January-February 2000





Death, said a survivor, was bliss, compared to the living-hell for those managing to exist. The

trauma of having lost many of one's family is accompanied by the nightmare of survival and the humiliation of being totally dependent on relief handed down by rapacious wolves. The stench of death continues to envelop the living, with corpses and animal carcasses haunting the destitute population.

In fourteen of the thirty districts of Orissa, encompassing half the population of the state, 1.5 crore people face a grim future. With crops and houses destroyed, household belongings and grains washed away, drinking water polluted by dead animals, land turned infertile by saline water…….. survival itself has become a desperate struggle. And if to all this is added hunger and disease, together with exposure to the raw winter……. the tragedy has reached unbelievable proportions. While thousands have been bulldozed by earth-movers into vast faceless graves, the lakhs of survivors stare blankly into a bottomless pit of darkness.

And amidst this gigantic human tragedy, the political vultures prey not only on the dead but also on the living, minting fortunes from relief monies. While lakhs starve and wither away to a painful death of disease, the politicians in a maniacal scramble for power, seek only electoral capital from the devastation. Vampire-like, they crave for votes and power, utilising people's agony to oil their electoral machines.

The Orissa cyclone, though a natural calamity, has become a man-made disaster a holocaust of monstrous proportions.



On October 17th '99, the first cyclone struck Ganjam district with a wind speed of 180 kms per hour. This first cyclone, which lasted 6 hours, devastated large parts of Ganjam and Gajapati districts and affected a few mandals in Andhra Pradesh.

The super-cyclone struck on October 29th with wind-speeds of 300 kms per hour and tidal waves rising 12 metres (30 to 40 feet) high. The area around Paradeep Port, bore the full brunt of the storm. Twelve districts were affected, the worst being Jagatsinghpur and Kendrapada. Unlike most cyclones, which pass within 8 hours, this cyclone continued for 34 hours wrecking havoc in 40% of Orissa. By November 30th the entire region, including the state capital, Bhubaneshwar, was cut off from the rest of the world.

The destruction can be imagined from the fact that even the state capital, which was 150 kms away from the centre of the storm was not able to restore power to all parts of the city even 11 days after the calamity. Twenty-four lakh hectares were inundated with water……. both from the storm and tidal waves. And it was only a fortnight later, when the water began to recede, did the full impact of the holocaust begin to emerge……. displaying lakhs of animal carcasses and thousands of bloated human bodies. Death, disease and destruction were all around. Wild dogs attacked the carcasses; politicians and bureaucrats, the relief money and goods.

While the Paradeep port authority, with access to the high-tech warning systems, took all precautions well in advance, the masses were left stranded to face the full fury of the cyclone.

The super-cyclone had given enough indication of its savage fury long before it struck. For four days the cyclone circulation lay in the Bay of Bengal acquiring monstrous proportions. The Indian Meteorological Department (I.M.D.), which has a separate division for cyclone warning, had sent out a warning to Orissa and West Bengal on the super-cyclone, 4 days in advance. The Doordarshan, though it broadcast warnings, it was in such technical language, that it could not be understood by the common people. Besides, the reports were conflicting. In fact on the very morning of October 29th, TV reports, quoting I.M.D. officials in Bhubaneshwar said “the latest reports say that the cyclone, centred just 180 kms from south-east of Paradeep, has changed its path slightly and is heading for the West Bengal coast". Yet, within hours of this broadcast the cyclone struck Paradeep.



After the Kandla cyclone in 1998, the Government commissioned a report for disaster preparedness which emphasized satellite phones, high-resolution satellite imagery, expensive cranes, etc. But all this became redundant, as far as the people were concerned, as there was no backup in the form of communications and disaster management.

Regarding a communication system, the Space Research Organization has strung 250 storm-warning receivers all along the Indian coast. At the time of crisis, the satellite is supposed to switch on the receivers which broadcast a siren and puts out a warning in the local language. The Orissa coastline has 34 of such hooters. But, at the time of the cyclone the bulk of these were not functioning.

