| CLINGING TO HOPE: A file photograph of a bereaved woman with her child
She couldn't take it anymore. Soon after her sister left for work one morning last week, Tapasi Das, of Sarbapat village in Orissa's Ersama block buffeted by the 1999 super-cyclone, padded into a room and bolted the door from inside. When the 16-year-old came out, just minutes later, her clothes were in flames.
'She was not screaming for help. She just stood there ' quietly burning,' Srihari Das, a neighbour, recalls. By the time an ambulance carried her to the S.C.B. Medical College and Hospital in Cuttack, the badly burnt teenager was gasping for breath. Before long, she was dead.
Tapasi ' depressed ever since she lost her widowed mother and two of her siblings to the devastating storm ' ended her life in what has become a common form of suicide in post-cyclone Ersama: she doused herself with kerosene before setting herself afire.
Tidal waves, triggered by the storm packing a wind speed of more than 400 km per hour, swept away nearly 7,000 people and left thousands homeless in this coastal block in Jagatsinghpur district on October 29, 1999.
Five years on, Ersama, a three-hour drive from the state capital of Bhubaneswar, is speckled with new houses, school buildings, tarred roads and cyclone shelters, all built by the state-run Orissa Disaster Mitigation Authority, which has spent over Rs 440 crore rebuilding the cyclone-wrecked state.
But the tragedy lies right there. With the authorities focussing solely on construction, the psychosocial rehabilitation of the survivors has taken a back-seat in Ersama, the ground zero of the super-cyclone.
According to a recent survey by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS) in Bangalore, at least 68 people in a population of 1,000 are suffering from 'severe mental problems' in the block. And most of them are women.
'The figures are very high indeed when compared to the national average of one mental patient in a population of 1,000,' NIMHANS's Dr K. Sekar, involved in the study, says. Little wonder, that some 60 people are said to have committed suicides in Ersama over the last five years.
Sekar says there is 'nothing unusual' about a spurt of suicides in a disaster zone. 'It's a worldwide phenomenon. Survivors at times commit suicide out of a feeling of guilt and hopelessness,' says the psychiatrist who worked extensively on families of the 1984 Bhopal gas victims.
But what makes it particularly sordid in Ersama is greed, one of the main factors responsible for the suicides of several women, social activists say. And in most cases, it is the neighbour who is involved.
Drawn by the lure of the money the widows ' and in some cases orphans ' received as compensation, a band of unscrupulous men, posing as 'well-intentioned' neighbours, have taken advantage of the vulnerable survivors in several villages, robbing them of most of what they got from the government.
In several cases, recorded by Sneha Abhiyan, an Ersama-based organisation backed by Action Aid, widows have been sexually exploited as well. 'The kind of exploitation going on in Ersama since the cyclone is unbelievable. The women survivors are being exploited mentally and sexually,' says Madhumita Ray, the Bhubaneswar-based programme manager of Action Aid.
There is a pattern to most cases of exploitation. With no social blanket to fall back on, the widows tend to find solace in men who come forward, seemingly to share their lives. But in most cases, the women find themselves duped ' emotionally and financially. The men desert them after extorting sex and money from them.
'They even left some of them pregnant,' says Ray. Activists are now trying hard to dissuade these women, some of them suicidal, from taking any extreme step. 'We are counselling them regularly,' Sayani Pan, a psychiatrist with Action Aid, says.
Archita Pradhan of Kiamundi village was pregnant with her second child when the cyclone hit her village, killing her husband Jagabandhu, a cashewnut farmer. She was turned away by both her in-laws and her own family, for she had married against her parents' wishes.
| Rina Ghadai was offered help by one Boria Manna after the cyclone. He took away much of her compensation and left her pregnant
Within a month of her husband's death, she gave birth to her second son. Ersama was still convulsing with the after-effects of the cyclone then and she didn't know how to feed her children. Then, another tragedy struck. The two-month-old baby, sharing the cold, damp floor of a roadside shelter, died untreated of a fever.
She became despondent and was toying with the idea of committing suicide when a man, a neighbour, entered her life. He soothed her frayed nerves with sweet words and it wasn't long before the relationship became physical.
She did not sense anything wrong when the man, whose name she still doesn't want published, asked her to withdraw the Rs 75,000 she had received as compensation for her husband's death from her bank. Survivors are not allowed to withdraw the compensation money kept in a fixed deposit, but can take a loan against it. That's what Archita did for that man, who, she says, had 'brought a glimmer of hope in my empty life'.
