Kalahandi, Odisha: In 1984, Phanus Punji, the poor woman from Kalahandi in Odisha had sold her sister-in-law Banita for Rs 40 and a saree to feed other members of her family. Then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi had to fly down to Kalahandi to see for himself the poverty in which people lived in.
The government then floated KBK (Kalahandi-Balangir-Koraput) special scheme and pumped in huge funds. But, 30 years later, the gut-wrenching tale of Dana Majhi, who carried his wife’s body on his shoulders for 10 km as he had no money to afford a hearse van, has put Kalahandi back into the limelight.
Government schemes not implemented
Mr Majhi wouldn’t have had to go through the ordeal had he availed two government schemes. The Harishchandra Scheme by the government, that provides money for funerals for the poor and was introduced in 2013. And the Mahaprayan Scheme that provides free hearse service to transport bodies that was announced in February and launched after Majhi’s wife’s death.
Government figures from the last financial year show that spending under the Harishchandra scheme in Kalahandi is among the lowest even though the district ranks eleventh in terms of population.
This perhaps is why Dana Majhi, a tribal, took the decision to walk home with his wife’s body. The story is similar in the entire Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput region, an area that has seen acute poverty. Mr Majhi admitted he did not know what to do and did not seek any help from anyone.
Tribals don’t receive money from National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme alleges Opposition:
Narsingh Mishra, Leader of Opposition from Bolangir said, “In Odisha, the payments under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme have not been made for the last six months. This is leading to more and more poverty in the region.”
Mishra said, “Funds for the development of this region have been misused and misappropriated. Therefore, the region has remained where it is.”
“In some cases, funds from this scheme have been used for purchase of vehicles and beautification of buildings in Bhubaneswar and some district headquarters. Will that eradicate poverty?” Mishra asked.
Politicians visit, schemes floated but no action on ground
In 2006, the Ministry of Panchayati Raj named Kalahandi as one of the country’s 250 most backward districts. In 2016, Kalahandi’s situation hasn’t got any better. According to government figures, Rs 3000 crore has been spent in the area since 1980s. Several schemes were announced in the past and high profile politicians had visited the place.
However, the region still lacks basic facilities like roads and telephone connectivity.
Former Railway minister and Congress leader Bhakta Charan Das told NDTV, “At a time when the Prime Minister Narendra Modi is talking about digital India and Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik is talking about developing Odisha, we are seeing such a shameful incident where an adivasi walked 10 km with his wife’s dead body.”
The BJP Yuva Morcha also held a protest and said, “Naveen Patnaik only announces schemes but no work gets done. Rahul Gandhi comes here only to get photos but does no work on the ground.”
Maoist insurgency and the challenge of accessibility
For tribals in Kalahandi, accessibility is a huge challenge. Due to Maoist insurgency, building roads in these parts of the country is difficult. The last two years have seen 15 gun battles between Maoists and security forces.
With poor connectivity, Mr Majhi and his wife had to walk to Nagrundi, 4 km from his village from where the only available transport is a rickety bus to the main road.
Ramchandra Naik, a resident of the area told NDTV, “If someone is ill, they are carried on a makeshift stretcher on foot.”
District Magistrate and Collector Dr Brundha D said, “If you compare with the 1980s, a lot of development has taken place. We are focusing on road and mobile connectivity because if these two things happen, I can monitor all schemes and reach people closely.”
Despite the fact that fertile tracts of the district have shown improvement in socio-economic indicators, the implementation of schemes, programmes and services on the ground is the real challenge that the government faces today.
The Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC) 2011 has in one stroke not only demolished Odisha’s growth story spun by the Naveen Patnaik government over the past one-and-a-half decade but also laid bare an embarrassing failure of its much-vaunted welfare and poverty alleviation schemes. It cannot be a more damning indictment of the inefficiency than the fact that more than 66 per cent of the population in rural Odisha still continues to languish in acute deprivation without access to basic needs such as food, housing or income generation means. The findings of the census has countered and exposed the hollowness of the government’s claims at every point.
