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Officials Fired in India for Theft

December 15, 1999

BHUBANESWAR, India (AP) _ A state government fired 11 officials Wednesday for stealing food and relief materials meant for millions of victims of a cyclone.

A top official of the Orissa government said the men were dismissed after police raided their houses and found large quantities of rice, lentils, polythene sheets, blankets and medicines that were to have been distributed to people.

Nearly 10,000 people were killed and millions of others rendered homeless after the cyclone, packing winds of 155 mph, hit southeastern India in October. The cyclone flooded much of eastern Orissa and turned the soil saline.

Police arrested the 11 local officials after villagers stopped two trucks carrying the material from the men’s homes Monday night, a government administrator said on condition of anonymity.

When police raided the houses in Balikuda, one of the worst affected districts 65 miles southeast of state capital Bhubaneshwar, officials emptied the goods into nearby ponds.

The men were charged with breach of trust, stealing government property, conspiracy and corruption. If convicted, they could get up to five years in jail.

In the state legislature, Chief Minister Hemanand Biswal came under attack during a debate on cyclone relief.

He did not comment on the arrests or the dismissals, but told the house Wednesday night that ``no government official stealing relief material will be spared, however high he may be in the administrative hierarchy.″

Opposition politicians and the media have said the administration appeared to be frozen in the face of the cyclone devastation. Millions of people were left to fend for themselves, thousands of bodies were left rotting in swamps as long as a month, and relief handouts were insufficient.

Two state lawmakers accused their administration Tuesday of rampant corruption in the distribution of relief.

Nandini Satpathy, a former Congress chief minister, said the government failed to prevent officials from siphoning off relief materials. She said materials, such as blankets donated by people around the world, had found their way into markets in nearby Calcutta and Raipur.

Another legislator, Judistir Samantray, said many homeless had not received plastic sheets to cover their makeshift bamboo shelters. He said officials were pocketing relief payments by forcing the mostly illiterate villagers to mark receipts indicating that they had been paid.

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