IT was a warm and sultry evening. I was getting ready to go out to watch a movie when the telephone rang. It was a call from the Inspector General of Police at the Cuttack headquarters of Odisha Police. He said a tornado had struck villages in the neighbouring district of Keonjhar, causing a heavy loss of lives and property. Keonjhar was at a distance of 150 miles from my range headquarters at Rourkela. He asked me to rush to the spot and mobilise police personnel to carry out a relief operation.
Hurriedly, I packed my bags for Keonjhar. Before departure, I spoke to the Keonjhar SP and gave instructions regarding our action plan. The winding roads to Keonjhar were in a state of disrepair; due to continuous rain, they were slushy and slippery. Winds roared and rain spattered the car’s windscreen, reducing visibility to almost zero. Thanks to providence and the skills of the driver, I reached the district headquarters in the dead of night. Officers of the district police were waiting for me. I got to know from them that the District Magistrate and the SP had left for the affected areas. No one had a clear idea about the extent of damage caused by the calamity.
Early next morning, I left for ground zero. Reaching there, I was dazed and benumbed on seeing the devastation. The tornado had virtually flattened at least 10 villages. It seemed as if a giant bulldozer had rolled over them. Trees had been uprooted, electric poles were twisted and small houses had disappeared. Nature’s fury and human helplessness had to be seen to be believed. Bodies and carcasses were lying scattered, filling the air with a terrible stench.
The villagers were stupefied by the suddenness and magnitude of the calamity. They looked at us vacantly. They did not know what to say or do. Groups of relief workers had arrived, but they also did not know how to go about their job.
The first and foremost task was to arrange the cremation of the bodies, which were lying near the ruins of the houses. I advised other officers to seek the help of the villagers. But I was shocked to find that even in this testing time, when nature had demolished all barriers between high and low, rich and poor, there was a distinct reluctance on the part of the villagers to lift the bodies to place them on the funeral pyres. Because of their unwillingness, the work had to be done by the police officers.
When I asked some of the residents about the reason for their reluctance, they said they belonged to an upper caste and would not touch the bodies of the lower-caste people. To me, this came as a revelation. Even a devastating calamity had no impact on the villagers’ rigid, age-old caste prejudice, which held a vice-like grip on their minds.
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