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Monday, 15 November, 1999, 08:04 GMT
Life and death in Orissa
Washed-out roads slowed the relief effort in Orissa

By Daniel Lak in Orissa

I first went to Orissa in 1997 to investigate stories of starvation deaths.

Orissa: After the storm
This had been a raging controversy in the Indian press for months, with the state government taking great exception to the notion that people under its charge were actually dying from hunger.

One official at the time told me to be very careful of my definitions.

A starvation death, he said, meant that no food was found in the stomach of the deceased.

Devan Kar displays his meal for the day - a fish
Any food at all meant that the death was not a matter of official record, even if it was caused by malnutrition.

That verbal sleight of hand enabled government officials to say there had been no starvation deaths in west Orissa. Perhaps they were semantically correct.

I saw and heard ample evidence of extreme hunger and met dozens of people whose loved ones died after years of malnutrition.

But the government and a powerful, venal business class in the affected areas knew they could avoid accusations of deliberate neglect by playing games with words until media attention moved on to another political crisis or natural disaster.

Abject poverty

No one is starving to death in eastern Orissa, not yet, but grinding poverty and pronounced under-development have made its people immeasurably more vulnerable to the cyclone and its aftermath.

It's safe to say that almost all who died or lost their livelihoods in the storm were among India's poorest citizens. Many were migrants from even poorer parts of Bangladesh. They were at the margins of society in a state that is itself marginal in modern-day India.

A doctor examines a baby suffering from diarrhoea
Development statistics paint a numbing picture of life in Orissa.

Two-thirds of its rural population live in abject poverty. It has India's highest infant mortality rate, the lowest number of doctors per capita, and one of the worst records in the country for providing electricity and water to its people.

Less than 20% of rural homes are hooked up to the power grid; three-quarters must draw their water from wells rather than a pressure-driven pipe system.

The state's finances are among the worst-off in India, with just a tiny percentage of national business investment over the past 10 years.

Less than 5% of the population has access to subsidies for food and fuel aimed at poverty-alleviation.

Political factors

Journalists in the state capital, Bhubaneshwar, say governments in Orissa have been of very poor quality for many years now.

There are also accusations of neglect by central governments, in part because Orissa has for years been governed by parties in opposition to those in power in Delhi.

Others say this is not a factor and that other Indian states have managed to overcome such neglect, if it exists at all.

Sociologists also say that the state's unique culture and language fall between the north Indian Hindi belt that tends to dominate national politics, and the almost as powerful Bengali presence in the east - another source of marginalisation in India's ethnically sensitive political system.

The state is also without the large and active diaspora or migrant population that helps fuel development in south India or the western region of Gujrat.

Survivors isolated

While probably no part of India could have been well prepared for such a ferocious cyclone, it's being said that Orissa had taken few, if any, steps to minimise the impact of storms which are an annual event.

Linesmen repair power cables destroyed in the cyclone
The few dozen functioning cyclone shelters there were mostly built by the Indian Red Cross and had no space for livestock - often the only assets of a poor family.

Many deaths probably occurred because poor farmers didn't want to leave behind a cow or a goat to go to the nearest shelter.

No one foresaw the collapse of communications, and many may have died or suffered because it took days for information about people's needs to reach the outside world.

Food, medicine and emergency shelter materials were not stockpiled in vulnerable areas, and much of the early relief effort involved large awkward convoys of relief vehicles moving at a snail's pace along blocked and damaged roads.

Finally, everything is being exacerbated by political tensions between Bhubaneshwar and Delhi that seem frivolous and deeply cynical in the face of such widespread human suffering.

India is preparing to observe the new millennium and has begun another bout of introspection about itself, just as it did in 1997 for the 50th anniversary of independence.

Perhaps one question to be pondered is whether indisputable achievements in agriculture, commerce, science, education and other fields are not in some way eclipsed by countless lives at the margins of society that can be so easily and routinely ruined by the wrath of nature.

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See also:
14 Nov 99 |  South Asia
Race to cremate cyclone corpses
12 Nov 99 |  South Asia
Analysis: Orissa's history of neglect
10 Nov 99 |  South Asia
Cyclone deaths set to pass 10,000

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