Who Does a Cyclone Actually Affect? Analysing the Impacts of Major Cyclones in India

While “natural disasters” such as cyclones cause widespread and indiscriminate devastation, their impact is much worse for vulnerable communities. Such groups face the brunt of not only the cyclone but also of inefficient government planning, caste discrimination, health problems and apathy. 

On 17 May 2021, cyclone Tauktae made landfall in Gujarat. With wind speeds of up to 210 kilometres per hour, it is one of the strongest tropical cyclones to have ever affected the west coast of India. As on 19 May 2021, at least 45 people (across 12 districts of Gujarat) had been reported to have been killed due to the cyclone.

Last year, on 20 May 2020, cyclone Amphan made landfall in West Bengal. At least 98 people were reported dead as a consequence of the cyclone with most fatalities linked to electrocution or collapse of houses. This year, on 26 May, Cyclone Yaas lashed out in West Bengal and Odisha. 

India’s coastline, especially the east coast, has a long history of tropical cyclonic storms. One of the most devastating of these—the 1999 Odisha “super” cyclone—is recorded to have caused at least 9,000–10,000 fatalities. 

Tauktae. Nivar. Nisarga. Amphan. Fani. Titli. Ockhi. Vardah. Hudhud. Phailin. These are only some of the major cyclones that have hit the South Asian subcontinent in the past decade. Each of them have caused deaths and large-scale destruction. 

According to an EPW editorial from 2013, 

India is one of the most disaster-prone areas in the world with 60% of its landmass prone to earthquakes, 40 million hectares vulnerable to flooding, 8% of its land area exposed to cyclones and 68% of the land liable to be affected by drought.

… With the advent of climate change, the incidence of extreme weather events will increase.

Considering India’s vulnerability towards disasters, including cyclones, we analyse the impact of cyclones. Do cyclones affect everyone equally?

An EPW editorial from 2019 noted:

Natural disasters do not discriminate when they befall human beings. They affect everyone with equal and devastating force, without discrimination. The disastrous impact of nature is uniform. It is, however, the human beings and their protective capacity that creates the differential response to the natural disaster.

In this reading list, we cite examples from articles published in the EPW over the past 15 years to highlight how cyclones, though “natural disasters,” have more devastating effects on already marginalised communities. 


Cyclone Amphan: Communities in the Sundarbans


The threat of cyclones is not new in coastal Bangladesh, West Bengal or Odisha—the regions affected by Amphan. But since the cyclone made landfall in May 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, prompt evacuation and relief were constrained by lockdown and distancing measures. 

These constraints were most evident in the Sundarbans. Amrita Dasgupta (2020) wrote:

Majority of the islanders in Sundarbans were evacuated from their kutcha (not made of concrete) houses to cyclone centres by the state government to minimise chances of life loss. The constricted availability of space at these centres offered the people the sole option of crowded survival until the cyclone passed. The following day did not bring any relief rather added to the misery of the impoverished. The cyclone had broken river embankments allowing the sweet and saltwater to mix. Fishes bidding for survival had jumped out of the ponds to escape from death by exosmosis ascribable to the intrusion of saline water. The huts were pasted to the ground. Cattle were dead. Acres of agriculture were wasted, tube wells were broken and mangrove covers were destroyed. The islanders are resilient. Hence, they were more than adamant to recommence disaster management tasks and revive their local economy irrespective of the restrictions in place due to Covid-19. 

According to Dasgupta, the climate catastrophe erased the “utopian belief in the ritual of isolation in private spaces and distancing to combat the pandemic.”

Yet, the resilience displayed by the communities in Sundarbans is not an option, but a necessity. Snehashish Mitra (2021) explained:

The national lockdown put in place to contain the spread of COVID-19 had already been testing the resilience of the Sundarbans communities. Poverty stricken, a significant number of them foraged in the jungle, risking attacks by the royal Bengal tigers, while others went into the crocodile-infested waters to catch fish and shrimp. 

… With limited fiscal autonomy, the West Bengal government had announced that it would transfer 20,000 to bank accounts of 5,00,000 families affected by the cyclone. But until such relief materialises on the ground, the people of the Sundarbans largely depend on relief work by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and volunteers to rebuild their lives.

Even when it comes to distribution of aid and relief funds, embezzlement has remained a common theme across party regimes in West Bengal.


Cyclone Fani: Caste Discrimination


Evacuation during Cyclone Fani, which made landfall on the Odisha coast in May 2019, was fraught with incidents of caste-based discrimination. These highlighted, in no uncertain terms, the “complete absence of human concern on the part of the upper castes” in the response to “the Dalits’ fundamental need for safety in shelter.” 

