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Land of Gandhi mistreats it's poorest

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    Land of Gandhi mistreats it's poorest

    A Deafening Silence
    The sorry aftermath of the Orissa cyclone shows how the land of Gandhi has come to mistreat its poorest

    Dev Nayak for TIME
    The deadly cyclone, which left this woman a homeless widow, scarcely moved Delhi.

    The farmers and fishermen of the east Indian state of Orissa live on the whims of nature -- and die by them. In October, one of the strongest storms in South Asia's recorded history, with wind speeds in excess of 260 km/h, hit the coastal state, wiping out everything in its path. At least 10,000 people died, along with a million farm animals. Even the vultures disappeared -- and what a feast they would have had.

    The buzzards are missed in Orissa: three months after the tragedy, human and animal carcasses are still rotting in fields. Mankind, meanwhile, has proven even crueler than nature. Every level of government was slow and inept in the days following the storm, and things have scarcely improved. No concerted effort has been made to clean up the place or aid the survivors. The central government of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has yet to release $200 million in rehabilitation funds -- though it's contesting state elections to wring political gains from the tragedy. The winged buzzards are gone: the human ones are starting to campaign amid ruined lives and ruptured families living beneath plastic sheets. "Don't talk to me," says Ahilya Jena, who lost her house and most of her family and now possesses only some old clothes and kitchen utensils donated by a charitable organization. "I can't talk, I can't sleep, I can't think." She can, however, feel, though her husband has procured tranquilizers from a doctor to keep her from feeling too much.

    Orissa shows how anesthetized India is to its poor, in everyday life and even amid tragedy. The plight of its people has moved few hearts, prompted no outrage. It no longer makes headlines. "The Indian media have become completely apathetic," says Mahesh Bhatt, a flashy Bombay film director who visited the state late last month. "Despite my media contacts, I've not been able to get newspapers to report on the ongoing tragedy. "The apathy extends to the entire Indian middle class. Last month, Indian President K.R. Narayanan gave a scathing speech on the occasion of Republic Day, saying India had become "a stony-hearted society." He warned that hundreds of millions of poor were "seething in frustration." He added: "Fifty years into our life in the republic we find that justice-social, economic and political-remains an unrealized dream for millions of our fellow citizens." The press largely ignored his comments. "It was the most remarkable address," says P. Sainath, author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought, a scathing 1996 study of provincial India. "There are more poor people in India today than ever before, but their trauma has left the Úlite unmoved."
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    In the Indian context, the term Úlite refers not only to the highly educated or superrich, but to the middle class: the 200-million-strong bedrock of India's economic hopes. As consumers, this class has already helped boost India's yearly economic growth to 6% from the paltry 3.5% levels of the past. That's an impressive achievement-until you stare at the flip side. Nearly 400 million Indians are thought to live in absolute poverty, and between 1993-98 some 40 million people were added to that roll. In the same period, the number of Indians without work also rose. The 1990s saw a sharp escalation in suicides among debt-saddled farmers, at the same time that urban weight-loss clinics mushroomed for the rich and obese. "The canvas of deprivation is so immediate and so vast that the privileged classes have become immune to experiencing it," says Pavan K. Varma, a career diplomat and author of the intentionally critical and ironically titled book The Great Indian Middle Class.

    The reasons are numerous. Traditional Hindu concepts still hold tremendous power: a person's caste and material well-being are inherited at birth as a reward, or a punishment, for past lives. That keeps the rich and poor both psychologically and socially complacent. Some see a failure of the revolution that should have come with India's independence in 1947. Land reform was compromised, and basic education and health for the poor were neglected. India has always viewed its masses as liabilities rather than assets, choosing to ignore the achievements of populous, yet economically vibrant, countries like Japan and China. Economic commentator Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar sees a perversion of idealism-tinged with a bit of spoils-grabbing-in which the anti-capitalist ruling class has long been obsessed with the ownership and control of industry and commerce. "In the holy name of socialism, left-wing politicians imposed a thousand controls and then used these to line their pockets," Aiyar recently wrote in an open letter in the Times of India to President Narayanan.

    This callousness is especially evident when tragedy strikes. On Dec. 4, 1984, poison gas escaped from a Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, killing 8,000 in what would become the world's worst industrial accident. India was shocked, and the government took a tough stance against Carbide in demanding compensation. After five years, Carbide coughed up $470 million and agreed to build a hospital for long-term sufferers. What happened to all that money and all those victims? Activists estimate that thousands have succumbed since the initial wave of deaths. Thousands of people are ill and receiving indifferent treatment. (After 15 years, doctors say they still can't isolate the toxins in the gas; they blame Carbide for not revealing an antidote.) Nearly 100,000 victims received paltry initial payments of about $500, but only 6,000 death claims have been settled. Hospitals were built, but never opened. (At the unoccupied Carbide hospital, the elevators don't fit in the shafts.)

    The government is still sitting on $250 million of the settlement money, which Vajpayee's party in Bhopal wants to use to build apartment towers outside the city to sell to the middle class. Meanwhile, the local government recently proposed building an amusement park on the site of the factory. "After the gas leak," says social anthropologist Shiv Viswanathan, "the people affected by it were gradually transmogrified from victims to survivors to patients to hypochondriacs. Nobody cares for the 'hypochondriacs' now. Bhopal is an example of the most systematic erasure of a disaster from the consciousness of a nation."

    And yet indifference reigns supreme. In New Delhi a year ago, a wealthy young man ran over seven laborers in his BMW. The headlines faded, and the victims' kin, having received cash from the man's family, are considering dropping charges. Two summers ago in Orissa, more than 1,000 people died of heat stroke: it generated little national interest. The storm in October affected 18 million people, more than half the state's population. All told, 774,000 houses were destroyed, 18 million hectares of farmland were flooded, 12,000 km of roads and 18,000 schools were damaged. Visit Orissa now and you'd think the storm hit a few days ago. "This is what's left of my crop," says Monu Swain, a 65-year-old farmer displaying a handful of rotted rice grains. The landscape is treeless: an astonishing 90 million trees were lost in the storm.

    A few private charities are trying to feed and house victims. But the Indian government turned down a United Nations offer for an international fund-raiser. Indian pride wouldn't allow it. Some Western charities made the mistake of sending toys for the children of Orissa. The Customs service opened each package and held up the consignment for a week, arguing that toys couldn't qualify as a donation. The $200 million in federal funds approved for distribution hasn't been released-critics say the Vajpayee government doesn't want to aid the state government of Orissa, which is controlled by the rival Congress Party. Meanwhile, the suffering continues. Dhirendranath Maikap, 30, lost both of his children in the floods. Having had a vasectomy three years ago, he is doomed to childlessness. "Every minute of the day I repent it," he says. Sarchala Swain, 21, had a very different experience. She escaped to a treetop at the height of the floods and gave birth there, severing the umbilical cord with her teeth. She named her child Toofan, which means cyclone. He's now two months old-but faces a grim future as a result of his family's destitution. The floodwaters may have receded, but Swain and millions more in Orissa are still drowning in an ocean of apathy.