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Cyclone Amphan: Odisha craftspersons face a new disaster alongside covid-19

With cyclone Amphan and the novel coronavirus pandemic coinciding, Odisha's crafts industry fears for its survival

Jagatsinghpur, which is one of the major weaving hubs in Odisha, is likely to witness heavy rains and high velocity winds
Jagatsinghpur, which is one of the major weaving hubs in Odisha, is likely to witness heavy rains and high velocity winds (Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint)

"Cyclone ka prabhav badh gaya hai (The cyclone seems to have gotten stronger)," says Raghunath Das, a palm-leaf engraver based in the craft hub of Raghurajpur near Puri, pointing to the grey skies. His face is riddled with worry as he looks back at his house, covered in tarpaulin and broken in parts, home to his family of nine: a stark reminder of the devastation that cyclone Fani left in its wake in May last year.

And he wonders if this crumbling structure can bear the impact of yet another calamity—this time, Amphan, an extremely severe cyclone, which is expected to make a landfall in the coastal states of Odisha and West Bengal.

It has been exactly a year since Fani devastated the lives of more than 16.5 million people in 12 districts of Odisha. It changed the lives of artists such as Das, who are part of the state’s rich handloom and craft sector—the second largest source of rural livelihood after agriculture. According to the UN Development Programme’s Cyclone Fani: Damage, Loss And Needs Assessment report, the cyclone hit 71,060 handicraft artisans and 47,208 handloom weavers engaged in 50 kinds of traditional craft, such as patachitra, wood and stone carving, ikat tie-and-dye weaving and dhokra bell-metal casting.

Loss of livelihood

The artisans and weavers, who have barely had time to recover, now see their troubles compounding because of covid-19 and super-cyclone Amphan.

Last year, social impact organizations such as The Kala Chaupal Trust had come together as part of a Rise4Odisha campaign to address the needs of craftspersons. Artisans were identified and reconstruction had just begun when covid-19 struck and workers had to be recalled, leaving the houses in various states of disrepair.

Arjun Pal, a weaver who lives near Nuapatna—70km from Bhubaneswar—does not know what to do with his stock. Due to the ongoing lockdown, he is unable to go to the local haats or city markets to sell his goods. To make matters worse, some middlemen had taken part of his stock when the lockdown first started, paying half the money and promising the rest later. He hasn’t heard from them since.

“The festive season has also passed us by. Shivratri (in February) is one of the biggest occasions in the state, when women splurge on garments made by us. Who to chala gaya aur koi paisa nahi aaya," says the 45-year-old, who comes from a family of weavers and specializes in contemporary designs. He is not optimistic about business picking up during the Rath Yatra either , usually held in June-July. “Who will come to the market and spend money on craft—especially now, when people will be conserving their money to deal with the damage that cyclone Amphan is likely to wreak?" he asks.

A similar story is playing out in the house of Kanhu Charan Behera, a patachitra artist in Raghurajpur. He is worried about finances. “Bahut takleef ho rahi hai. All the tourists are gone jab se yeh corona aaya hai (it is very difficult; the pandemic has driven away tourists)," says the 31-year-old artist, who lives in a ramshackled house with his mother, wife and two daughters. But he continues to paint scroll after scroll, hoping that some of his older patrons will place orders soon. “I can courier the work also. Koi pooche toh sahi (someone just has to ask)," he says.

A long road to relief and recovery

Behera is one of the few who still has access to his materials. Due to the lockdown, most craftspersons have not been able to buy new paints and tools. The looms and palettes are lying idle. “Not many people understand that artisans are like daily wagers. If they weave four saris, they will only get paid per piece," says Pankaja Sethi, a Bhubaneswar-based textile designer who works with craftspersons in 8-10 districts, such as Jajpur, Ganjam, Cuttack and Koraput. “During the lockdown, they haven’t been able to sell anything. And now they don’t even have a little money in hand for any kind of emergency."

It is a thought echoed by Binapani Mishra, who has been working with a not-for-profit, Society for Women Action Development, in Puri for 30 years, witnessing scenes of disaster year after year. “It has been a year since Fani and I can still see images of sorrow all around. There are broken houses everywhere. Uprooted coconut trees are still around, although they have dried up now. As the skies thunder, the hearts of people shiver," she says, painting a vivid picture.

At present, most families can be seen collecting wood, bamboo and polythene to fortify their homes against the latest disaster that threatens. Craftspersons are packing away threads, needles and artwork. “People have been losing confidence, especially in Puri, where the severity and frequency of disaster only seems to be increasing. A coping mechanism doesn’t exist," she says.

With Amphan and the pandemic coinciding, the situation has become complex for disaster management teams too. Schools and other pucca structures in villages, which used to act as shelters during heavy rain and cyclones, have been turned into quarantine spaces. New spaces will have to be repurposed into relief camps quickly.

The movement of migrant workers is also likely to expose locals to the risk of covid-19, says Leenika Jacob, managing trustee, The Kala Chaupal Trust. “There is a risk for those who are being evacuated (from Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapara, Bhadrak and Balasore in northern Odisha), of getting exposed to the pandemic in the shelters as well," says Manu Gupta, founder of the not-for-profit SEEDS, which focuses on vulnerable communities. If the criterion of recommended physical distance between two persons has to be followed within shelters, he says, they could run out of space.

The state government is trying to work out a way to maintain physical distancing norms. According to Jagadananda, member secretary of the Centre for Youth and Social Development, a not-for-profit working for the tribal, rural and urban poor in Odisha, alternate spaces have been assigned as cyclone shelters and quarantine centres along the coast for the time being.

Activists hope that unlike what happened after Fani, rescue and relief efforts for Amphan and covid-19 will not be marred by accusations of caste discrimination. “Last year, a lot of people, including bamboo artists, from Dalit and marginalized communities were turned away from shelters by upper-caste families in Biripadia village," claims Dibakar Barik, a Puri-based human rights activist. These families had no option but to shelter under an uprooted banyan tree.

The state as well as non-profits such as The Kala Chaupal and SEEDS are working on a long-term recovery process that will address the needs of livelihood and survival. For Jacob, it has become imperative to link culture with issues such as disaster-resilient housing and climate change.

Oblivious to these discussions and debates, Das keeps his eyes glued to the sky. “Kab hum waapas apne pair pe khade honge (when will we be able to stand on our feet again)? I feel we can deal with covid. But this cyclone makes me tremble," he says.

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