Pratima Pujari, 52, is a landless daily wage earner from Koiguda, a small hamlet in the outskirts of Nabarangpur town. The one thing that keeps her family of four — which includes a son, daughter-in-law and grandson — going is their monthly ration of 25 kg of rice at Rs 1/kg and four litres of kerosene at Rs 15/litre.
“Everybody gets their quota of rice and kerosene on the 10th of every month. There may be occasional half-a-litre or so shortfall in kerosene, but never in rice,” said Jugdev Jani, who farms four acres at Sanakumari village in Umerkote block.
Pujari and Jani, both adivasis from Bhatra and Kandha communities respectively, personify a district that is India’s poorest, yet not hungry in the conventional sense. Here, poverty lies in low incomes, limited growth and employment opportunities, and lack of access to basic infrastructure and public services.
“Poverty here isn’t about two square meals or people going to bed hungry,” said Rashmita Panda, Nabarangpur’s district collector.
There is some truth to these assertions. Nabarangpur district has 261,432 families with ration cards, covering 95.5 per cent of the district’s total 273,663 households as per the 2011 Census.
The 261,432 ration cards include 110,320 issued to those below poverty line, 41,675 above poverty line and 54,246 PLO (poor left out) households, who get 25 kg of rice each per month at Rs 1/kg. In addition, there are 51,539 Antyodaya Anna Yojana ‘poorest-of-the-poor’ families (whose entitlement is 35 kg at Rs 1/kg), 1,733 Annapurna scheme beneficiaries (senior citizens who get 10 kg free rice every month), and 1,919 disabled persons (10 kg at Rs 1/kg).
“We have ensured every family, barring a few, gets a minimum quantity of rice at Rs 1/kg and no one goes hungry,” said Ramesh Padhi, the civil supplies officer of Nabarangpur. There are lessons in this for governments, including in West Bengal where there have been reports of starvation deaths in the northern tea-growing districts, especially Alipurduar and Jalpaiguri.
There are a total of 192 fair price shops in the 10 blocks and two municipalities of Nabarangpur. The bulk of these are managed by gram panchayats (158) or women’s self-help groups (32). The latter also run 486 of the district’s 553 kerosene retail outlets, which is also seen to exercise check on diversion.
Interestingly, the incidence of diversion is said to be the least in Maoist-dominated blocks of Jharigam, Chandahandi and Raighar. “They actually act as informal enforcement squads, undertaking surprise inspections to check whether grain is being properly distributed,” said a district official on condition of anonymity.
Ironically, the implementation of the National Food Security Act (NFSA) from next month will bring down the number of public distribution system (PDS) beneficiaries in Nabarangpur.
“The NFSA prescribes criteria for exclusion of households like those who are income tax payers, draw monthly income of more than Rs 10,000 in rural and Rs 15,000 in urban areas, or own tractors and four-wheelers. We expect the overall coverage to fall to around 86 per cent as a result. The monthly PDS grain allocation will also come down from 7,000 to 5,600-5,800 tonnes,” said Padhi.
Nabarangpur, significantly, is a rice surplus district, producing twice its own consumption requirement.
Nabarangpur’s poverty explained
What makes Nabarangpur poor even though over 95 per cent of families in the district get 25 kg rice at Rs 1 per kg every month?
The answer is low incomes, limited growth and employment opportunities, and lack of access to basic infrastructure and public services.
To start with, there is hardly any industry in Nabarangpur, apart from small-scale rice mills, a smattering of cashew processing units and a struggling medium density fibreboard manufacturing company (Mangalam Timber Products) that reported a loss of Rs 10 crore on sales of below Rs 40 crore in 2014-15.
This is unlike even neighbouring Koraput district, which has, among other things, National Aluminium Company’s complex at Damanjodi, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd’s engine division at Sunabeda and Ballarpur Industries’ paper manufacturing unit at Jeypore. Nabarangpur doesn’t even a railway line of its own.
All this is reflected in data beyond mere rice production and consumption. Nabarangpur’s per capita income or net domestic product at factor cost for 2010-11 (the last year for which comparable figures are available), at Rs 23,473, was just over 40 per cent of the corresponding all-India average of Rs 54,710.
The district’s literacy rate of 46.43 per cent in 2011 was similarly lower than the average for not only India (74.04 per cent), but also Odisha (72.87 per cent). The disparity was even more for female literacy, where the corresponding rates were 35.80, 65.46 and 64.01 per cent.
The same goes for provisioning of basic infrastructure.
According to the 2011 Census, only 12.6 per cent homes in Nabarangpur had electricity, against 67.2 per cent for all-India. In 86.1 per cent of houses, the main source of lighting was kerosene. Further, only 3.4 per cent households had LPG connections, as compared to the national average of 28.5 per cent. 86.6 per cent of Nabarangpur’s families used firewood as fuel for cooking. Likewise, just 9.3 per cent of its homes had latrines within premises and 87.3 per cent had no drainage link for wastewater, whereas these ratios were 46.9 per cent and 48.9 per cent at the all-India level. The poverty of Nabarangpur comes out equally in various other standard of living indicators. In 2011, only 24.1 per cent of its households availed of banking services, 7.7 per cent had motorised two-wheelers, and 18.5 per cent owned mobile phones and 8.6 televisions, as against their respective national averages of 58.7, 21, 53.2 and 47.2 per cent.
All these make for a district that is desperately poor even if not hungry.