Orissa, who cares?

The response of the BJP–led central government to the disaster that has hit Gujarat has made millions of Oriyas acutely aware of the same government’s lackadaisical response to the cyclone that devastated Orissa only 15 months ago

Horrifying pictures of the  Gujarat earthquake are still fresh in public memory. None can belittle the devastation and death that the catastrophic earthquake caused in Gujarat on the January 26. 

But there is a reason to ponder over the responses this earthquake evoked. It may be true that a natural disaster does not recognise human frontiers, but its aftermath does. A disaster, be it a super–cyclone or an earthquake of high intensity, is normally believed to be a natural phenomenon. But the role of nature does not extend beyond the immediate happening of the disaster. Then ‘humans’ take over; to be more specific, those ‘humans’ who exercise the powers of the State and who decide how to make use of its resources in what situation. 

Whether it is the super–cyclone of Orissa or the earthquake of Gujarat, these greater mortals get ample opportunity to redesign and work out their own political and economic agenda. They are undoubtedly the direct beneficiaries of any disaster. The Gujarat earthquake has exposed one such group of beneficiaries — the BJP–led NDA government at the Centre.

The unprecedented response and the speed with which the government at the Centre reacted to the Gujarat earthquake was entirely missing when an equally, if not more, devastating super cyclone hit the Orissa coast in October, 1999 affecting almost 2/3rds of Orissa’s population. Union home minister, LK Advani, who owes his parliamentary berth to the people of Gujarat – Gandhinagar Lok Sabha constituency in particular — took up the co-ordination job on to his own shoulder and declared early on that the losses in Gujarat could be more than Rs 10,000 crore. 

Prime Minister AB Vajpayee issued almost a blank cheque to Gujarat. At least this was the version the media carried. Immediate assistance of Rs 1,300 crore was released to Gujarat by the Centre. Besides, the Prime Minister made an appeal to FICCI, CII etc to adopt all affected villages in Gujarat. 

The most significant initiatives of the Centre were the 2 percent surcharge on Income Tax and Corporate Tax and the temporary removal of Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) provisions by the home ministry to enable free inflow of foreign funds for earthquake relief. The other policy initiatives of the Centre included, the formation of a 39–member Central Disaster Mitigation Authority, (which does not include anyone from Orissa), steps towards a Disaster Mitigation Act and the formation of a Disaster Mitigation Commission on the lines of the Election Commission of India. 
This brings into focus the point that the BJP leadership of the Centre has made a direct assault on the spirit of Indian federalism and democracy by behaving differentially in similar situations. Since the super cyclone of Orissa has become part of history for those who neither witnessed it nor experienced its painful aftermath, it may be useful to recollect what was it all about.

Two cyclones hit the Orissa Coast in quick succession in October 1999 — one on October 17 and the more devastating one on October 29. The cyclone of October 29 acquired the distinction of a super cyclone because of the extent of damage it caused. The wild winds blowing at speeds of 260–310 km per hour accompanied by tidal waves wrought unimaginable devastation in the immediate coastal villages. 

About two crore people living in 20,000 villages and 46 urban areas were affected by the cyclones. About 21 lakh houses were destroyed, including the 8 lakh houses which were completely washed away. More than 13,000 school buildings, 2,000 village roads, 300 river embankments also fell victims to the super cyclone. Over 45 lakh coconut trees got uprooted, 84,000 tube wells were submerged in water for several days. 

Why was the central leadership so indifferent to Orissa and why it is so friendly to Gujarat? This question is agitating millions of victims of the super cyclone, who are yet to receive anything by way of reconstruction and rehabilitation measures.

In the post–cyclone situation, water logging was unprecedented. Between 90–100 per cent crop loss was reported from the affected districts. The cyclone had hit at the most vulnerable time for paddy crop. This was the crop on which the poorest of the poor depend the most because it was rain–fed. The loss of stored food, seeds and crop was overwhelming.

The Orissa Disaster Mitigation Mission has estimated the total loss to be not less than Rs. 20,000 crore, the same as the officially estimated loss caused to Gujarat now. However, the Orissa government, while appealing to the Centre made a request for an assistance of Rs 7,000 crore only. How much did the Centre actually pay? So far, only Rs 828 crore and 15 lakh. It may sound unbelievable but that is the truth. 

