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India: Why am I here?

Stepping off the plane, the searing heat shocks me with its fiery embrace and scalds my cheeks. I have landed; I am in India.

I write from Bhubaneswar, Orissa. This is the focal point of Trócaire’s work in the country, located by the Bay of Bengal. Having never been to Asia before, I’m not sure what to expect. Despite romantic, travel brochure depictions of the majestic Taj Mahal, the flowing waters of the Ganges and fragrant curries, I am quickly seeing another India, one that has been desperately hidden from outsiders. This is an India of immense poverty, inequality and injustice.

Life in Orissa State, India
Life in Orissa: Photos by: Top and Middle Left: Mick O’Neill.
Middle Right and Bottom: Joanna McClatchie.


Inequality is the most striking feature of Orissa, one of the poorest states in the country. Poverty is everywhere and easily visible, but it sits uncomfortably next to obvious wealth in the form of imposing glass buildings or expensive new cars. The potholed roads play host to an incessant convoy of noisy, weaving traffic, slowed only by a cow slumbering peacefully amidst the vehicles. Pedestrians with no mode of transport jostle for road space with the more affluent citizens in cars. Stray dogs are everywhere, burrowing through mounds of rubbish near the town slums or peeking curiously into costly western-style shops.

The streets are constantly heaving with people; some scurrying to office jobs, others washing themselves from a bucket of water. Bhubaneswar is teeming with life, yet it is easy for even an outsider to see that for many people, life here is difficult.

Outside of Bhubaneswar, the inequality is starker still. I had the opportunity to travel to Koraput to visit a small tribal village in the remote, hilly region of southern Orissa. Lack of infrastructure meant we had to abandon the jeep two kilometers before reaching the village and continue on foot; there was simply no road. The people here live barefoot and have no electricity. There is a tragic irony in the fact that India is now a nuclear superpower but yet there are thousands of villages with no electricity.

“India may now boast millionaires with yachts but the country is still home to over 1/3 of the world’s poor.”

A week before I travelled to India from Ireland, a friend asked me a question which I felt was on a lot of people’s minds: Why was Trócaire working in India, a country that boasts one of the fastest growing economies in the world today? Like many countries experiencing an economic boom, India’s growth has not been equal or just. India may now boast millionaires with yachts and modern cities with skyscrapers, but the country is still home to over one-third of the world’s poor. Within the national borders there are over 230 million hungry people; the largest population of hungry people in the world. Almost 35% of the population live on less than a dollar a day.

Orissa in particular is extremely prone to natural disasters, including earthquakes, flooding and droughts. In 1999, a super cyclone decimated the state, killing an estimated 10,000 people. As an agency based on justice and solidarity with the poor, Trócaire responded to this humanitarian crisis and has been working with local partner NGOs and communities ever since. 

What is apparent from walking the streets is that people here work hard, yet do not allow themselves to give in to bitterness or despair. I am greeted warmly by the locals, with flashes of toothy grins and curious gazes. In spite of the many difficulties they face, the people of Orissa are friendly, warm and welcoming. Many of the people here deplore the depths of inequality in which they live, and are eager to engage with agencies and individuals to bring about change in their society. I am proud to work for an agency such as Trócaire which is so deeply committed to working towards social justice with the people of Orissa.

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