Orissa Riot victims’ struggles continue’

June 2, 2010
Father Ajay Singh expresses concern about the hundreds of people, displaced during the anti-Christian violence in Orissa, facing the imminent monsoon season without a roof over their heads.
Two years after the violence that killed 90 and displaced 50,000, with monsoon season approaching, hundreds of Christians in Orissa are still homeless. Father Ajay Singh, director of social service for Cuttuck-Bhubaneswar archdiocese is urgently seeking funds to provide housing for them. He spoke with ucanews.com’s Christopher Joseph in New Delhi.

Q: How many people have gone back to their villages?

A: We estimate around 75 percent have returned and taken possession of what was left after the riots. But they had no jobs, so many have left for other states. Except for one, all the parishes and mission stations in the area are functioning normally. But Catholics are very few, mostly elderly and children.

Q: What are conditions like for them?

A: Families are sleeping in the open, under trees. But when the monsoon starts in June, hundreds will have no place to sleep. That is why I have come to Delhi, to ask Caritas India and others for funds.

Q: It has been said that the Church collected huge funds for the riot victims already. Where has the money gone?

A: The money that came was hardly enough to cover basic relief and rehabilitation. Of the 10 million rupees(around US$233,000) donated, most was spent on feeding the relief camps. The government provided some food, but it only lasted three or four months after the riots. We have been taking care of people over and above that.

Q: What progress has been made with rehousing?

A: According to our estimates, about 6,500 houses have to be rebuilt, including 2,000 for Catholics. We have commitments from various agencies to build 3,431 houses but we’re still looking for commitments to build the rest.

Nearly 1,500 houses are now completed and I should add that we are building for all, regardless of faith.

Q: How many houses are being built by the archdiocese?

A: 1,650 in Raikia and Phiringia plus 250 in Nuagaon. We have completed around 900 and hope to finish them all in five months.

Each house costs about 30,000 rupees. It is a basic shelter made with locally available materials and labor.

Q: Do you have more money coming?

A: Not so far. We have received no commitment from anywhere and we are really not sure how people will manage this rainy season. We need to make at least some temporary shelters for them.

Q: Why don’t you make a national appeal to Catholics?

A: Our archbishop did speak to the CBCI [Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India]. But they said an appeal went out straight after the riots and people had already responded.

Q: Has there been any overseas help?

A: Yes, the Italian bishops’ conference is funding 330 houses and the Vatican’s Cor Unum has committed to 230.

Q: Do you think the Indian Church showed a lack of awareness of the situation in Orissa?

A: I would not call it lack of awareness, but we do lack a coordinated system for responding to needs like this.

Q: So what is the solution?

A: The CBCI has several commissions. They need to be brought together so they can offer one unified response.

For example, the women’s commission could have studied how the riots had affected Kandhamal women and how they could generate strategies to help them. Such a study would be a great resource for the future.

Q: How did the various commissions work in Kandhamal?

A: Caritas India did a wonderful job, but some commissions have yet to visit the area. Some have visited, but visiting is not the same as responding.

Q: The Hindu radicals came to Kandhamal only four decades ago, but the Church was there for more than a century. Why was the Church taken by surprise?

A: The Church was involved in works of evangelical charity and did not address community issues. The Hindu groups came with an agenda of working with communities. We were aware of their work but never realized they would target us one day.

Q: Who has more centers in the region, the Church or Hindu groups?

A: We do, if we count institutions. But in terms of people to people contact, the Hindu groups are much better positioned. The Church is very structured, whereas they are informal. We have begun to focus more on community building now. It may be late, but better late than never.

Q: Apart from housing, what are the other needs?

A: We are worried aboutthe migration of people, especially women. They are moving to other states for work but they are not educated and we are not sure what work they can find or how safe they are.

Another issue is lack of livelihood. Even during normal times, Orissa is poor. According to reports in 2005, around 75 percent people in Kandhamal were below the poverty line. The violence has exacerbated that, as people are now unable to farm. We need to re-start it, bearing in mind that the government owns 87% of the land in Kandhamal.