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
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
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
HIGH-TECH: LOW PREPARATIONS
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.
THE GRAVITY OF' THE HOLOCAUST
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
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
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
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.
CRIMINAL NEGLIGENCE & POLITICS OF RELIEF
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 BJP COMBINE:
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
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
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.
CALAMITIES: NATURAL OR MAN-MADE?
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
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'
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
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