When Bengalata Rout arrived in Tandahara village, Odisha, as a coy bride five decades ago, she was eagerly waiting to go on frequent seaside picnics. Today, the sea is more menacing than mesmerising to the 64-year-old woman who has seen her village being battered by cyclones and high tides multiple times.
‘‘When I was married into this village, the sea was very far away. Now it has come very close,’’ Bengalata says. About 60 kilometres from the famed temple town of Puri, the quaint village is also a sitting duck along India’s east coast, dangerously exposed to the frequent cyclones developing in the Bay of Bengal.
“The cyclone of 1999 was the worst. It uprooted many of our trees. Yet, those trees bore the brunt of the cyclone and helped our village survive the catastrophe,” Bengalata says as she waits for her friends and neighbours in the shade of a banyan tree. The super cyclone had wreaked havoc across the state and left about 10,000 dead.
According to CEEW analysis, Puri district has recorded a four-fold increase in the frequency of extreme floods and a three-fold increase in the frequency of extreme cyclones since 2000.
Madhavandanda Malik, a fisherman, inspects a boat damaged by Cyclone Phailin in 2013
Photo: Shawn Sebastian
Bengalata is now joined by a few other women, each carrying an empty earthen pot. These women are part of one of the several self-help groups (SHG) replanting casuarina saplings along the coastline. The casuarina forest would act as a buffer against cyclonic storms and seawater intrusion.
‘‘Saltwater often destroys our paddy fields and even contaminates the groundwater,’’ Bengalata says as the band of women marches past a cyclone shelter, a constant reminder of the region’s climate vulnerability.
Bengalata and the other women fill up their pots from a pond not too far away from the beach. With ritualistic precision, they proceed to an adjacent stretch of land where casuarina saplings have been planted in neat rows. It is their turn to water the saplings.
With memories of 1999 still fresh in their minds, women from around 90 families in the village formed SHGs and made it their mission to plant and nurture trees along the coast. The district forest department provides the women with saplings and some financial assistance. “Each SHG takes turns to water the saplings every day,’’ says Bengalata, who is also the president of the Village Forest Committee.
Self-help-group members take turns to water the saplings planted along the coast as a natural bulwark against periodic cyclones.
Photo: Shawn Sebastian
Odisha’s self-help groups have been doing commendable work. In 2012, the women of Gundalba village won the prestigious UNDP India Biodiversity Award for their efforts to revive a forest and thereby protect the village from coastal erosion.
‘’We will take care of the saplings so that the forest can regrow. Our village exists because of the forest,’’ Bengalata says with a broad smile.
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