In July 1985, Phanas Punji a tribal woman in Khariar block of undivided Kalahandi district had sold her two-year-old sister-in-law Banita to a blind man in neighbouring Bolangir district for Rs 40, just enough for her to buy 3 kg of rice to save her two little ones. The incident that seared the conscience of a nation brought the horrors of Kalahandi as the poverty bowl of India.
Early last week, the gut-wrenching image of Dana Majhi carrying the body of his wife Amangdei, wracked by tuberculosis bacteria, with a sobbing daughter walking alongside, has again brought the deprivation and utter hopelessness of lives of poor in Kalahandi into focus.
If a haughty JB Patnaik, former Odisha chief minister, dismissed such incidents as handiwork of opposition parties, in 2016 an aloof and distant Naveen Patnaik has proved to be no better. After Majhi was forced to walk with his wife’s stiff body for 12 km following refusal of help in getting a vehicle to reach his village 60 km away, the district administration did a quickfire probe that absolved everyone except Majhi.
The sub-collector who did the probe pointed out that Majhi left the hospital with the body without informing anyone, hiding the fact that the poor tribal had pleaded before everyone for help to get a vehicle. Faced with an apathetic hospital staff, Majhi had no other way than to walk along with his sobbing daughter for 12 km, left as he was with Rs 300 in his pocket. Luckily, he was spotted by a kindred youth who called up a TV reporter and an NGO dispatched an ambulance to carry the body for the next 50 km.
So what has changed between JB Patnaik’s Kalahandi and Naveen Patnaik’s Kalahandi?
Since then a special area development programme called Long Term Action Plan and later Revised Long Term Action Plan has been implemented in eight districts of Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput region with an expenditure of Rs 3000-odd crore of central fund. The abject poverty of the 1980s Kalahandi is surely a thing of the past as the waters of the mighty Indravati river, channelised into several of its blocks have helped the district become a granary of the country.
At least 85 per cent of the farmland is now irrigated. It is now among the top-25 rice producing districts of the country. The road network built with funds from Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana and NHAI are much better. The district headquarter town of Bhawanipatna is now connected to Bhubaneswar by rail.
But beyond these visible signs, Kalahandi has not developed much between 1985 and 2016 as it should have been. In Thuamul Rampur block, from where Majhi travelled to Bhawanipatna, in the last one month, at least 21 persons including 4 children died from pneumonia, chronic illness and cerebral malaria. The inaccessibility of the villages in these blocks was reason enough to deter the doctors from visiting the area. So every year, scores of people die from some epidemics or otherin the block.
The last 16 km to Melghar, Majhi’s village takes at least an hour’s ride in a vehicle and the toughest to cross in monsoon.
— Farah khan (@farah17khan) August 26, 2016
Other human development indicators continue to be worse.
The school dropout rate may have been reduced due to Sarva Shiksha Yojana, but the literacy rate is still 60 per cent (tribals around 50 per cent) while the state average is 73 per cent. Despite programmes like Janani Shishu Surakhsha Karyakyam for newborn and lactating mothers and Integrated Child Development Scheme, the infant mortality rate and maternal mortality rate in Kalahandi and other KBK districts are quite worse and much higher than national average. A former bureaucrat in charge of KBK recently pointed that the statistics of success being doled out in the region is nothing more than “statistical lies”.
In 2012, a CAG audit on the state of hostels for tribal girls in KBK areas found that hostel buildings constructed by Integrated Tribal Development Agencies in Thuamul Rampur block of Kalahandi between April 2007 and November 2009, were being used by boarders though these lacked basic amenities such as toilet, drinking water, kitchen and electricity facilities.
The hostel buildings in Koraput did not have water supply and sanitation. The standard of teaching in these schools is so bad that a Class 7 student in these schools would not be able to recite a multiplication table.
In December 2013, the district was in news after a tribal and a Dalit youth had their hands chopped by a brick kiln contractor after they refused to go to Andhra Pradesh instead of Raipur. But the incident has failed to deter the poor, estimated to be at least 60 per cent of the population, to migrate out for work at least once a year.
Despite NREGA being in operation, the district human development report of Kalahandi prepared by United Nationals Development Programme in 2012 showed there was little by way of livelihood for the people of Kalahandi and other KBK districts.
The worst of course is healthcare. Against a sanctioned post of 193 doctors, the district has just about 120, quite a few of them contractual and ad-hoc. In other KBK districts too, at least half of the posts of doctors are vacant. The contractual and ad-hoc doctors would get anything between Rs 40,000 to Rs 45,000, while a permanent doctor gets at least Rs 47,000 at the beginning of his career. The government has also announced separate allowance for doctors working in these areas, but the package is hardly lucrative to keep the doctors in hospitals for a long time. The plan for suitable housing accommodation for doctors in Kalahandi and other KBK areas is still being prepared.
In Thuamul Rampur community health centre, there are just two ad-hoc MBBS doctors against a sanctioned post of 7. Power supply to the hospital is erratic. Had there been enough doctors and good infrastructure, Majhi may have taken his wife there instead of the district headquarter hospital. It’s possible that his wife may have been survived TB.
While the quality of governance in the district is pathetic, a corrupt and indifferent bureaucracy have worsened matters. All throughout his political life, Naveen has been a hands-off chief minister, happy to relegate all his administrative responsibilities to bureaucracy, except attending perfunctory review meetings every now and then.
As a result the political class has been thoroughly emasculated while bureaucracy reigns supreme. The MLAs of most districts including Kalahandi are powerless even before a Block Development Officer as the same officials would come to the rescue of ruling BJD during panchayat or general election.
Be it last month’s firing in Kandhamal or malnutrition deaths in Nagada village or Kalahandi incident, the chief minister has systematically kept himself aloof politically.
The Dana Majhi incident has made Naveen Patnaik government look small and mean. Despite his popularity, the heartbreaking image of Dana Majhi carrying his wife’s body would remain a blot on Naveen’s career.