Besides, unless there is an efficient disaster management system, little can be salvaged. No such system exists. On the contrary, successive governments have facilitated the havoc by allowing ecological degradation of the forest cover... particularly the mangrove forests. Since 1981 the area under forests in Orissa has been reduced by 50%. And the illegal shrimp-farms on the coast, which continue to operate in spite of a 1996 Supreme Court order for their closure, has destroyed much of the coastal mangroves of the region.

Also, the Central Govt., with its high profile National Disaster Management Division (a full-fledged cell of the Ministry of Agriculture) turned out to be an even more pathetic failure. It first proved totally clueless, then panicked, and later became totally silent. Its control room staled: all lines are down, there are no satellite pictures owing to heavy cloud cover, there is no power, we are helpless.... Even the army, which was in readiness since October 25th after receiving the I.M.D. reports, was only given their movement orders on Oct 29th after the cyclone had struck.

So, the high-tech I.M.D. only benefited the big companies and institutions like the Paradeep Port which have their own structures for disaster management. The masses in no way benefited from such sophisticated technology as it never reached them. Besides, together with all this high-tech talk, the Chief Minister Gamang, (as is the habit with most leaders) opted to consult select astrologers who predicted that the storm would not hit Orissa.



While the government has trivialized the gravity of the cyclone; the media has downplayed the horrendous impact on the lives of the people. As a result, many do not realize the enormity of the disaster and its impact on future generations of the people of Orissa. Though the magnitude of suffering worsens each day, the issue is now totally ignored.

Consider the facts: an estimated 70,000 people killed; 3.7 lakh cattle destroyed; 9 crore trees uprooted; 15.7 lakh hectares of paddy crop and 33,000 hectares of other crops washed away; 12.5 lakh houses damaged or destroyed; and 1.5 crore people affected. 10 lakh people have been afflicted with diarrhoea and an unknown number have died of cholera. All wells are unsafe except the 3,500 deep bore wells.

Eighty percent of the tree cover has been washed away. The entire coconut and betel-wine crop in the coastal region has been damaged and is expected to take over a decade to recover. The business loss on just betel leaf plantations amounts to Rs 25 lakhs per day in only the two districts of Bhubaneshwar and Cuttack. Besides, the 9 crore trees on the coastline, one Iakh trees of the protected forests and 480 kms of casuarina trees have been destroyed. Tribals, living on forest produce, now have no source of income.

Saline inundation has damaged vegetation and it would be three years before the land could be revived. Paddy fields that have been salt encrusted would take at least five years before normal harvests could be obtained. The total crop loss is estimated to be at Rs. 1,750 crores affecting 24 lakh hectares of farm land.

The state's rich dairy sector has also suffered heavy losses. Over 500 milk cooperatives have been badly affected with daily collection of milk dropping from one lakh litres to 10,000 litres. More than 1,000 poultry farms have been destroyed, affecting the livelihood of 1500 families engaged in this sector. Lakhs more cattle face starvation and disease through drinking contaminated water.

About 300 fishermen were killed and 60% of the 11,000 country boats destroyed. Also, 2,500 mechanized boats and 400 trawlers sank. About 500 trawlers sank at Paradeep port.

Though some big industrial units have been hit, the major damage is to small and medium industries. About 700 small or medium scale units, employing 80,000 people have been devastated in Bhubaneshwar and Cuttack alone. 13,840 primary schools in the 13 affected districts have been totally destroyed.

Such then is the magnitude of the havoc, which has been systematically downplayed. But, the most scandalous disinformation has been on the death toll. While the official figure given out is around 10,000; local journalists put the figure at a minimum of 70,000. The absurdity of the government's figures can well be imagined from the fact that its figures rose by just 500 after the water began to recede. It was then that the bulk of the bodies were, in fact, discovered and bulldozed into mass graves. Yet, the death-toll figure barely rose.

Some facts indicate the real figure: When the official toll had reached 9,000, senior government officials admitted that only 5% of the death toll was being reported. In Ersama block alone, 37 villages had been washed away, and the local MLA put the death figure of the block at 20,000. In neighbouring Balikuda block unofficial reports say the deaths were at least 5,000. Also, unofficial reports put the toll at Paradeep Port at 15,000.