While the State Finance Minister painted a glowing picture of the socio-economic rise over the last decade, projecting a growth of eight per cent in 2015-16, the census report has presented a worrying scene. Over 46.6 lakh (54 per cent) of the total 86.22 lakh rural households are landless and 23 lakh households have only one room with kutcha roof to shelter whole families. A whopping 87 per cent households manage with a measly income of less than Rs 5,000 a month. In the face of the Government’s claims that poverty has been reduced by almost 25 per cent and socio-economic conditions for a vast chunk of the population have been improved, Odisha has been ranked among the top four states in the country in terms of beggary with over 54,000 households depending on it while as many as 22,353 households resort to rag-picking and rummaging garbage dumps for their livelihood.Further, almost 59 per cent of the total households are engaged in manual and casual labour.
The census practically serves as a report card on the schemes and measures implemented by the government, revealing their failings and fissures. Despite the flagship Rs 1-a-kilo rice scheme, claimed to cover over 58 lakh households, and programmes for housing, irrigation, farm assistance, skill development and employment generation, the poverty and deprivation situation has not improved as much. The government should re-examine the schemes to reach the beneficiaries at every level and draw up strategies for more focused implementation of poverty alleviation and development programmes.
Lalit Bhoi of Badbanki village in Turekela block in the district has decided to migrate in search of job as he is not able to get work even after applying for Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). Similarly, Surdas Pradhan of Bijamal village in Muribahal block feels that he would migrate if he would not be able to get work under the flagship scheme soon.
Bhoi and Pradhan are not solitary instances of poverty stricken people unable to get the benefits of MGNREGS. In fact, the MGNREGS, aimed at providing employment to rural poor, has miserably failed in the district.
According to sources, 2,72,527 households in the district have been issued job cards. Out of them, 61,339 households applied for works in 2013-14 and 47,393 households have been provided work till now.
While in the present month, 5,904 households are engaged in work, 2,086 households have completed 100 days of work. Among those who completed 100 days of work, 463 households were linked to the housing schemes like Indira Awaas Yojana. According to latest estimate, about 68.2 per cent of the budget for the scheme has been spent till now including labour payment and construction work.
The major road blocks in implementation of MNREGS are non-payment and delayed payment of wages to the labourers and shortage of field staff for preparation of muster rolls. Sources said people are not getting work during lean period. They also alleged that the officials were providing work as per their whims and caprices.
As per a conservative estimate, more than one lakh people have migrated in search of livelihood from the district to other places in and outside the State. The district has also more than 1,000 certified bonded labourers.
According to a survey of Western Odisha Migration Network (WOMN), a network of civil society organisations and academicians working in the district, more than 80,000 people from Bangomunda, Turekela, Belpara, Muribahal, Saintala and Khaprakhol blocks have already migrated.
“Balangir is a poor and migration prone district. MGNREGS has all the ingredients to address labour migration due to acute poverty and unemployment. However, to realise the same, the administration needs to identify the vulnerable people and implement MGNREGS during the lean period. But it has failed to provide timely works as well as the payments,” said Jatin Kumar Patra, an activist working on the issue.
Project Director of Balangir DRDA Pabitra Mandal said the administration is taking steps to provide work in all the revenue villages. “We are preparing plans and very soon the works will start,” he said.
shankar balangir 30/04/2010 at 11:00 pm
The politicians are solely responsible for this damn thing. these hell scoundrels hv done nothing except corrupting themslves. they dont fear God. and the hell political parties always work for own profit. people are lazy. go do some work instead eating the sand of the river.
Satyajit Balangir 30/04/2010 at 06:26 pm
Bloody Orissa govt. busy in developing only 60 miles corridor of cuttack to puri and criminally neglecting western orissa for last 7 decades..particularly Balangir..God will definitely punish these asshole politicians for deliberately killing these innocent people..Request NGO’s 2 plz help my people
SAMBALPUR: She had held the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi spellbound with her dance performance when she was just 16.
