When the roof flies off the head – every year

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By Azera Parveen Rahman

Urvashi Jena’s house is re-built every year. Every year, when floods ravage their settlement – Billasahi – in the coastal district of Bhadrak in Odisha, the water peels away the earthen walls of the house, leaving behind only the bamboo frame. Cyclones, which have become “more frequent than ever before” wreak further havoc, shaking the house to the core, sometimes taking the thatched roof along with it. “In the last 10 years, the roof of our house has been overturned thrice by cyclones,” Urvashi said as she led us to her home through a narrow pathway from the main road.

Signs of devastation remain

When the roof flies off the head - every year

We crossed four other houses – Billasahi has five houses in total – to reach Urvashi’s home at the end of that lane. Ten years ago, the five families were re-settled here from a nearby village by the district administration. Monsoons were way behind – it was winters – when we visited and yet, all the houses still bore a clear water line on their walls indicating the height up to which the flood waters had risen. Urvashi led us to the veranda of her partially concrete house where her brother, Binod Jena, his wife Kanaklata, her mother and sister sat around. “We have to repair our house every year. The flood waters come inside the house taking away most of the earth with it,” he said, pointing at the broken mud steps.

In May 2019, when Cyclone Fani lashed Odisha, particularly the coastal areas like Bhadrak district near the landfall suffered heavy losses. Houses like the Jenas’ weren’t spared. “We had to spend Rs 10,000 on repairs,” Binod, the sole bread-earner of the family said. It was a big amount for the family. Binod works as a farmer on a two-acre land taken on lease. This means that he has to give half of his paddy harvest as payment to the land owner. “These frequent floods and cyclones, like Bulbul (cyclone that affected this district last November), cause a lot of loss. For an additional income-source, I operate a small tent house (providing music system and other provisions for celebrations on rent),” Binod said.

High costs of building a safe haven

When the roof flies off the head - every year

But the family had had enough of this annual house repair and corresponding expenditures. They decided to put in all their savings to make their house “stronger” by re-building it in concrete. “I had to pawn my gold jewellery to the local moneylender in order to help in the house construction,” Kanaklata, Binod’s wife, said. There is a government housing scheme for economically weaker families like the Jenas and although they are “on the list” they haven’t been able to avail it till now. The family therefore decided to go ahead with the construction on their own “instead of waiting and suffering more losses in the meantime”. “It’s been two years since I gave up my jewellery, but we haven’t been able to repay the loan and get it back,” Kanaklata said, “The house is also not complete. The roof is yet to be done but at least the walls are stronger,” Binod added. After this, they led us inside one of the two rooms. Kanaklata pointed at a high shelf. “That’s where we keep our things when the floods come,” she said, “We just take a set of clothes and go to the school to sleep.” The school being referred to is the government primary school a few steps away where the administration opens up the classrooms during natural disasters like floods and cyclones for families like the Jenas’ to take refuge.

Recovering, only to face another disaster

Like the Jenas’, each of the family in the Billasahi settlement had a similar story to tell. Sartilata, one of their neighbours, showed us the devastation left behind by Cyclone Fani. A portion of the thatched roof of her mud house was completely destroyed and all that remained of the walls was the bamboo frame. The consequent floods had peeled away much of the mud later in the year. “I remember how while running to the school during the cyclone (for refuge), a big tree fell near my foot. My neighbour was behind me and she pulled me back,” Sartilata said, “My life was saved. But I haven’t been able to repair my house till now.” The government does provide compensation for rehabilitation during natural disasters, but Sartilata said that she is yet to receive it.

Sukranti Jena, another neighbour, said that they feel the impact of the floods long after the waters have receded. “Our mud floor is always damp,” she said, “The broken roof, the wet floor, the crack on the walls – hardly do we recover from one loss before another disaster comes our way. More than the cyclone, I fear the floods. It comes every year and has been turning more and more merciless.”