In fact the PM's Office has itself, in a secret report, admitted to 25,000 deaths. Obviously there is a conscious attempt at disinformation to downplay the extent of the tragedy in order 10 minimize relief expenditures. That generations to come will suffer its impact, is of little concern to these blood-suckers.



It took almost a week before the state and Centre could swing into action to provide rudimentary rescue and relief measures. The first relief train reached the area only 4 days after the tragedy. The food packets air-dropped gave only token relief and served more as publicity for the air force and government. The government, after all, could not be seen to be doing nothing during that most crucial first week. For all their sophisticated gadgetry, relief operations could be started only 72 hours after the cyclone, due to the bad weather.

In the very capital city, Bhubaneshwar, even after a fortnight, 25,000 slum-dweller families, whose houses were destroyed, had received no relief. Vast areas of Jajpur district were made accessible by road only 10 days after the cyclone, and virtually no relief reached the people till then. Ersama could not be reached even two weeks after the tragedy — the army turned back as the road from Paradeep was tittered with human corpses. Several villages under the two blocks of Ersama and Balikuda were still not accessible by road 17 days after the cyclone. In fact, three weeks after the cyclone George Fernandes himself admitted that 5% (or 400) villages had still to be accessed.

For both the major political parties their prime focus was not relief, but gaining advantage for the March 2000 assembly elections. Crores of rupees were wasted in showpiece 'aerial surveys', when detailed pictures were available in Delhi through satellite imaging in clear T.V. pictures. But all the political bigwigs took their routine helicopter joy rides (Vajpayee went in a Boeing) to make a pretence of concern. Let us take a look at the reaction of the major political parties and the civil administration.



The political manipulations began with the Oct.17th cyclone itself. After Vajpayee's first aerial survey, he released double the funds to the A.P. government (a political ally), though the damage there was a small fraction of that in Orissa. In A.P. there were no deaths and under one lakh people of four mandals were affected; while in Ganjam district of Orissa 200 people were killed 21 lakh affected and over Rs. 1,000 crore property destroyed. Yet the Centre gave Rs. 100 crore to A.P. and a mere Rs.50 crore to Orissa. Later, the Naidu government was portrayed as the most efficient in helping the cyclone-affected in Orissa, conveniently forgetting the vast sums made available to it.

Besides, after the super-cyclone struck, it took the central government over ten days before it appointed a Central Task Force (CTF) headed by George Fernandes, to oversee relief. Till today it is not clear what exactly this CTF did, except to utilise its status for a propaganda campaign against the ruling Congress(I). In fact, in his first press conference ten days after taking over as head of the Task Force, Fernandes said he had no idea of the enormity of the task.

In spite of such a major calamity the Vajpayee government refused to declare the cyclone as a national calamity. Such a declaration would have entailed additional funds from the Centre and have facilitate aid from international bodies. In order not to declare it a National Calamity, Vajpayee and his ilk resorted to lies, deceit and subterfuge, saying that there are no statutory grounds for such a declaration. In fact the 10th Finance Commission has clearly stated that, "once a calamity is deemed to be of rare severity it really ought to be dealt with as a national calamity, requiring assistance and support beyond what is envisaged in the CRF (Calamity Relief Fund) scheme". Obviously the Centre was averse to granting relief for the affected. It finally gave a mere Rs.300 crores to the state, while the balance given was a loan, to be set off against future allocations. The local BJD did little, except to criticise the government and gain political mileage for the Corning assembly elections. The RSS, during the crucial period, was more pre-occupied in the campaign against the Pope's visit and in the mobilisation for its yatra. Even in Orissa, it was more concerned with creating obstacles for the Christian NGOs' relief work, than assisting the affected people.



