ucanews.com reporter, Odisha
Updated: July 11, 2018 03:37 AM GMT
Naveen Patnaik (center), the chief minister of India's Odisha state, is pictured with Divine Word Archbishop John Barwa of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar (right) and Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, on July 2. (Photo provided)
The Indian state of Odisha has proposed working with the Catholic Church to launch a state-of-the-art health facility in impoverished Kandhamal district, where anti-Christian violence claimed 100 lives a decade ago.
State Health Minister Pratap Jena said the government was open to collaborating with Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Archdiocese or other church bodies to set up a hospital in the district, where maternal and infant morality rates are among the highest in India.
Jena made the proposal when church officials from the archdiocese and representatives form the Indian Bishops' Conference met with him and state chief minister Naveen Patnaik on July 2 ahead of the 10th anniversary of calamitous riots that broke out in the state in 2008.
"The minister made the proposal and promised to offer land for the hospital free of cost," said Father Dibakar Parichha, an archdiocesan official who attended the gathering.
Father Parichha told ucanews.com that church officials including Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary-general of the national bishops' conference, "are seriously following up" on the proposal.
"People there are badly in need of a reliable health facility. Many women and children are dying for want of medical care. The church is committed to helping them," the priest said, adding the church does not currently operate a medical facility in the district.
While India's maternal mortality rate (MMR) stands at an average rate of 254 per 100,000 live births, it has climbed as high as 303 in Odisha, making this one of the nation's four most dangerous states for pregnant women.
The eastern state also has the worst infant mortality rate in the country, as 44 of every 1,000 newborns do not see their first birthday, government data shows.
The corresponding rates are "much higher" in the remote villages of tribal-dominated Kandhamal district, where people live in educationally and culturally impoverished conditions, Father Parichha said.
Father Pradosh Chandra Nayak, the archdiocesan vicar-general, said many newborns die from malaria and other preventable diseases.
John Barwa of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, a Divine Word archbishop, also attended the recent meeting. He said Naveen "encouraged the church to join in helping the state develop by becoming part of the process."
"The hospital no doubt would be of great help to the people of Kandhamal irrespective of faith and religion," he said.
The archdiocese, which covers the district, will try to expedite the proposal being enacted, he added.
The church delegation also pressed the state administration to fast track the distribution of enhanced compensation awarded by the Supreme Court of India to the victims of the 2008 riots.
Father Parichha said the Supreme Court in 2016 asked the state to pay additional damages of 300,000 rupees (US$4,545) to the dependents of 39 Christians killed in the riots. This was on top of the 500,000 rupees ($7,575) each of them received earlier.
The court also asked the state to pay compensation of 30,000 rupees (US$454) for those who were seriously injured and 10,000 rupees for those with minor injuries.
But the local government apparently ignored the call, forcing rights activists to file an appeal at a state court, which in May ordered that funds be allocated to compensate victims.
Following the court's intervention, the state said it had transferred 215 million rupees to the Kandhamal district administration for distribution.
Despite this, "many have yet to receive the additional damages," Father Parichha claims. He has been entrusted with compiling a list of those who have not yet got the money.
Christian leaders like Father Parichha say that nearly 100 Christians were killed in the riots that followed the murder of Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23, 2008.
State government records put the death toll lower at 39.
Touting Saraswati's murder as a Christian-led attack on Hinduism, fanatics attacked Christians, burned down 6,000 homes and more than 300 churches. Most of the Christians were slain for refusing to denounce their faith, according to reports.
Soon after the riots, church leaders accused the state government at the time of encouraging the police to look the other way and allowing them to conduct sloppy or half-hearted investigations into the murders.
They saw this as a tacit form of consent and endorsement of the Hindu fanatic groups' actions.
During the riots the state was ruled by a coalition comprising the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Biju Janata Dal (BJD), a regional party. Since 2000, the BJD has moved out of the alliance and now rules the state single-handedly.