Forty years later, the dancer is old and helpless, living in an incomplete Indira Awas Yojana house with her husband. She does not even get two square meals a day. Her husband, who suffers from a fractured leg, is also not in a position to earn a living. The ailing couple lives at the “mercy” of locals.
The extremely talented Sambalpuri (Dalkhai) dancer, Gurubari Mirdha, is today bedridden in her house in M Gandpali under the Bijepur police station of Bargarh district, about 85 km from Sambalpur. She wiles away the hours reminiscencing her halcyon days. Indira Gandhi, who had a great fetish for Orissa art and culture, could not resist the temptation of joining her on stage when she was performing in the Capital in 1968. The turning point in her career, felt the dancer, was this performance in Delhi. “I was taken aback by the Prime Minister’s spirited move. She joined me on stage. I was a little nervous but she made me feel very comfortable. She held my hand and danced with me. Later, we photographed together,” recalled the dancer.
Gurubari, who is now 56, has received numerous awards and citations from organisations like the Orissa Sangeet Natak Akademi, Adivasi Bhasa Sanskruti Academy, Mathkhai Utsav, Bolangir and Lokmohotsav Sambalpur.
She also gave many performances on Doordarsan.
Her room is stacked with certificates and mementoes that talk about her glorious past. “I received several awards and mementoes during my 40-year career, but these are now meaningless as I am starving,” she said. “Earlier we could manage with my husband’s earnings. He was a daily labourer but the fracture has rendered him jobless,” complained Gurubari.
Good Samaritans in her locality extended a helping hand to the couple to tide over their financial crisis. “But the money given to her is not sufficient,” said retired MD of OHPC, K K Supkar. “She needs a regular income.”
Neighbour Biranchi Sahu said, “We feel proud to belong to her village. We try to help her whenever possible. But the government should do something long-term in her interest.” Sahu felt the Indira Awas Yojana accommodation given to her by the government, can be completed for one, with provision for water and sanitation.
When contacted, district collector, Bargarh, expressed ignorance about the dancing star’s plight but assured he would look into the matter. “Since I am new to the district I have not much idea about her condition. But I will take necessary steps to alleviate her suffering,” promised Bhabagrahi Mishra, the collector.
BALANGIR: Enter any village under Belpada block of Balangir district and see how people battle for their existence. And how hunger can kill hundreds. Starving and emaciated, villagers often succumb to their circumstances.
The scenes in these villages will leave anyone speechless. Barring a few who own land, most villagers depend on nature. They collect forest produce for their sustenance.
TOI visited Bileimara village, 17 km from the block headquarters and met Bhaktaram Bariha, who is 65. For the past 10 years he has been bed-ridden. His spouse had died of some mysterious disease years ago. What is most pitiable is that he was forced to marry off his two daughters to the same man.
His son-in-law had promised to look after him and so Bariha gave away his second daughter, too, in marriage to this man. Today, all four stay together, the daughters look after the father and husband. Bariha does not get old age pension. Neither does he hold any entitlement card which can buy him subsidized rice at Rs two a kg.
Early morning all of them, barring Bariha, go to the forest to collect char, seeds and mahua flowers. They return home by evening. During their absence, Bariha’s granddaughter Srimati, who is five, looks after him. “I can’t remember any government official visiting this village. I was just a kid when someone came here and talked to some villagers and then vanished. We are fed up requesting the sarpanch to give us a BPL card or an IAY house. Every time he tells us that some procedure has to be followed and then the matter is forgotten,” said his daughter.
Sometime back, he developed a swelling on his neck. He sent his son to the nearby PHC to call a doctor, but he did not come. Finally, his son-in-law called a quack, whose medicines worsened his condition.
The life of Khatra Bariha, 65, of Rengtasil village, mirrors the despondency of his village. He lost his wife after two months of their marriage. A few years later, he lost his two sisters. He had lost his parents when he was young. A stark example of peripatetic life, Khatra constructed a thatched house on the outskirts of the village.
