Ersama block in coastal Odisha, India, was devastated in the supercyclone of October 1999, an event that marked a turning point in the disaster mitigation and management approach for the state. Through research spanning over a decade, I observed how post-supercyclone Ersama has undergone significant transformation in the way its lands are imagined and used, through the introduction of a new form of shrimp aquaculture as the principal livelihood. At the heart of this imagination is a powerful notion of the landscape rendered as ‘empty’ and ‘unproductive’ by the supercyclone. What followed was the acquiescent penetration of shrimp capital into the smallholding farms of Ersama, presided upon loosely by the state in a process of uneven regulation.
Drawing from this research, my paper argues that disaster recovery has become the business of ‘entrepreneurial’ citizens resulting in the dangerous normalisation of risk as well as new forms of differentiation and exclusion for poor small and marginal cultivators living in an area with recurrent cyclones. This is a story about how the state depoliticises disasters through narratives of improvement applied to ‘wastelands’ characteristic both of colonial rule and postcolonial development regimes, including in India. In an era of climate change, the paper argues, this amounts to a serious abdication of state responsibility.