March 30, 2020
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Tales Of The Living Dead

For many, the worst may well be over. For several others, however, this may just be the beginning of the end.

Tales Of The Living Dead

On the narrow dirt track that leads to Ersama - a large cluster of some 2,400 bustling coastal villages 110 km east of Bhubaneswar - a group of bandanna-sporting RSS workers in khaki shorts, yellow rubber gloves and gauze masks stumble on to eight rotting bodies in a ditch. They get to work immediately, digging furiously with their spades and shovels, tossing the bodies into faceless wayside graves (sometimes two to a grave) and sprinkle them with bleaching powder before moving on in search of more corpses.

Number of people taken ill: 1.73 lakh

Less than a kilometre away, in the smoky holocaust town that Ersama is today, senior administration officials insist that every dead body is being cremated in the presence of a magistrate to ensure a reliable count. Nagendra Rao, the straggly young RSS worker digging the grave says he’s never buried the dead in the presence of any official for the past two days. "There’s no time to do that," he says, "and this is the first time I’m hearing of such a thing." So, will the official death toll in Orissa’s killer cyclone have mounted to over 8,000 by the end of the week?

Number of houses damaged by the super-cyclone: 9.25 Lakh

Far away, in the Mahakalpara coastal town of Kendrapara district, 72 sacks of rice are ferried to the local jetty, counted twice over by the police, army and district administration officials. They are then loaded into a fraying country boat for a one-hour-long journey downstream to Kharanasi, a marooned village of refugee fishermen near the mouth of the river. As the boat docks at the devastated fishing hamlet and hungry villagers welcome a third consignment of rice in a fortnight, one sack is missing. Says villager Gouranga Saha: "Every adult here is entitled to 500 gm of rice but we often end up getting 100 gm less." Is relief being siphoned off routinely in disaster-stricken Orissa?

The truth, as yet, is difficult to come by. But as the ravaged eastern Indian state tries to limp back to some kind of normalcy, the sloth and slumber of the Indian state, its abysmal communication systems and a familiar inability to react rapidly to a crisis is on full display. This where a third of the total population has been affected and the death toll, according to revenue minister Raghunath Patnaik, is slated to "easily exceed 10,000". "It’s an apt example of the abject failure of the state even when there were advance warnings about the calamity," seethes Union minister of state for surface transport Debendra Pradhan. He is also a senior BJP leader from Orissa.

Number of people killed: 7,656 and rising

Pradhan is not quite off the mark. Take communications, for instance. There are only two satellite phones in Orissa: one belongs to Abhay Oswal, chairman-cum-managing director of Oswal Fertilisers at Paradip, who used it immediately to send information and marshall relief. The other was obtained by chief minister Giridhar Gamang’s son Sisir, a good 24 hours after the cyclone struck. Wonder of wonders, even the bureaucrats in this calamity-prone state are not connected by mobile phones. Complains a bitter official: "Since the government does not pay for mobiles, no bureaucrat uses them."

As for the cellular phone being used by chief secretary S.B. Mishra, it was hurriedly borrowed from a local wildlife enthusiast after the cyclone struck. The state government, actually, has one cellphone connection registered in the name of the Infrastructural Development Corporation of Orissa, but is yet to buy an instrument to bring the facility to life. No wonder information flow from the affected districts remained slow after the telephone lines snapped - an apology of a link with Jajpur was restored a good nine days after the catastrophe. Such a pathetic state of communications also possibly led to the death toll to more than double within 24 hours once last week.

Livestock killed so far: 2.97 lakh

"Maybe the local officials and elected representatives reported the toll to the collectors a bit late," says special relief commissioner D.N. Padhi. Now the rattled chief minister is asking the Union communications ministry for a satellite phone for each of the 30 districts in the state. That is not all. A lot of confusion and controversy has been generated by the conflicting death toll. Even as Padhi declared in a briefing at Bhubaneshwar last Wednesday that 5,300 bodies had been recovered in Ersama, a senior relief official in the battered town told Outlook that "no enumeration of the dead had been done. The panchayat representatives are reporting a toll of 10,000 from here alone". Besides, relief being trucked in from Bhubaneshwar is piling up in towns and block headquarters as there are no vehicles available to travel further into the villages.

Total crop area damaged: 12.52 lakh hectares

At Ersama’s 39-year-old panchayat samiti building - one of the few concrete tenements in the town which survived the winds and water with barely a scratch - rations for at least five days accumulated in the absence of adequate vehicles to transport them to the 2,400 villages in far-flung areas. "I was disgusted to see relief piling up when I arrived here first," confessed S.K. Jha, the additional relief commissioner now camping in the area. "Now things are moving." Relief is still uneven and the remote villages are badly hit. Not a single doctor has reached marooned Kharanasi, nearly a fortnight after the cyclone.