A few months glided by; she became pregnant again. When she broke the news to him, he asked her to take out another loan and give it to him to take care of their child-to-be. She did that. The man left home soon after, never to return.
As the word spread of her pregnancy, the local panchayat held a meeting and censured the woman for 'indulging in sex despite being a widow'. She tried to commit suicide by dousing herself with kerosene, but at the last minute she stopped. 'I couldn't do it when I looked at my new-born child fast asleep on the floor,' she says.
But the widow, in her late 20s, still looks somewhat unsettled. 'We often visit her and try to counsel her,' Jyotsna Rout, an activist with Sneha Abhiyan, says.
Orissa state women commission chairperson Namita Panda acknowledges that the women are the worst sufferers in post-cyclone Orissa, but denies knowledge of women being sexually exploited. 'We will certainly look into it if we get a complaint,' she says.
Panda may not have heard about Rina Ghadai. Not far from Kiamundi is Garaharishpur, a rambling settlement at the end of a snaky dirt road pocked with craters. Ghadai was bent double in a paddy field as the sun dipped below the horizon.
The 25-year-old woman, abandoned by her husband within a year of her marriage, was pregnant and staying with her parents when the cyclone slammed the Orissa coast. She, her son and her three siblings survived, but the crashing sea took away her parents.
She struggled to survive with her son and another child in her womb in the aftermath of the cyclone, which killed a total 8,913 people and 4.45 lakh cattle across coastal Orissa. When she got her share of Rs 33,000 as compensation for the death of her parents, Ghadai thought she'd pull through.
In no time, a villager named Boria Manna approached her, offering to help. With no one to turn to, she accepted. The man started visiting her often and it wasn't long before she became pregnant. The local panchayat, here too, took strong exception to a widow becoming pregnant and called a meeting. By this time, Manna had pocketed much of the compensation she had received.
Rina says the night before the meeting, the village mukhia (headman) approached her and told her not to name Manna as the father of her would-be child. 'Instead, he told me to name another villager named Ajamil as the father of my child,' the woman says.
Not knowing what to do, she kept mum at the meeting next morning ' till the mukhia came over, called her a slut, spat in her face and slapped her hard. 'I then had no option but to name the wrong man as the father of my child. Then, they all started beating him up,' says Rina, her voice choking.
Later, she learnt that the mukhia had settled an old score with Azamil, the innocent victim of village politics. Those with a modicum of power ' the men, the panchayats or the mukhia, for instance ' have little to complain about. But those without have horrifying stories to tell. Ersama ' strewn with broken homes, dashed hopes and wrecked dreams ' is full of such grisly tales.
Arun Kumar Mohanty, general manager (documentation) of the Orissa State Disaster Mitigation Authority, acknowledges that the women have largely borne the brunt of the super- cyclone. 'We are doing everything we can to rehabilitate them,' he says.
But activists say the women are 'under enormous pressure' to keep things under wraps. Action Aid officials found their path blocked by villagers when they tried to enter Hatiapal village a few weeks ago after hearing that an eight-year-old girl living with her widowed mother had been raped.
'They told us to go away, saying they would settle the issue themselves. But child rape is too serious to be left to the villagers,' Ray says, indicating that the child needs professional help. The accused was arrested last week when local activists lodged a police complaint.
At Sarbapat ' which saw 228 people disappear into the tidal waves, some say, as high as a coconut palm ' villagers are still mourning for Tapasi Das, their latest loss. The teenager had moved in with her uncle in Paradip after losing her mother and siblings in the cyclone.
But soon, villagers say, her aunt started clamouring for the Rs 75,000 Tapasi had received as compensation. 'It became a bone of contention between them,' Sagar Mondal, a villager, says.
The girl gave her aunt the interest she earned from the deposit every month, but the woman was not satisfied. 'She told her that she wasn't allowed to withdraw the entire amount, but her aunt wouldn't listen. Her uncle kept mum all through,' Mondal says.
Tapasi toiled day and night, virtually working as a maid at her uncle's, trying to compensate for the meals and a corner-space she was allotted for the night. Two days before the suicide, her aunt had thrown her out, villagers say. She asked for the passbook the woman had snatched from her, only to be abused.
She went to stay with her elder sister at Sarbapat. 'She was gloomy and quiet, but nobody had any idea what she would do in two days,' Janaki Das, a villager, says.
All that she left was a post-script on the wall ' the black mark of a fire that tells its own story.