If the BIP-led Centre displayed criminal apathy, the local state government and Congress(I) came out as greedy vultures, preying on the death and destruction wrought by the cyclone. This was reflected in the rabid dog-fights within the Congress(I) for the spoils of office……. with each contender for the CM's post eyeing the vast relief funds due to flow into the state. While lakhs of people lay dying of starvation and disease, relief work was stalled by the factional fights; with all the MLAs camping at Bhubaneshwar, pre-occupied in the scramble for power.

Even otherwise, the bulk of the MLAs and officials were conspicuous by their absence. A victim, in fact, said: "Where are the district authorities and government representatives? They fled like rats to safer places when the cyclone hit. They have not even visited the place since". The CM actually went on record to say that his government has run away, so he could do nothing in the affected areas. He added that his civil servants were being lynched by the people. Gamang himself spent most of his time shuttling between Bhubaneshwar and Delhi, begging for funds and playing internal power politics. In a bid to corner all the benefits, the CM asked for exclusive rights to supervise operations.



The Orissa Govt. is one of the eleven states already indicted in a CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General) report of having misused Relief funds. Even on this occasion, with the Govt.'s coffers empty, when the centre released Rs.500 crores, Rs.100 crores was diverted to pay salaries of the staff. This aside, the callousness of the officialdom, amounted to criminal negligence.

In the very midst of the crisis (on Nov 9th), the Orissa Chief Secretary, S.B. Mishra, flew to the U.S.A. to visit his ailing daughter. The Pun District Collector had 'disappeared' and the Govt. had to rush another Collector (on Oct 29th) to replace him. The District Collector of Bhadrak left his post and had to be replaced on Nov 6th. The District Collector of Kendrapada refused to move out, while the Collector of Jaipur was transferred for doing nothing. The three District magistrates of the worst affected districts of Kendrapada, Bhadrak and Jajpur were transferred for negligence.

In a severely affected coastal district, just 100 kms. from the capital: its collector was transferred four days after the disaster struck; the Additional Magistrates post lay vacant; the Superintendent of Police was on leave, only to be replaced by a tainted officer; and the MP of the area was safely lodged in Delhi, after the routine aerial survey, while the MLA made an appearance only four days after the event.

Not surprisingly, due to this inertia, even three weeks after the cyclone, 40% of the grain was yet to be distributed; one-third of the cloth had not yet reached the people; much of the cooked material (like lemon-rice) sent from other states rotted in Bhubaneshwar; and relief material piled up in the capital city as distribution was not properly organized.

But, the most detestable of all, were reports of high level corruption in the purchase and distribution of relief materials. In fact, the polythene sheets scandal, involving a fraud of Rs.100 crores, led to the suspension of the very chief in charge of relief. D.N. padhi, the Special Relief Commissioner of Orissa was suspended for irregularities in the procurement of polythene sheets.



Foreign voluntary agencies like CARE used the occasion to make deep inroads into rural Orissa dispensing discards from the US.

But what particularly created revulsion amongst the people of Orissa was the attitude of the US MNC, AES Corporation, which currently holds 51% of the stock in the Central Electricity Supply Company (CESCO), which supplies power to coastal Orissa. Forget about helping in relief, the CEO of AES flew down from America demanding compensation for the Rs.300 crore damage suffered due to the cyclone. He demanded either payment from the Govt. or else an immediate three-fold hike in electricity charges.

And as for the world-bank, it took a full month before it sent a team of twenty just to visit the area. The aim, no doubt, was not relief, but how to gear reconstruction to serve imperialist interests. Already the Govt. announced reforestation plan, smacks of a typical World Bank scheme for developing eucalyptus and casuarina plantations.



That relief work was more geared towards propaganda and publicity rather than the actual needs of the situation, came out clearly through this crisis. Though an immediate task lay in the clearing of carcasses to prevent the spread of disease this was neglected as it was considered a too lowly task for the pampered army or the high profile NGOs. Even 20 days after the cyclone, barely one-third of the 3.7 lakh carcasses had been removed. In this caste ridden society, the task was finally given to the Dalits. In a abhorrent casteist scheme, hundreds of sweepers were mobilised from all over Orissa, and even 200 were brought from Delhi, for this 'lowly' task. Not surprisingly, the process was exceedingly slow leading to the spread of disease.