The house is closed from all sides. Every time he goes to the village to fetch water and other essential items, he breaks the thatched wall and then reshapes it. His only possessions are perhaps two bowls and some clothes. Khatra said he asked the sarpanch to get him a BPL card, but the sarpanch asked to him to prove his identity. He collects forest produce and exchanges them in village shops for rice and other items!
Bariha and Khatra are just metaphors of a larger canvas. For these 800-odd poverty-stricken villagers, the forest is a source of sustenance. Adhikar, a voluntary organization, has submitted a list to the government giving names of villagers who are living in this pathetic condition. But there has been no action yet. Jatin Patra, who surveyed the areas and prepared the list, said there’s been no development in the villages in the past 20 years. “Except improving the condition of some roads, there’s been no visible development,” he said.
Five of a family recently died of hunger in Chabripali village under Khaprakhol block. But even this painful incident failed to move the administration.
As one of India’s 300 million officially poor people in one of its most impoverished districts, Kantamani Nag bought 25 kg of rice every month at Rs 2 per kg — five times cheaper than market rates — a fine example of the world’s most sprawling subsidised-foodgrain network.
Of the sprawling cradle-to-grave national anti-poverty effort on which the Centre will spend more than Rs 1.18 lakh crore in 2010-11 to create a more inclusive, just India, only the Public Distribution System worked for the Nags — sort of.
Nag (40) kept half the rice for his wife and three children. He sold the rest, creating what is now unofficially called “subsidised-rice income” for the poorest in this western corner of Orissa, where the official poverty line is Rs 356 per month, or about the cost of an appetiser in a metropolitan five-star hotel. When Nag, wizened beyond his years, sold his subsidised rice (sometimes tea leaves and soap as well), it sent him into a death spiral that appears to play out like this across Balangir:
The rice that isn’t sold typically lasts 10 days or less. The family works odd jobs or begs rest of the month. Weakened without enough food, they fall ill for about 100 days each year. They borrow money to pay medical expenses. To repay the loan, they join the 100,000 who migrate to brick kilns and stone mines in Andhra Pradesh.
When they return, they are weaker; many die, not by starvation but from chronic hunger and malnutrition.
Nag’s family ended up working in the kilns and mines for six months every year. These trips took a toll on their weakened bodies. They took more loans to meet medical expenses. The last loan was Rs 20,000 at 10 per cent interest.
“After a time they found it difficult to repay,” said Kasturi Nag (42), Kantamani’s sister-in-law, who narrated their tale on a warm spring day in their western Orissa village of Kurenbahali. “As a result, they started eating less food.”
Growing, gnawing hunger
Breakfast for the Nags was a handful of puffed rice and tea without milk. Lunch was pakhal, watery rice, with an onion.
Dinner wasn’t very different — on the few days the Nags had any.
Hindustan Times recorded similar patterns in journeys to 55 families in 27 villages in Balangir, where 62 per cent of all families officially live below the poverty line across 6,575 sq km, more than four times larger than the National Capital Territory of Delhi.
In interviews, many officials in Balangir confirmed that they were witnessing a deepening cycle of poverty.
It could explain how millions of hungry people are slipping through the cracks nationwide; how shoddy implementation imperils well-meaning, ambitious national anti-hunger programmes; how mothers become malnourished, giving birth to more malnourished children than anywhere else in the world.
Every year, 3,000 pregnant women are admitted to Balangir’s hospitals. “More than 50 per cent are anaemic, malnourished,” said Dr Purnachandra Sahu, Balangir’s chief district medical officer. Theoretically, help is available, through the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), the world’s largest programme for nutritional and school needs of children younger than six, administered through 1.4 million centres nationwide.
Though 80 million children are theoretically covered, one in two Indian children is malnourished, the world’s worst rate.
In Balangir, there are free vitamins, proteins and medicine available.