This is despite the fact that Orissa today is ruled by the BJP along with the Biju Janata Dal. It is well known that the Orissa government is financially bankrupt. Even the 25 percent matching contribution it is supposed to make in the case of various centrally sponsored schemes, it is not in a position to do so. 

The state leaderships request to their own elders in Delhi to waive the criterion of matching contributions and for deferring the repayment of loan to Centre have been turned down by the latter. The possibility of any additional ‘favour’ from the Centre is also quite bleak, as it is evident from the statements of NK Singh, OSD to Prime Minister who visited Bhubaneswar February 16, 2001. According to Singh, the Centre will consider any request from the state only when it is satisfied that the fiscal reforms and power sector reforms are being carried out at a satisfactory pace.

Why was the central leadership so indifferent to Orissa and why it is so friendly to Gujarat? This is the question that the political elite and the press in Orissa are debating today. In fact, this question is agitating millions of victims of the super cyclone, who are yet to receive anything by way of reconstruction and rehabilitation measures. The Union government does not have even a mechanism to assess the post-cyclone situation as the only structure it created in the name of ‘Orissa Cyclone Reconstruction Committee’ under the chairmanship of the defence minister is, expectedly, defunct now. The new structure now created in the name of Central Disaster Mitigation Authority after the Gujarat earthquake has 33 members. Interestingly, not one of them represents Orissa. 

In the pre–cyclone situation, the BJP and other sangh parivar outfits virtually had no presence in the coastal districts. Immediately after the cyclone, the saffron brigade, playing the role of a Samaritan (the banner they used was named ‘Utkal Bipanna Sahayata Samiti’) intruded into the coastal belt and gained considerable strength within a very short span of time. 

More than 70 percent of the 20,000 affected villages, now have RSS presence. Saraswati Shishu Mandirs, RSS–run schools, are coming up in large numbers. The ‘Utkal Bipanna Sahayata Samiti’ — the saffron brigade’s relief wing — is emerging as one of the biggest NGOs in the state in terms of the resources it has mobilised in the name of cyclone relief and rehabilitation. 

The inefficiency of the then Congress government in mobilising resources from the Centre was the main election issue in coastal Orissa during the assembly election campaign which took place six months latter. The Congress eventually lost the election while the BJP emerged as the party benefiting the most out of the assembly elections.

Many, who are not aware of the BJP game plan, are even now under the illusion that things will change for the better with the change of guard in Orissa. “They want a Raj completely for themselves. They will allow the discontent to build up further, so that, later they can desert the BJD and try to capitalise on the situation to their advantage. People have lost faith in Congress. They still think it is BJD, which is ruling Orissa and not BJD–BJP combine. Therefore, BJP will look for a chance to form a BJP–only government”, says Prafulla Samantara, president, Lok Shakti Abhiyan, Orissa. 
“Don’t think that they are not benefiting in Gujarat, you make a mistake if you think so”, says RK Sarangi, now the convenor of Orissa Khadya Adhikar Abhijan and who earlier headed the Orissa Disaster Mitigation Mission. Who will benefit from the removal of FCRA regulation for receiving foreign funds? asks Sarangi. Certainly not the established NGOs already active in relief operations. Nor the Christian missionaries, whom the saffron brigade normally targets in such situations, as they operate under the FCR Act of 1976. It is only the Hindu fundamentalist organisations who will benefit the most out of it, says Sarangi. 

The BJP general secretary, Narendra Modi, has already highlighted the role of these organisations that he calls NGOs. If a proper inquiry is conducted, it would reveal that the biggest beneficiary of any foreign fund in any post–disaster situation in recent times are the Hindu fundamentalist organisations,’’ says Samantara. If this is true, we have reasons of worry about.

Coming to the two per cent surcharge on income tax and corporate tax that the Union government so generously imposed was perhaps more badly needed in the Orissa case. The treasury of the state is not only empty; it is running on debt. Therefore, the Orissa government is not in a position to spend any additional rupee on super cyclone reconstruction work. The income of the state at present is less than Rs 200 crore a month whereas it has to spend more than Rs 400 crore to run the state administration. The state can’t afford to pay its matching contribution of 25 percent for the centrally sponsored schemes, which further reduces the potential of schemes such as the Indira Was Yojana (IAY) in meeting the needs of the cyclone affected people. 