The callous approach of the officials in all relief related work resulted in riots throughout the affected areas. The desperate masses unleashed their anger at the politicians, officials and police. Even central ministers were not spared from the people's wrath.

This was reflected in the physical attack on two central ministers, George Fernandes and Navin Patnaik, when they visited Paradeep three days after the cyclone. A furious crowd attacked the helicopter that brought the two VIPs and their entourage. To save himself from the people's wrath the pilot took off without Fernandes. Patnaik, panic-stricken, escaped from the clutches of an angry crowd and scrambled into the helicopter as it took off. The helicopter had to make four landings before it could pick up Fernandes. The people were protesting against the total lack of relief supplies, drinking water and medicines in the Port city, even three days after the cyclone.



Orissa, one of the richest states in the country, is the most poverty-stricken. It has rich mineral resources like bauxite, iron-ore, manganese-ore, limestone, nickel, coal and 95% of the country's chrome ore. Paradeep is one of the five busiest ports in the country. Yet, Orissa is infamous for its starvation deaths in Kalahandi and other districts. In fact, the affected coastal regions were the most prosperous parts of the state. Now, they too will join the ranks of a Kalahandi.

Today, throughout the world, it is poverty and backwardness that is a major cause for all devastation caused by 'natural' calamities. It is not surprising that such destruction occurs only in the third world and not in the developed countries. America, for example is continuously hit by cyclones, but few die. When Hurricane Elena hit the US in 1985, only 5 people died. But when a cyclone slammed Bangladesh in 1991, half a million people were killed. Besides, ruthless ecological destruction has made third world countries more prone to 'natural' calamities.

In the case of India, the magnitude of such devastation has increased roughly three to eight fold over the past three decades. Natural disasters affect over 56 million people on an average every year, and kill 5,063. Floods hit over 11.2% of India's total cultivable land; and 4 crore hectares is prone to floods. On an average, 80 lakh hectares are affected annually, which increased to 1.86 crore hectares in 1999. The average annual damage ranges from Rs.627 crores to Rs.4,059 crores a year. In addition, about 28% of the cultivable land is drought-prone.

Besides yearly floods and droughts, cyclones and earthquakes are increasing in frequency. The 1971 Orissa cyclone and the 1974 Andhra Pradesh cyclone killed 10,000 each. The 1991 Uttarkashi earthquake and the more devastating Latur earthquake killed thousands more.

Deforestation, big dams, and other ecological imbalances is a major reason for the increasing number of 'natural' calamities. And the lack of governmental concern is the reason for the extensive damage to life and property. The massacre of thousands in the Orissa cyclone; and the disease, starvation and death that follows, is the product of a system which thrives on profit, greed, and rapacious loot of the country's natural and human resources. High-tech purchases of the IMD may help protect businesses, ports and their properties, but only a comprehensive grass-roots disaster management system can save the people from death and destruction.

But such a structure is unthinkable within the existing framework. If the danger from natural calamities is to be reduced, there must be an immediate stop to the rape of the country's national resources, particularly its rich forest/mangrove cover and irrational water schemes. But such measures are only possible, when the people them selves seize power and assert control over their environment. As long as alien forces, dominated by the MNCs, comprador houses, contractors, etc, maintain control, and profit and plunder is their sole motive, there can be no hope for the affected masses. Conditions will only deteriorate; 'natural' calamities will recur with increasing frequency.

Also, havoc to life and property as a result of natural calamities can only be controlled by introducing people-oriented safety measures. But, with an approach, where: monetary returns are sought for every rupee invested, no socially meaningful schemes are possible. Cyclones will come and go; thousands may be killed and lakhs of peoples' future destroyed, but the rulers will remain unconcerned, seeking only profit amidst the devastation.

Any hope for a better future for the affected masses inconceivable without a radical change in the socio-economic system…….. through building a system, based not on profit and private gain, but one that is socially oriented — that keeps the interests of the masses as primary. It is only then that returns on investments will be measured, not in monetary terms, but in social and human gains.





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