The Nags appear to have used these centres at some point. The evidence: Their children are alive (though their condition isn’t clear). For severely malnourished children, there’s Rs 500 to be had from the Chief Minister’s relief fund.
Sahu opened registers of Nutrition Day — held on the 15th of each month to provide dietary support to children — to show how about 3,000 malnourished children under age six are brought to Balangir’s 14 primary health centres every month. Sahu said 53 per cent of all children at his centres are malnourished.
In 2009, official ICDS figures say 87 children, or 0.04 per cent suffered the most severe malnourishment, grade IV, which means they needed urgent medical attention.
“The children are malnourished because in most cases the mothers are malnourished,” said Pratibha Mohanty, Balangir district’s social welfare officer.
The death rate of children under six is worsening. In 2006, 48 children died in every 1,000, rising to 52 the next two years; in 2009 it was 51, according to district health records. Balangir’s cycle of poverty continues into adulthood.
Most patients who come to Balangir hospitals today are anaemic, have gastrointestinal infections or are directly malnourished, according to district health records.
Stopping migration would certainly help already weak villagers. Theoretically, the Nags need not have migrated.
The world’s largest jobs-for-work programme, the National Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), is supposed to help people like them, assuring them 100 days of employment every year. The national NREGS budget for 2010-11: Rs 40,000 crore, more than a third the size of the defence budget.
Here in Kurenbahali, there were no NREGS jobs in 2009. Thus far, there’s no sign of work this year either. “People would not migrate if NREGS works are done regularly through the year,” said Paleswar Bhoi (35), a villager.
Instead of the required 100 days, Orissa has provided no more than 35 days of work each year. Across most of Balangir’s 1,792 villages, NREGS work isn’t available for a full month in a year, HT’s inquiries revealed.
Sanjay Kumar Habada, project director for the district rural development agency, has another set of figures to share: NREGS projects across Balangir employ more than 30,000 people, whom the administration pays “We pay them Rs 30 lakh every day,” said Habada. It isn’t much use to the poorest.
Of the 240,000 people registered under the NREGS in Balangir, only 476 (0.2 per cent) live below the poverty line, according to the website of the Union Ministry for Rural Development.
Like a number of Balangir villagers dying in their 30s and 40s — the exact numbers are uncertain — Nag died in February 2008, officially of fever. His wife Kulbati (32) lived for 18 months more before dying of tuberculosis.
The statistics will not record the chronic hunger or malnourishment that possibly made the Nags susceptible to disease.
Officially, they died natural deaths.
Theoretically, the Nags’ children should, even at this stage, have been able to claim help from the state.
When the sole earning member dies, the family is eligible for Rs 10,000 under the National Family Benefit Scheme, created after a Supreme Court order.
The grant is supposed to be paid within four weeks of death: More than 15,000 applications are pending with the Balangir district administration “over years”.
No one can say how many years.
Nag’s sister-in-law, Kasturi, has never heard of such a scheme.
“I gather that many people fail to provide death certificates,” said Balangir Collector Sailendra Dey. “I have instructed officials to help people in submitting the death certificates so that the amount can be disbursed to the beneficiaries.”
Local lawyer Bishnu Prasad Sharma said the grant needed only an authorisation from a local ward member or sarpanch.
Bisnu Sahu, a naib sarpanch (village headman), said he never knew he had such authority. “No one ever told me,” he said.
The district collector, the chief administrative official, implied this was indeed the case. “I have asked officials to make people aware of the scheme,” Dey said.
Back near the Nags’ abandoned hut, Kasturi explained why a severe pain in her leg didn’t allow her to join her husband, son and daughter-in-law in the desperate migration south.
Where are the surviving Nags, the two daughters and a son, aged between seven and 16? Gone, said Kasturi, to that brick kiln in Andhra Pradesh.
For another generation, Balangir’s death cycle has started.
(The Hunger Project is a Hindustan Times effort to track, investigate and report every aspect of the struggle to rid India of hunger. You can read previous stories in this series at www.hindustantimes.com/hungerproject)