64 Flames of Disaster

Being a worker in the development sector keeps me travel-ready always. A recent UNICEF study on child rights situation took me to a village called “Kankadia” of Kendrapara district in coastal Odisha. The team was filled with a researcher’s enthusiasm in anticipation of finding some quality information. What we got there instead, was a first-hand account of an untold catastrophe – a tragic blow by the elements.

After nearly two hours of four-wheel ride (from Kendrapara district headquarters, we reached the village. Our target was the eleven families who were still living like refugees in their own village, simmering in the Red Cross shelter home just few meters from their burnt houses. 64 houses in the village had been ravaged by unbridled fire.

 

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On that doomsday of June 5 2012, fire engulfed the village and spared nothing of the Sixty Four houses. Within a span of fifteen minutes everything was transformed into heaps of ash rubbles. All the Sixty Four affected families took shelter in the multipurpose Red Cross shelter home situated nearby. Relief did come, but in shifts and spurts. The victims spent the entire day and night outside in the fields. The village Sarpanch, MLA, MP, NGOs, government all did their bit in shaking off their responsibilities in the form of relief and compensation. But how long could one survive with the relief items? In six months time virtually nothing of the relief or the compensation was left with them. The one time sympathizers had no time to spare for them. Not a single fact finding team had, in these six months, ever enquired about them or the well being of their children. Now eleven families still remained in the Red Cross shelter fighting dearth, despair and gloom. They showed a future devoid of brightness that held no promise – education for their children, a missing item and access to healthcare, a luxury. For them the requirements remained basic – food, cloth and the shelter camp that they call it their home.

The fateful event was still raw in the minds of all the eleven families. Bijuli Devi poured out all her pent up emotions before us. Anger, frustration, sorrow, hopelessness, all drained freely through her eyes that gave rise to sporadic ululation. She listed out all the help received from each source with great accuracy as also the help they expected but did not receive. She lamented, “Such a great calamity has befallen us that in a single stroke we all have become street beggars.” Abject poverty now stared at their frail figures. Living hand to mouth, they could not remember when last time they had a sumptuous meal, or when their children had a new dress, or when they had celebrated a festival together.

For two to four families, crammed in a single room is causing great inconvenience. All of them – husband, wife, children, young girls, nephews, nieces, brother-in-laws, uncles, and aunts – have to sleep in the same place. The barriers of avoidance relationship are broken leaving young mothers and adolescent girls exposed to vulnerabilities. They dare not speak up or protest; rather they have tolerated abuse or misbehavior because they have nowhere else to go. The adolescent girls have to adjust with the torn and tattered dresses and are shy to come out as they do not have a good pair to wear. These girls have dreams too, of fairy tale wedding and luxurious life but no marriage proposal for them are forthcoming. Emotionally they are shattered as they feel themselves to be burdens on their parents.

The situation is even worse for the women folk. They are compelled to sacrifice their privacy while doing their regular works whether breast feeding their babies, bathing in the open, or washing clothes. Even cooking food is done in the open as it is not allowed inside the shelter building.  If it rains they have to cook under an umbrella. Bijuli Devi adds, “We have thrown away our dignity also, as we have to shamelessly ask even for a sanitary napkin.” They have only one thing in mind – what would they feed the family with, how would they survive the day?

For the twenty odd children including children below five years of age staying in the shelter camp the future appears bleak. They are deprived of the most basic services required for survival and development. They do not get adequate nutrition, nor any quality education or healthcare. Few other affected families have settled in the Anganwadi center thus making ICDS non functional. For some children the mid day meals are the only food they get to eat. They want a playing space for themselves in the shelter premises as they are taunted by other villagers for putting up in the shelter camp for too long.

One part of the story – the relief part – gradually died out, and in six months a new part has started, that of struggle, of poverty, of rights and entitlements for 11 families who still stay in the shelter home with the hope of a new dawn. They are still searching for that gleam of hope among the ruins. One question troubled our minds while leaving the village – can we make any difference to their lives?

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