To what extent pre–designed schemes meet the real challenge of reconstruction is, of course, another matter. For example, when 2 million people need support for houses, the Centre has actually allotted IAYs for Rs 50,000 only and has assured support for another Rs. 1.5 lakh. As per the government’s own admission, about 1.5 million people have applied for housing support.

The Orissa cyclone reconstruction committee, which was formed under the chairmanship of the defence minister George Fernandes, has not been able to mobilise a single paisa for the state from any other source. This committee is dead now. The UN system has altogether been able to spend only Rs 25 crore, says Sidhant Das, the executive director of Orissa State Disaster Mitigation Authority (OSDMA). 

As per the white paper of the state government, the World Bank is providing a total assistance of Rs 195 crore and Rs 880 crore in two phases. Out of this, 30 percent will be grant and 70 percent on a 12 per cent per annum interest basis. But, according to the managing director of OSDMA, Aurobinda Behera, the state is not going to get any amount from World Bank now. The Bank will only reimburse the expenses already incurred by the government. 

It may be recalled here that even this amount is not an original grant. The World Bank is only diverting its earlier loan to Orissa from a different head to the cyclone reconstruction work. The White Paper estimates the amount of fund spent by all NGOs at Rs 130 crore.
The situation in Orissa has now further worsened with a severe drought affecting about two crore people. There is no sign of any critical central assistance forthcoming for drought mitigation.

The people of Orissa now have to face two enemies at the same time — one being the recurrent natural disasters and the other one being a disastrous central government which makes a mockery of the whole situation they are forced to live in. The people of Orissa are not particularly concerned about what others think about them. For instance, they are least disturbed by the ridiculous statements recently made against them by JP Mathur, a senior BJP leader. 

Thousands of fishermen, who lost everything in the tidal waves, are not meditating on the seashores, waiting for the blessings of a Mathurji or an Advaniji. They are venturing into the sea once again to earn their livelihood. The lakhs of people who had lost their houses no longer sleep under the open sky. With their own sweat and skill they have re–build structures, which resembling a house. 

Life is once again blooming in the betel vines which were completely washed away by the cyclone. Even the most deprived ones and the Dalits in the worst affected Erasama block had preferred ‘food for work’ to ‘free kitchens’ within days of the disaster. 

Whether Gujaratis or Oriyas, common people everywhere have an unimaginable and perhaps in–built capacity to recover and recoup from even the most seemingly hopeless situations. Of course, the process of recovery would be smoother if the greater humans controlling state power behave rationally and responsibly in a post–disaster situation. By failing to do so, they only expose themselves as they have done in the aftermath of the Gujarat earthquake.

P.S.: The vastly different response of the electronic and mainstream media and also the response of the civil society to the calamities in Orissa earlier and Gujarat now are no less noteworthy, Here, ‘capital’ makes all the difference. If, as in Gujarat, the victims of a disaster are rich and have the potential to invest or entertain investment, they can be sure of a good response from the media and civil society in times if distress. If they are poor in the perception of ‘capital’, they are destined to be looked down upon, irrespective of the scale of the catastrophe they are confronted with and the dignity and self–respect with which they deal with their situation.

The responses received by the cyclone victims of Orissa then and the quake victims of Gujarat now bear ample testimony to the irony manifest in this era of globalisation. People of Orissa who have been condemned as poor and backward and who don’t have the capacity to help in the ‘appreciation’ of capital will not get the ‘benefit’ of a Bill Clinton or a Lara Dutta championing their cause. But, may be, the cyclone-affected people of Orissa, too, are least bothered about this discretionary display of humanitarian concern. 

(Figures quoted above are based on the white paper of the state government, and reports prepared by the government–run OSDMA (Orissa Disaster Mitigation Authority) and the ODMM (Orissa Disaster Mitigation Mission, a collective initiative of NGOs in Orissa).

Archived from Communalism Combat, February 2001 Year 8  No. 66, Cover Story 3



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