden miscarriage. This was her first pregnancy and she had just completed four months when the river began to rise. “We took refuge on the roof of our home but when there was simply no sign of the waters receding, we decided to move to the shelter,” recalled this resident of Banki village in Cuttack district.

As only one government power boat came to shift several stranded villagers, instead of waiting for their turn, Mantri’s husband decided to take her to the concrete embankment in a vessel made of banana tree trunk.

They stayed for four days at the embankment shelter and when the waters went down a little they came back wading through knee deep water for three kilometres. Homecoming was no easier, as Kuntilata had to clean up the house and source safe water from far away. Days of stress and running around took a toll on the young woman who lost her child. “Experiencing the floods was scary and devastating. When I managed to go to the health centre, the doctor told me that the miscarriage had happened because of exhaustion and anxiety,” she added, teary eyed.

For Malati Munda, 40, and her three children, too, the incessant rains have brought on lots of misery. Munda’s children have, once again, had to give up their education as they sit marooned by the roadside near the Munda Sahi slum on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar. “For days now, we have had a plastic sheet for a home. It is small and cannot protect us all,” she said.

Women like Kuntilata, Sakuntala and Malti have lived most of their lives in the shadow of one natural disaster or another – and yet every time they find themselves fighting nature and man-made problems to survive. By rotation, floods, droughts and cyclones afflict the eastern state of Odisha each year leaving millions of hapless families to pick up the pieces. It has been no different this time: 23 out of 30 districts have been submerged with over 300,000 people stranded or displaced. As is always the case, in the present state of chaos, too, it’s the women and children who have been the worst affected.

It’s indeed a vicious cycle that they get caught in. When disaster strikes, the responsibility of moving household valuables to safe places, watching over the children and gathering essentials such as dry food rations and clothing falls entirely on the shoulders of the womenfolk. All this exertion comes at great personal cost – many a time they are unable to eat or sleep for days, which takes a toll on their mental and physical well-being.

Once they are in the government shelters, living in cramped spaces with limited access to sanitation, potable water and food only increases their vulnerabilities. Menstruating women land up with severe health issues due to the unhygienic conditions, pregnant women are at risk of miscarriage or unsafe birth, new mothers have no privacy for feeding and caring for their young one, while the elderly have no one looking out for them.

And, sadly, even homecoming brings no smile to their face. As the entire community counts on the women to restore normalcy in their lives, apart from the ‘normal’ burden of childcare and household chores, they have to spearhead cleaning, repairs and rebuilding activities.

So, the question to be asked here is this: ‘if disaster strikes Odisha with such alarming regularity, then why is the state’s disaster management gender blind?’ In their hour of need, only specific interventions can protect the interests of pregnant women, young mothers and those severely marginalised, but there seems to be nothing on offer.

Pradipta Mohapatra, Special Relief Commissioner, Government of Odisha, doesn’t agree with this assessment. According to him, “Women and children are one of the priorities in every disaster management plan. All government departments have their own disaster management systems in place and they work together in times of calamity. For instance, as a part of disaster preparedness during the Cyclone Phailin in 2013, under the Mother and Child Tracking System (MCTS), 322 pregnant women, who were expected to deliver at that time, were shifted to hospitals.

In the recent flood as well we have evacuated 30 pregnant women from different places and shifted them to proper hospitals. Our disaster management plan has been designed considering the gender aspect.”

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