Ganjam, Odisha: Sitting next to what was once a verdant banana plantation, now flattened by cyclone Phailin, N. Sriramulu Reddy was despondent. Not only did the storm ravage Ganjam district, which bore the brunt of its fury, Reddy is now stuck with debt of 1.7 lakh he raised to fund the plantation of around three acres.

Worse, he will have to put on hold his aspirations for his two children, a son and daughter; with the banana harvest just weeks away, the plan was to use part of the profits to pay for the admission of his children to the local English-medium school from the next academic year.

“In a month’s time, I was planning to start the first harvest. Look at what has happened now," said Reddy, almost in tears.

Reddy’s experience is not isolated. It has played out for scores of people settled along the coast of Odisha. While timely evacuation of a million people avoided high fatalities, little could be done to mitigate damage to the local economy so tied to agriculture and fishing. According to government data, crops spread over 668,268 hectares have been destroyed. Some 175,000 animals and birds have been killed and more than 419,000 houses levelled or damaged.

At the same time the local administration is also struggling to ward off the threat of an epidemic breaking out in the temporary settlements housing those evacuated. Mint had reported on 18 October that 250 cases of diarrhoea had been detected by Friday in Ganjam district alone. Returning home is not an option for most as their mud houses no longer exist, having been destroyed by the cyclone.

The state government is up against twin challenges: restoring livelihoods and returning people to their original domicile. In many ways, both challenges are intertwined and are likely to take time to tackle, something the survivors can ill afford.

Livelihood loss

“I had a good crop and was estimating to earn some 6.8 lakh from the harvest over the next three months. The wind destroyed everything," said 36-year-old Reddy, a resident of Govindpur village in Ganjam district.

“I am in debt now and my dream of sending my kids to English-medium schools will remain a dream. The government has not given us any compensation so far," he said. “On cyclone day, we left to safer places to save our lives. Life saved, but how to live now?"

Reddy’s plight is typical of the challenges facing a section of the population in Odisha. From broken houses to damaged crops and crumbling fishing boats, the plight of people in this coastal state appears to worsen with each passing day.

“In the 1999 super cyclone, thousands of people died, but this time we survived. But the real problem is damage to agriculture; paddy, coconut, cashew nuts, banana and vegetable cultivations have gone. We don’t know for how many more months we have to struggle," said Subhas Tarai, 50, a farmer in Khatuakuda village.

“My family of seven will not survive with a few days of relief (supplies) from the government," he said as a group of fellow villagers joined him to explain the problems they are facing. While Tarai’s rice farm was damaged, others too have lost paddy fields and horticultural land.

The death toll so far is 44 in the cyclone and ensuing floods. In the 1999 super cyclone, over 10,000 people were reported to have perished.

“Ganjam is in a bad shape. It looks like a ghost district," said Odisha revenue and disaster management minister S.N. Patra.

In Ganjam district, about 240,000 houses and over 200,000 hectares (ha) of crops were ruined, aside from extensive damage to infrastructure. On Sunday, the Odisha government asked the Union government for initial financial assistance of nearly 4,200 crore to help pay for relief and restoration.

According to district administration officials, farmers in Ganjam borrow anywhere between 1,700 crore and 2,100 crore in crop loans from financial institutions every year.

“I am sure the state government is looking into it," said Krishna Kumar, the district collector of Ganjam. “We don’t have the exact data for loans this year but it’s a challenge for the district administration and the people who have debts. We hope they had some insurance cover."

But government compensation to farmers for crop losses is only at the rate of 9,000 per ha of irrigated agricultural land (under a head called ‘input subsidy’), according to government statistics.

Distress migration

Experts believe that the devastation caused to livelihood by Phailin, together with a likely delay in rehabilitation, will lead to distress out-migration.

“It (the loss of livelihood) will put people in more debt. Many take unaccounted loans from villagers and moneylenders and these people are more exposed now," said Radhakant Nayak, a lecturer in statistics and economics at Khallikote Junior College in Berhampur town of Ganjam.

“And you will see migration from here in search of livelihood," he added.

Already, there is evidence on the ground that people are looking to migrate to industrial clusters of Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. “Some of our villagers are now planning to go to Surat (in Gujarat) or Tamil Nadu. With crops gone, my son is also planning to migrate," said Kumari Swain, 45, of Kantiaguda village in Ganjam.

In Nua Buxipalli, a village of fishermen on the Bay of Bengal coast, the situation is no different. “My mother is already in Chennai working in a factory and now I will go," said 18-year-old G. Sekar.

It’s not farmers and fishermen alone—everyone associated with the local economy, including roadside vendors, is facing the multiplier impact of the devastation caused by cyclone Phailin.

His house made of mud razed to the ground, Raju Sahu of Agasti Nuagaon, a coconut vendor, said that for him, the damage to coconut trees was the worst thing that had happened in the cyclone. “The trees have either broken down or been battered. They won’t have crops for next two-three years and my business is finished. In the last three days, I have managed to get eight coconuts to sell and that is all I have to sustain a family of seven."

Fishermen have been hit, too. The village has at least 84 boats of which 40 have been damaged. While a boat costs more than 1.5 lakh, a set of nets for a boat costs around 2 lakh.

“I am planning to sell my wife’s gold jewellery to arrange some 50,000. The cyclone has damaged my boat and it needs money to be repaired. Unless the boat is ready, we won’t be able to earn our daily income," said P. Dandasingh, a fisherman in Gopalpur.

P.K. Mohapatra, special relief commissioner of Odisha, says the government first focused on evacuating vulnerable people, then relief operations in areas hit by the cyclone, and will have to turn its attention eventually to reconstruction and rehabilitation. “It’s a tough time for millions and for us," he said.