Rice for India cyclone survivors provides hope beyond the storm

ORISSA, India - People in Orissa, eastern India, are struggling to recover from a devastating October 29 cyclone. The storm slammed into the coast, followed by heavy rains and a tidal wave. Countless people lost their lives. Some 1 million were left homeless.
Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is providing rice to villagers in exchange for their labor cleaning debris from fields and rebuilding houses. This "food-for-work" program provides much needed food as people begin to rebuild their lives. The timing is particularly crucial because fields need to be planted in January.

On December 7 and 8, Dave Gerber, MCC's India co-representative, and Cynthia Peacock, MCC India staffperson, visited these food-for-work projects. "Seeing the food distributed to the large numbers of people seemed like reliving the story of Jesus feeding the multitudes," Gerber observed.

"I wish the North American contributors to this effort could have witnessed this feeding of the multitude beside the Bay of Bengal," he said. Some 70,000 people will be fed with the rice, which is valued at $366,000 Cdn./$245,000 U.S. About half this food is being provided through Canadian farmers' donations to the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

CASA, Churches' Auxiliary for Social Action, the relief arm of the Council of Churches in India, is administering the food-for-work program in Orissa. Orissa has been the site of religious violence in the past. Earlier this year, a Christian missionary and his two young sons were burned to death there, likely at the hands of a Hindu fundamentalist group. When the deadly cyclone struck Orissa in October, some Indian Christians concluded the storm was God's judgement. However, many other Christians, including CASA, eagerly offered to assist storm victims - regardless of their religion - seeing this as an opportunity to show love and compassion.

"The food assistance provides hope for people to begin anew after the storm," said Gerber. "It was truly rewarding to see people working, talking and joining together as communities to improve their situation." He saw whole families working together to salvage bamboo doors or windows from their destroyed homes, materials that they will use to build new houses.

Gerber observed a group of some 500 people waiting to receive relief supplies from CASA staff. He particularly recalls one woman who began crying as she received her ration of rice. "I wondered what story lay behind those tears, was it the loss of a family member or was it the gratitude for the rice?" Gerber pondered. "We didn't know."

On December 22 two MCC India staff - Thomas Santosh Harris and Achinta Das - will go to Orissa to help with the reconstruction efforts. MCC has not previously had program in this part of India.

The India cyclone received little publicity in North America, and MCC has received few contributions to help victims of this tragedy. MCC still needs $298,000 Cdn./$200,000 U.S. for its relief efforts. In addition to the rice, MCC is also spending $115,000 Cdn./$77,000 U.S. for tarps, blankets and other relief items.

Persons wishing to donate money to MCC for India cyclone relief should mark their contributions #5708-2000" and mail them to the nearest MCC office.