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Friday, November 12, 1999 Published at 13:27 GMT

World: South Asia

Analysis: Orissa's history of neglect

Orissa's cyclone victims try to grab bread from relief workers

By Daniel Lak in Orissa

The cyclone that swept through coastal Orissa two weeks ago looks set to be the century's worst in terms of the number of casualties, and the immense damage to property and people's livelihoods.

Aid officials predict the death toll will be more than 10,000, and say that development in the state has been set back an entire generation. Orissa was already one of the poorest and least developed states in the country.

Orissa: After the storm
When I first went to Orissa in 1997 to investigate stories of starvation deaths, there 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."

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.

Victims still vulnerable

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.

[ image: Child victims stand near an overturned policevan in flooded fields]
Child victims stand near an overturned policevan in flooded fields
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.

Development statistics paint a numbing picture of life in Orissa:

  • India's highest infant mortality rate
  • two-thirds of the rural population living in abject poverty
  • lowest number of doctors per capita
  • one of the worst records in the country for providing electricity and water to its people
  • less than 20% of rural homes hooked up to the power grid
  • three-quarters have to draw their water from wells rather than a pressure-driven pipe system
  • less than 5% of the population has access to subsidies for food and fuel aimed at poverty-alleviation.


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

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

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 an 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

Few precautions taken

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, after all, are an annual event.

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.

[ image: A ham operator in the ravaged region communicates with far-flung officials]
A ham operator in the ravaged region communicates with far-flung officials
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 snails pace along blocked and damaged roads.

Political tensions

Finally, everything is being exacerbated by political tensions between Bhubaneswar 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 the indisputable achievements in agriculture, commerce, science, education and other fields are not in someway 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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