Cyclone Phailin clean-up will be another test

India’s government was commended for saving lives with its evacuation plan. Now people expect it to help rebuild them.

Bhubaneswar, Odissa – Less than 48 hours after Cyclone Phailiin violent storm lashed their village the people of Gopalpur were trying to get their homes and their livelihoods back.

Crowded along the beachfront, men untangled fishing nets and cleared mud and sand from wooden boats. Women emptied the rain-soaked possessions onto the streets to dry and bundled the branches of fallen trees into neat piles.

For those of us who arrived to report on the plight of the people at the epicentre of this natural disaster, it was an inspiring sight. Most people were busy helping themselves. No one appeared to be waiting for the government to fix the damage to their homes and workplaces.

While some told me that they were frustrated by the slow process of receiving government rice handouts, they appeared widely accepting of the personal and communal challenges of rebuilding that lay ahead.

The authorities in Odissa and Andra Pradesh have promised to help. But the hollowness of pledges in years gone by has not only made people here, and across the country, more self-sufficient but also less trusting of people in positions of power.

I visited one village about an hour from Odissa’s capital, Bhubaneswar, where most people have lost farming land. Villagers said they were reminded of the trials and terror they faced during and after the super cyclone in 1999.

At that time, one villager told me, when they had absolutely nothing – not even a dry bit of land to stand on – all they received from the government was tarpaulin sheets to build makeshift homes.  Everything that’s still standing today, I was told, is because of their own efforts.

This time around the government has been rightfully commended for orchestrating an evacuation plan, which undoubtedly saved many lives.

But how efficient the local and state authorities are in dealing with rebuilding will be just as important. People don’t forget broken promises, not least when a national election is just around the corner.

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