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“There is no Planet B”– school and college students said, during the global climate strike demonstration in Delhi in September 2019. Hundreds marched with banners and placards, wanting to make their voices heard and demanding action from the government against climate change. “We are unstoppable, another world is possible,” came the chants. I was overwhelmed by their sheer grit. I, too, shared with them this feeling of angst over lack of inaction towards such a grave issue. And after what I had encountered about a year ago, even more so.
Flashback to October 2018. I was working with an NGO in Odisha at the time. Cyclone Titli had hit the eastern coast, and I was a part of the team that was sent to Ganjam district – one of the affected areas – to assess the damage caused by the cyclone.
What I witnessed was unprecedented. Uprooted tree trunks, fallen electricity poles, broken signboards and damaged roads were some of the first signs of destruction that I noticed. We didn’t, however, gauge the true intensity of the cyclone or the magnitude of the havoc it had wreaked until we entered the first of the habitations in the Tumba gram panchayat in Patrapur block of Ganjam district.
The cyclone, inappropriately named Titli (meaning butterfly in Hindi), had totally demolished the houses. Walls were completely shattered, roofs were blown away, there was debris lying all around. As a child, I had witnessed the floods in Mumbai in 2006, having grown up in the city. I still remember how the city was brought to a standstill— no electricity, no water, no transport for many days. I thought I knew what a natural disaster looks like. But it was at Tumba— that I witnessed the destruction of such enormity. I think the true ramifications of what it means to be struck by a natural disaster really hit me at that moment.
It obviously wasn’t the end of it though. While I was still absorbing the shock of the unpleasant sight around me, we climbed up a hill and what we saw there was even worse. Everything had either been washed away by the water or blown away by the winds. There was neither food nor water, since the water tanks and pipelines were broken.
Thankfully, some relief had arrived from the government in the form of tarpaulin sheets to cover the houses and some rice for each family. Women were cooking in groups by making bonfires since the chulhas (stoves) in the houses had also been washed away.
I remember feeling disconcerted and thinking about how people were managing their lives without any resources. Some of the more uphill villages, as one of my team members aptly said, was a “warzone”. Houses razed, fields destroyed, trees fallen; people were left with nothing at all.
Later, we also heard stories from locals about what transpired during that horrific night. Some young men described to us how they rescued and relocated children, elders and women to higher heights when they saw water gushing into the villages. People said they had never seen such wrath of the wind and water before this. It was the first time that this part of the state had experienced a cyclone.
According to sources, the death toll was 77 and an estimated 60 lakh people were affected due to the cyclone and its aftermath. It can only be speculated that Titli was induced by climate change. There is, however, no denying that climate change-induced natural disasters have been on a rise, and affecting vulnerable communities. The burden of the impacts of climate change falls squarely and unfairly on these communities. We can’t escape the irony that those living in peaceful co-existence with nature are the ones suffering the brunt of these calamities.
As we were leaving the hilly tribal areas of the Tumba GP with heavy hearts, the sky was overcast and it had started drizzling. Some women, who were visibly scared, asked us if the cyclone would strike again. Although we assured them that it will not, the fear in their eyes bore testimony to the horrors that Titli had caused. The experience had shaken me up, and I felt helpless and cynical. It was unfair for people who had never even heard of climate change to go through such misery. I felt really small in the face of the massive ordeal and injustice that we have put them through. Wasn’t there anything I could do about it?
Fast-forward to the present. I am now working in the Yavatmal district of Maharashtra, which is known as the ‘cotton capital’ of the state. Here too, I see the impact of unpredictable weather events on vulnerable communities. Untimely rains and prolonged dry spells have now become commonplace. The risks in agriculture have increased manifold. And it wouldn’t be wrong to believe that climate change has only exacerbated this unpredictability.
The farmers of Yavatmal, the tribal communities of Ganjam and the children from the climate strike in Delhi are all victims of the grave mistakes that humans have been committing for generations. They are reminders of the fact that climate change is not just an environmental issue, it is also an issue about equity and justice. I believe it is everyone’s responsibility to think about this, and to do something in this direction. I’m trying to do my bit through the work I do. After all, there is no Planet B.