The predominance of disorganised touch-and-go relief by a lot of non-governmental organisations is leading to the inevitable wastage and confusion - doctors are being mobbed and heckled for food, an 85-year-old man gets a pair of faded jeans as relief from a speeding truck and loaves of bread are thrown around and into ditches by overzealous young men and women on a hurry-up relief mission.

Total area affected by the cyclone: 23,403 sq km

The civic administration, critical for moving relief and saving people, is also in a mess in several districts. A typical case is that of a severely affected coastal district, some 100 km from Bhubaneswar. Its collector was transferred four days after disaster struck, the additional district magistrate’s post still lies vacant and the superintendent of police is on leave and has been replaced by a tainted officer to prevent mobs from looting trucks. The elected parliamentary representative, meanwhile, stays put in Delhi after making a cursory aerial survey and the local legislator lands up a good four days after the calamity.

For about 10 days after the cyclone, government employees in the affected districts didn’t turn up for duty till the state government was forced to put out advertisements in newspapers warning the employees to "join work by November 8" or face disciplinary action. Even some ministers have lost faith in the administration. A senior member of the Gamang ministry admitted that the chief minister’s reaction was "pathetically slow and clueless in the beginning". With relief distribution systems in complete disarray, collectors in a few districts decided to put up lists of the number of relief sacks being trucked to each panchayat, outside their offices so that the locals could hold their elected representatives accountable.

There has been large scale looting too. In Dhanmandal, Bhadrak, for instance, some 58,000 bags of corn-soya blend supplied by the US-based NGO, care, were filched. Admits state panchayati raj department secretary Chinmaya Basu: "Much much more needs to be done. We are working at barely sustainable levels."

As a result, it has really fallen on the mourning and bruised survivors to rebuild their lives once again in this cursed land of drought, despair and disaster. Take Jamini Das, an octogenarian fisherman of Kharanasi. Three days before the cyclone ravaged this fishing village of 10,000 Bangladeshi refugees, his 21-year-old son Bhupati Das left for the sea in a trawler with five mates. Recalls his father: "The weather was so good when he left." A fortnight later, Bhupati’s absence has been explained as his probable death at sea. The gale and seven-foot-high tidal waves which swept the village destroyed the Das’ thatched home completely. Now sitting in a heap of rotting fodder that comprises his home, the paterfamilias is trying to pick up the pieces and is making a tent. "My son is dead, my home is gone, my land has been washed away," he says. "I’m boiling seawater to stay alive. But life has to go on." Neighbour Yogeshwari Das, a wizened mother of two, is in mourning too. Her 40-year-old son Nemai died on his way back to the village after an unsuccessful attempt to save a friend. Says Sushen Bera: "He was battered to death by the storm when we found him on the village road. He had been dashed repeatedly to the ground." Now, Yogeshwari Das, along with her eight-year-old grand-daughter is trying to put together a crude shelter with sticks. "My daughter-in-law and grandson have gone begging for food to Paradip and I am building the house." This is the fate of modestly well-to-do fishing families along the coast.

The elemental wrath may have razed villages and dwellings to the ground. But grit and determination are still to be found in plenty. Nityananda Das, a private office clerk in Cuttack, is an example. He walked all of 90 km to Paida village in Jagatsinghpur to find his sturdy mud-thatch-and-concrete house reduced to a skeleton. Luckily, his family survived. Last week, he made a fresh start with whatever little he could retrieve: mud-soaked tubelights, damaged and fast-fading family portraits, old magazines and books, a toothpaste tube and a wall clock which had stopped ten minutes before eight on the night when the house came down.

"I can’t believe it," says Nityananda, looking at the destruction around. "I have become a pauper overnight." The state government has very little clue on how to go about changing the fortunes of the cyclone’s hapless victims, considering the fact that Orissa is a benighted state anyway: some some 60 per cent of its 31 million people live below the poverty line, 96 children die per 1,000 births in India’s highest mortality rate and it has the lowest number of doctors per capita in the country (one government doctor for over 64,000 people). Only 5 per cent of its population have access to pds and just 19 per cent of the state’s rural homes have electricity. Its rapacious politicians have happily led the state into the red with a whopping fiscal deficit of nearly Rs 2,500 crore. Add to this a property loss of around Rs 1,000 crore in this cyclone and you have a truly dismal picture. "If we continue to get sustained national and international support, which is rather difficult, the state will take a minimum of 10 years to return to the pre-cyclone situation," is the grim prognosis of revenue minister Patnaik. There are roads to be rebuilt, electricity to be restored, large-scale afforestation to be done in completely denuded districts, employment to be generated and cattle to be bought. Another big casualty is primary education. "The schools have vanished from the map," says Rabi Das, editor of Oriya daily Paryabekhyaka. The only silver lining is that epidemics have still not broken out. "The government can’t simply afford an epidemic now," says Dr Sailesh Mishra of the Delhi-based All India Institute of Medical Sciences, who is examining some cyclone victims in Jagatsinghpur. "There is no cholera, and people are mostly suffering from flu and respiratory infections." Small mercies indeed. 


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