Odisha– 1999 and afterwards

About nine hours away from Bhubaneswar, Bhawanipatna city is situated which is the district headquarter of Kalahandi which is one of the thirty districts present in Odisha. Long ago Bhawanipatna used to be the capital of the Kalahandi kingdom and the Kalahandi palace can still be seen there. Kalahandi had been ruled by the Naga dynasty for decades but it’s known not for the Nagas but for its poverty.

Phanas Punji of Amlapali village in Kalahandi sold her two-year-old sister-in-law for Rs. 40 to save her two starving children. To which Kapil Narayan Tiwari, a former MLA, said “Here, children are sold cheaper than channas, and the government, instead of rescuing the poor from hunger, is pressurizing them to deny the sale stories.”

This incident in the year 1985 shook the nation and soon Kalahandi caught up the lime-light. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited Kalahandi with his wife Sonia Gandhi and made a remarkable statement that of every rupee spent by the government ,only 15 paise reached the intended beneficiary. These VIP visits highlighted the issues and suffering of Kalahandi but the ground reality remained somewhat unaffected. In a statement dated five months after the visit of Rajiv Gandhi Phanas Punji said “I am poorer after Rajiv Gandhi’s visit. Officials came once and gave me a sari (worth Rs.7) and 8 kg of grains, which was an insult to my poverty. The sari is still lying unused though I couldn’t keep the grains: my children were so hungry.”

But after almost twenty years when the media found Phanas Punji again, she was no longer a picture of penury and hunger. She was wearing decent clothes along with jewelry. And this improvement can also be verified with RBI data: in the year 1999, Odisha was the poorest state in India but in the year 2012 it jumped 5 positions ahead.

Odisha faced ignorance from it’s rulers in history especially in British era and even after independence which were considered to be the reason of it’s poverty. Not only poor governance but many-a-times extreme weather conditions ranging from cyclones to droughts were also considered to be reason. The famine of 1866 killed more than one million people. But many researchers believe that extreme weather conditions couldn’t be treated as the sole reason of poverty, poor governance and policies are equally responsible for the same. For example in a report of the 1866 famine stated that increased exports, hoarding and inadequate relief also contributed as immediate causes of people’s sufferings.

Till date seven Prime Ministers of independent India have visited Kalahandi to promise better policies. In-fact it is believed that Indira Gandhi got the inspiration of the slogan ‘Garibi hatao’ when she visited Kalahandi.

It should also be kept in mind that situations vary from place to place within Odisha as well. Odisha can broadly be divided into three parts i.e., North Odisha, South Odisha and Coastal Odisha. North Odisha is the area of mines whereas Coastal Odisha is full of cities and tourist attractions and South Odisha is a hilly area where most of the tribal communities reside.

Studies have shown that Coastal Odisha has almost half the poverty rate compared to other regions.

But situations began to improve in the twenty-first century. Economists showed in their studies that the average growth rate of Odisha rose to 8 per cent which immensely helped in the eradication of poverty.

The credit goes to the Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, who has been the CM of the state of nineteen years now. Over the past two decades ‘The man who couldn’t care’ has transformed his image to a man who’s known for his simple lifestyle and generosity. But he didn’t just change his image but also changed the future of Odisha.

The main reason of economic development in Odisha was the rapid growth and improvement in it’s tertiary sector. Within the first decade of twenty-first century the share of tertiary sector in Odisha’s economy increased from 39 per cent to 49.8 per cent. And this wasn’t exclusive to Odisha. The tertiary sector of India was helping in rapid economic growth all over the nation and Odisha used the same for it’s economy.

At the same time, not only economic but Odisha also had social development. For example the first decade of this century saw a major dip in the infant mortality rate in Odisha.

The credit for these socio-economic development goes to three social initiatives of the state government i.e., 1. Mission Shakti and similar other programs where the women are provided with skills and facilities so that they can become more independent. Not only this but the CM also made women more politically independent by giving 33 per cent reservations in state assembly elections and 50 per cent reservations in the panchayat elections. 2. Disaster management model of Odisha which has been appreciated by the United Nations as well. The system developed after the super cyclone of 1999 worked it’s best when another such severe cyclone Phailin struck the state in the year 2013, and since then the state is the best cyclone ready state in the country. 3. The public distribution centers in Odisha avail the poor section with grains and Ahaar centers distribute cooked meal for the needy all at minimal costs which has brought down starvation due to poverty in the state.

With the implementation of many such policies CM Naveen Patnaik showed that development is possible even in extreme weather conditions. But it should also be noted that within the years inequality also rose in the state as major developments were limited to Coastal Odisha only. This could be possible because the growth in the tertiary sector of the state was mostly in the coastal regions. Another reason being mining which has also increased inequality. Studies have shown that the areas where mines are present are poorer than other areas. The reason behind this could be the fact that the major benefits obtained by mining go into the pockets of a chosen few.

The prevailing problems may indicate that people and organizations may demand betterment but the state has least politically active population contrary to the neighboring state of West Bengal where political activism within the masses remains at it’s peak mostly. A local journalist Kedar believes that Odisha has been a feudal place for centuries and thus the popular mentality of the people is that their leaders should think and do for them while they are not interested in governance etc. And this feudal system is still existent behind the veil where all major authorities like media etc., are controlled by a few families who entertain all the power.

Even after years of development, poverty is still the major problem of Odisha.’ Phanas Punji bristles at any stranger bearing even the faintest resemblance of a journalist or cameraman who might approach her. “Go away. You guys take my pictures and sell them for a price while I continue to wallow in poverty.” she says.’ reported the Indian Express on 6th September 2016.

Now the people of Odisha have started to take baby steps towards being active for the betterment of the state.