An EPW editorial (2019) noted:

As reported in the media, the cyclone-affected Dalits from a village in the Puri district were not only barred from entering the public shelters but also forced to vacate the shelters that they had managed to occupy. The media report added that the Dalit families were forced to take shelter under a banyan tree, which was also uprooted by the cyclone and shared the fate of the Dalit families. They thus found themselves literally thrown to the mercy of the winds blowing at the speed of 200 kilometres per hour and torrential rains.

Caste-based discrimination in post-disaster scenarios is not new—it was witnessed in the process of distribution of aid following the tsunami in Tamil Nadu, and the earthquakes in Kutch, Gujarat and Latur in Maharashtra. Yet, the incidents in Puri are different.

One could have understood the upper castes’ refusal to accommodate the Dalits had it been a private shelter of the former. But since they sought to convert a public space into a private fiefdom, this, by implication, eliminated the ground on which the Dalits could have exercised their right to be accommodated in the public shelter.

In fact, this was not a question of upper castes failing to extend ethical generosity towards Dalits, since the shelter was a government school which the latter had the right to enter. But the upper castes did not think the Dalits had this right. And the Dalits out of fear of the dominant castes did not assert their right to enter the shelter.

The upper castes’ response shows how their caste consciousness superseded moral consciousness. 

First, it did not acknowledge the Dalits’ equal right to enter the shelter while they treated their own right to do so as a given. Second, it also failed the ethical test where they did not acknowledge the Dalits’ human right to equal survival. 

Narrating the experiences of people from the Dom caste in accessing cyclone shelters in Balabhadrapur in Puri, Sudhir Pattnaik (2019) also highlighted the structural dimensions to the discrimination in access:

Doms in Balabhadrapur do not have a representative in the CSMMC (community-based Cyclone Shelter Management and Maintenance Committees) and anytime a cyclone warning is given they come to know about it only a few hours before it actually hits the coast. By the time they get the crucial information and make desperate attempts to reach a cyclone shelter, the upper-caste people would have occupied it first and deny entry to Dalits, said Stephenian Pabitra Mohan Jali. Jali is from the fisher community, who served in the army before his speech got affected after a deadly attack by upper-caste tourist guides in Puri. Jali enjoys trust and confidence among the Doms. Even the fisher families were not allowed entry to the cyclone shelter. They lived in the local college, whereas another Dalit community, the Bhois, took shelter in the dilapidated structures of a local primary school along with the Doms. 

Accordingly, denial of access to cyclone shelters was not an experience during the 2019 cyclone alone. Similar experiences have accumulated among Dalits in the region through successive cyclones—Hudhud, Titli, Phailin and then Fani.


Cyclone Ockhi: Safety of Fisherfolk


Cyclone Ockhi, which created havoc on the western coast of India during December 2017, raised many questions regarding the safety of the fisherfolk at sea. Highlighting the dangers of fishing at sea, A Suresh, V K Sajesh, A K Mohanty, M V Baiju, C N Ravishankar et al (2018) wrote:

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs noted that even five months after cyclone Ockhi, nearly 244 fisherfolk were still missing, with a dim chance of return (Hindu 2018). In India, the hazardous nature of marine fishing has come to the fore on several occasions earlier too, including during the tsunami in 2004.

They found that under-preparedness and lack of an effective institutional mechanism for early warnings were factors that contributed to the high level of fishing fatalities in India. They emphasise the need for establishing cost-effective, two-way communication systems for fisherfolk.

Another issue of concern is the safety of fishing vessels.

In a rush to supersede competing vessels, boat owners fit high-power engines and modify boat parameters, thereby straying from the optimal technical recommendations, and hampering the safety of the vessels at sea.

… The most important requirement of any marine vehicle is a stability check. It is mandatory to prepare a stability booklet following construction of the vessel. But for fishing crafts, this is not mandatory for registration. 

Communication and safety equipment, even when available to fisherfolk and mandated by the government, are not deployed universally for various reasons. 

States like Kerala have made the possession of life jackets, lifebuoys, life rafts, and firefighting appliances in mechanised boats mandatory for registration. 

… One study has reported that only about 49% and 40% of the surveyed fishers use lifebuoys and life jackets respectively, in Kerala, with wide regional variations even within the state (Aip et al 2014).

According to A Suresh et al, a judicious blend of both promotional and protective measures, aided by institutions in awareness generation and enforcement structure, is the need of the hour. 


Cyclones Phailin and Hudhud: Evacuation Problems


While fewer casualties during Cyclones Phailin and Hudhud are often attributed to the effective disaster planning and especially the evacuation strategies employed, analysis by Biswanath Dash (2016) suggests otherwise. He contended that the fewer casualties were instead because of the limited severity of these cyclones than effective disaster planning. Analysing the evacuation strategies for Cyclones Phailin and Hudhud in Ganjam and Visakhapatnam districts respectively, he noted:

The two case studies exhibit a number of common features, for instance, evacuation team formation, converting public buildings into evacuation centres, people’s unwillingness at least in the early phases to go to such centres, strategies involving persuasion and coercion, unsatisfactory conditions of shelters such as overcrowded rooms with poor sanitation. 

