Those That Do Not Meet The Eye

This article is part of the author's column 'By Grace of God'

The Super Cyclone that hit Odisha on October 29, 1999, inflicted extreme human misery. Nearly 10,000 people lost their lives. The wind and storm surges caused extensive damage to houses, livestock, crops, tree cover, infrastructure and communication systems. Tangible damages were well-documented and restoration was meticulously planned. But damages which devastated the social capital remained mostly unattended.

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Padampur village of Erasama block in Jagatsinghpur district, where the Super Cyclone made its landfall, was the worst hit. Without a single concrete structure in the village, there was no way to escape from wind gusts that reached an estimated 300 kmph, sea tides soaring up to five metre and unprecedented torrential rains. When we visited the area four days after the calamity all that confronted us were bodies and carcasses strewn all over a devastated landscape. Miraculously, a few who were swept away somehow managed to survive. Some had made desperate attempts to survive by tying themselves to coconut trees. But most of them were not lucky. After a week of the disaster, we met someone who did survive. A woman in her thirties, she had lost all eighteen family members, including husband, children and in-laws. She was in an obvious state of shock. But her trauma was more due to repeatedly narrating the harrowing incident to sympathisers and the media. She prayed fervently, “I am exhausted of repeating the same episode. It is like reliving the most tormenting moments of my life every time. Please leave me alone. Let me die.” We made arrangements for her to shift to a shelter run by a Civil Society Organization (CSO) and ensured that no one met her. The chilling description kept on haunting me for quite some time.

Within a week of the catastrophe, in addition to relief operations by the Odisha government, there was a beeline of organisations for providing food and materials in the affected areas. It was a Herculean task directing organisations to different locations. For some it was ‘disaster tourism’. Many a times distribution of relief materials led to unpleasant situations, particularly when the material brought for distribution was grossly inadequate. In worst-hit areas, each and every one was equally affected, had lost every material belonging, was sick and hungry. Reaching in such a village with inadequate supplies created more problems than it solved. Prioritisation was not possible, no matter what criteria one chose. For example, in a village an organisation wanted to distribute milk powder to families with children, but it was resented by those who were excluded. I remember one group had gone with expensive Korean blankets for distribution; it could have catered to about five per cent of the people there. They thought poverty would be a good criterion, but the villagers argued that since everyone had lost everything, each was equally impoverished. No formula appeared feasible. People came up with ridiculous ideas like cutting the blankets to make mufflers for all. Finally, the group with a lot of difficulty managed to return without distributing the blankets.

There were several such cases. One elderly gentleman told me, “When the cyclone was at its peak all of us were together, helped each other, the young men took care of the elderly and infirm, all of us took shelter in the village temple, in houses of people having concrete structures, we shared food, there was no differentiation based on caste or religion or social status. But once the relief materials have started coming, we are fighting like dogs. Everyone wants to have his share in whatever is coming as relief whether one needed it or not. The cyclone united us and the relief has brought out the devil in us.”

As things limped back to normal, a slew of labour-intensive programmes was launched by government, CSOs and international agencies. A number of complaints were received regarding misappropriation of funds. But given the extraordinary circumstances most were ignored. However, we got interested in a particular case. We, along with representatives of the donor agency, went to the work site where a pond was to be dug. It was being executed by a credible CSO funded by an international agency. The progress was not even ten per cent going by the measurement of work. The representative of the CSO explained, “Sir, you are calculating the output based on assumption that ‘X’ number of able-bodied persons have worked for eight hours a day for ‘Y’ number of days and, therefore, the earthwork should have been ‘Z’ cubic metres and it is less than one tenth of that. Here the objective is not to create an asset, the objective is to provide a platform to traumatised people to share their grief and sit together to tide over their psychological problems. Work output is just incidental. None of the person working here is either able-bodied or in proper frame of mind, or working for eight hours a day nor is even reporting daily. They are coming here to chit-chat, play cards, relax, take food together and occasionally participate in digging the pond. Therefore, money spent is well justified.” We were convinced, the people from the international agency were overwhelmed, electronic and print media covering the visit were impressed. However, I wondered had a block development officer (BDO) given this explanation would he have escaped departmental proceedings and suspension for embezzlement? Would the press have been sympathetic at all?

Government machinery is very good in executing jobs that can be quantitatively measured but it is perhaps, not programmed for soft skills. Could a government system have taken care of the traumatised woman who had lost all members of her family? A government servant might have chosen to cut the blankets to make mufflers for equal distribution. And, had a BDO given the logic provided by the CSO for low output of work, he definitely would have been charge-sheeted. Therefore, we do need civil Society participation for good governance.

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