Baha'is pitch in after "super-cyclone"

Local Bahá'í councils provided a network through which the Bahá'í community of India was able to assist both its co-religionists and the population at large after a "super-cyclone" struck India's east coast last November.

ORISSA, India - It has been roughly six months since the one of the worst cyclones ever to hit India took 10,000 lives and left upwards of a million people homeless. Yet much remains to be done.

Although immediate need for food has been generally satisfied, many individuals and families remain without proper shelter, warm clothes, or electricity. An estimated 11,000 schools were destroyed by the storm. Many farmers in the region lost a significant portion of their livestock.

Through its network of grassroots communities along India's eastern coast, the Bahá'í community of India has played a significant role in humanitarian relief operations following the 29 October 1999 cyclone, acting to provide help immediately after the storm and then in the continuing process of rebuilding.

"Conditions in many places are still far from normal," said Riaz Motallebi, secretary of the State Bahá'í Council of Orissa, which coordinated the Bahá'í response to the disaster. "It may take another six months to bring some kind of relief to many families. So far electric connections have not been restored in many places and therefore it has a great impact on the preparation of fodder for cattle.

"But now communities have learned not merely to sit and wait, but rather to consult, plan and then act upon their plan in cooperation with each other," Mr. Motallebi said in a recent interview. "This is the main theme that the Bahá'í community has urged and demonstrated - and we see the community at large responding to it."

Local councils provide a network

Located on the east coast of India, Orissa state is considered one of poorest regions of the country. Some 90 percent of its population of 32 million people live in rural villages, and the state's literacy rate is about 35 percent.

There are some 65,000 Bahá'ís in Orissa, spread throughout the state's 30 districts. In at least 88 villages, Bahá'ís have established local Spiritual Assemblies, freely elected local governing councils that are the basic unit of Bahá'í administration.

These local councils provided a network through which the Bahá'í community of India was able to assist both its co-religionists and the population at large.

The 29 October "super-cyclone" brought winds of up to 260 kilometers per hour, battering the Orissa coast for some 36 hours. Among the 10 million people in the 14 hardest-hit districts were about 25,000 Bahá'ís, organized into 40 local Spiritual Assemblies.

On 31 October, immediately after the weather had cleared, the State Bahá'í Council met to decide how best to mobilize to assist in relief efforts. "Everyone was in the state of shock, so great was the devastation," said Mr. Motallebi. "But we found that our strength was in our local Assemblies. Compared to many NGOs and their resources, our level of activity may not be much. But we discovered our real manpower was in the field, in the grassroots resources which our Assemblies had."

Mr. Motallebi said, for example, that although many outside relief agencies came in with food and other resources, they had no way to distribute it quickly. On the other hand, even the poorest of Bahá'í Assemblies was able to mobilize itself rapidly. "One local Spiritual Assembly, even in its utmost poverty and humility, arranged all on its own for food and distributed it to more than 600 people," he said.

Mohand Abul Kalam, Project Officer for water supply and sanitation in the Orissa State UNICEF Office, agreed that a major strength of the Bahá'í effort was its network of community councils.

"Since the cyclone, the Bahá'ís have come to the UNICEF office for regular coordination meetings with other NGOs," said Mr. Abul Kalam. "They did contribute their ideas and they did participate in the relief work. I must say they have some good, grassroots level workers, dedicated workers, who have direct contact with the community."

No donations from outside

By December, Bahá'ís had gathered and distributed more than 10,400 kilograms of rice, 4000 kilograms of rice flour, and 4000 kilograms of potatoes. This food was either purchased, donated or bought on credit by the community itself - none of it came from outside sources. Through the Bahá'í network, this food was distributed to some 12,000 families in Orissa. Later, warm clothes were distributed to roughly the same number of families.

Local Bahá'í Assemblies also sought to assist in other ways immediately after the storm. In a some areas, they worked to set up makeshift schools for children. Others distributed pamphlets and information on sanitation and hygiene.

More recently, Bahá'í communities have followed up by distributing clothing, working with local governments and other non-governmental organizations to do long-term planning, and assisting in the rebuilding of homes and buildings.

In collaboration with the Indo German Social Service Society (IGSSS) and the New Era Development Institute, the Bahá'í community of Orissa is currently working to set up a vocational course that will provide training in house wiring and electric motor re-winding - two skills in demand after the cyclone. As well, courses are being established to teach village health and hygiene, reforestation, and water sanitation. The first course started in January and will graduate 16 students at the end of April. In all, six courses are scheduled, running until December 2002.

Some local Spiritual Assemblies are helping in the reconstruction work by purchasing bricks, bamboo and other building materials and then giving those materials directly to needy families. "It works better than simply giving money directly, because this method ensures the funds will be used for rebuilding houses," said Tooraj Moghbelpoor, treasurer of the State Bahá'í Council.

Mr. Motallebi said Bahá'ís were inspired to help because of their belief in the oneness of humanity. "When there is a pain in any part of the body, the whole body will be disturbed and so it was with Bahá'í community all over India and the world," said Mr. Motallebi. "Many Bahá'í communities assisted in cash and kind, helping their fellow Bahá'ís in Orissa."