Therefore, he analysed:

In both the cases, storm surge which forms the cyclone’s most deadly feature in causing deaths remained limited and given the hilly terrain, seawater inundation rather contained. Thus, none of the reported deaths was storm surge-related; but were due to falling of trees and collapse of walls. The key question is—had there been a severe storm surge and deep inundation, to what extent the evacuation policies as practised in these cases, would remain effective? 

An absence of clarity on the effectiveness of evacuation strategies has led to emphasis on the total number of people being evacuated, which is taking place at the cost of safety and convenience of the public, including the most vulnerable.


1999 Odisha Supercyclone: Health and Sanitation


While the devastating impact of the 1999 Odisha “super” cyclone, which directly caused over 9,000 fatalities, is often catalogued, one of the less-researched aspects of the disaster is the health situation that emerged in its aftermath. 

Meena Gupta (2000) wrote

Following a calamity, the threat of epidemics usually looms large. In Orissa, in the cyclone aftermath, three kinds of epidemics were possible—diarrhoea (cholera, bacillary dysentery and gastro-enteritis), measles (among young children) and malaria. Of these diarrhoea was the most urgent, since it was bound to occur almost immediately, given the large-scale contamination of drinking water, the disruption of sanitation, and the displacement of thousands of people.

While Gupta praised the state health department’s use of “innovative measures to bring medical help to the needy and to prevent post-disaster epidemic situations,” she acknowledged that in terms of providing sanitation facilities, the health department prioritised urban areas.

In Orissa, (and in much of India) where sanitation is non-existent in rural areas even in normal times, the issue is not given much importance in a disaster situation. However neglecting sanitation during a disaster when people are crowded into temporary shelters, can lead to diseases and widespread epidemics. Providing sanitation on an emergency basis for over a crore of people is not a feasible proposition. Therefore, the health department limited its efforts to providing sanitary facilities in urban areas like Bhubaneswar.

Even where temporary toilets were built, such as in Ersama block (one of the worst-affected areas), the challenges of sanitation remained.

The temporary toilets were however not entirely successful: some of the toilets were used, but not all. In some areas the material used to enclose the toilets and provide partitions for privacy, was taken away by people for use in construction of their houses. In most of the rural areas, the people continued to use the great outdoors as a toilet, regardless of the threat of contamination to water and food that it posed.

Despite these setbacks, Gupta concluded that given the scale of the disaster, the number

of reported diarrhoea cases and deaths were “surprisingly small.”


1876 Bengal Cyclone: Colonialism


While disasters such as cyclones are dubbed “natural,” their effects are anything but. In her review of An Imperial Disaster: The Bengal Cyclone of 1876 by Benjamin Kingsbury, Debjani Bhattacharyya (2019) explained how disasters are political. Referring to the work of sociologist Kenneth Hewitt, she maintained that “disasters are neither natural, nor spectral, but instead are the texture of everyday life in many parts of the world.” The manifestation of a disaster depends on pre-existing social hierarchies.

Historical privilege predetermines the losers when cyclones, drought or any other calamity strikes. Thus, instead of studying “natural” calamities as “natural,” they should be treated as events embedded in historical dimensions of people’s relation to their habitat and the existing sociopolitical landscape (Hewitt 1983).

In this context, she discusses Kingsbury’s book, which offers a micro-history of the 1876 Bengal cyclone that killed 2,15,000 people in storm surges and another 1,00,000 in the epidemics that followed. According to Bhattacharyya, Kingsbury traces the “patterns of exploitation” endemic to 19th-century colonial Bengal countryside which shaped the cyclonic storm into a “human and historical event.”

Overturning the dominant understanding of the randomness of natural events, Kingsbury notes that the victims of the storm were not chosen randomly. If the projects of reclamation distributed risk and profit unevenly, creating divisions based on class, occupation, and gender, then these became the divisions that “separated the living from the dead” after the cyclone.

For those who did survive the cyclone, “survival did not necessarily signal an end to the ordeal” since the distribution of relief was highly skewed under imperial policies. 

A tepid response from the medical institutions was only symptomatic of a “deeper ambivalence about the state’s responsibility for public health,” creating a fatal link between “official indifference and the worst cholera epidemic Bengal had ever seen.”

Instead, Kingsbury’s account revealed that the post-disaster policies only strengthened those who were powerful against those who were not. 

Thus, according to Kingsbury, it was the poverty engendered through decades of imperial greed, and not the cyclone that was the larger disaster. Quoting Kingsbury, Bhattacharyya noted:

[T]his Bengal cyclone is a “forgotten disaster” not for the lack of records, but because “poor people living in remote places are easy to forget.”


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