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Orissa: Crying out for change

Praful BIDWAI

Friday 12 March 2004, by BIDWAI*Praful

Orissa reels under misgovernance as severe malnutrition persists, unemployment grows, public assets are privatised, and religious bigotry spreads. But there is some hope even amidst this dismal situation.

THE new Biju Patnaik Airport in Orissa’s capital is a gleaming marble-and-glass affair, designed to impress Indian business visitors as well as the foreign tourists who come to see some of the most glorious temples built anywhere in the world. But already, parts of the airport are apparently under repair; a section of the arrival hall has been cordoned off. Within a few hours in Bhubaneswar, you realise that the gloss is entirely on the surface, if that. Tawdry as it is, it barely hides a prosaic, often ugly, deeper reality - just as the "India Shining" campaign does. Except that in Orissa, unlike in a few pockets of our metropolitan cities, not many people are even taken in by the "shining" rhetoric.

It is hard to be taken in. On my second visit to Orissa in 14 months (and fourth in five years), I notice few signs of economic growth or social progress, and many of squalor and deprivation. Slums are burgeoning. More poor people are visible in cities like Bhubaneswar and Cuttack than before. Many are recent migrants from the tribal districts of western Orissa, which recorded starvation deaths and severe malnutrition, especially during the droughts of the past three years. Urban pollution is getting worse even in a "planned", well-spread-out city like Bhubaneswar. And unemployment has acquired menacing proportions.

Many previously employed people, like teachers in many aided schools and private colleges, and workers of countless State public sector undertakings, have seen their already meagre income security vanish into thin air. Thousands have not been paid salaries for months. Many have lost all hope that they will ever be.

However, there are exceptions to the widely prevalent, dim view of Orissa’s present. Like the eager MBA, who came to see me along with a newspaper reporter: "But, Sir, economics tells us that faster growth in the whole country will pull up backward States like Orissa. And didn’t India register 8 per cent GDP (gross domestic product) growth in the last quarter of 2003? The future does seem bright." However, India’s GDP growth in the past three years was the lowest in the past decade. I ask him to reflect on the quality of growth and the growing regional and income disparities. In the 1990s, India may have annually clocked six per cent growth, but gross per capita product in Orissa grew at a measly 0.9 per cent a year, just above Bihar’s 0.8 per cent.

In any case, one cannot eat GDP growth, I said. What use is even eight per cent growth if that leads to rising unemployment, and if per capita food availability falls to the levels of the 1940s - during which the Bengal Famine happened? Fifteen years ago, 10 per cent GDP growth meant 6.8 per cent growth in employment. Today, it is associated with only a 1.6 per cent employment increase. Besides, the market-led growth model is deeply flawed. Markets "build on the best", on existing infrastructure and growth patterns. So there may be many English-speaking graduates in Orissa, but there are no call centres (about which the MBA is so excited). Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) investors are content to do business in familiar cities like Bangalore, Gurgaon and Mumbai.

The MBA was not quite convinced. But I hope I at least made him rethink the voodoo economics he had been taught to regard as some kind of "natural science", with immutable laws.

TALKING about voodoo - more broadly, superstition - I notice a bunch of green chillies and a pierced lime tied together hanging from the rear bumper of the taxi that is taking us around. This is a very Mumbai thing. The chillies are meant to ward off evil spirits. And even if you do not believe they do, you have to buy the bunch if you are a taxi driver. But that is surely alien to Bhubaneswar.

Yes, confirms the driver. "I lived in Bombay. I went there because I had no job here although I am a graduate." Are you superstitious, then? "After what I have been through in my years of unemployment, I have begun to believe in things like fate and the evil eye."

Superstition is a growing import in this high out-migration State. Orissa is beginning to compete with Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh in migration. Recently, I discovered that Surat alone has eight lakh Oriyas, mostly in the textile-weaving (powerloom) and diamond-polishing businesses. But migrants who visit or return home do not necessarily bring modern ideas and emancipated sensibilities. Their influence might strengthen social conservatism.

Superstition and other forms of irrationality, including religious bigotry and xenophobia, are in stark evidence in today’s Orissa. The BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh-sponsored Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram, undeterred by the scandal created by Graham Staines’ gory killing, are back at Christian-bashing. In tribal Jagatsinghpur, they have just tonsured seven women on suspicion that they colluded to bring about "forcible" religious conversions. Terrified, they have taken refuge in distant Bhubaneswar. At least, it is the capital; they might be safer here.

"WHOEVER thinks she or he is safe and secure thanks to the Naveen Patnaik government are deluding themselves," said a group of young social activists at the recently set up Nagarika Mancha (citizens’ forum), where I am a speaker. Disillusionment with, and opposition to, the State government runs high amongst most groups of people I met - the intelligentsia, white-collar employees, and ordinary working people. Some of them are especially upset at the government’s elitist social and economic policies; some at the collusive alliance between the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and the communal BJP. There is general unanimity that while Patnaik is not personally corrupt, the government he runs is both inept and mired in bureaucratic ways and opaque practices, which breed corruption.

"The people’s experience with the governance process is extremely unhappy," says Janardan Pati of the Mancha, who edits the fortnightly Adhikar. "They are astonished that Patnaik has still not learned the Oriya script. Despite being the Chief Minister for five years, and having a private tutor, he has to be given the written text of his speeches in the Roman script before he can read them out. Many of us were shocked when he failed to demarcate himself sharply from the BJP after the Gujarat massacre". A veteran Left-wing leader told me: "Whatever his other faults, Biju Patnaik at least kept the BJP at bay. His son gratuitously brought it into Orissa and gave it respectability."

Many politically aware Oriyas believe that in the 1999 elections, the National Democratic Alliance probably peaked in Orissa, winning 19 out of the state’s 21 Lok Sabha seats. The BJP now cannot possibly win all the seats it contests, as it did (nine). Nor is the BJD likely to retain its tally of 10 (of the 12 contested). The general guess is that the NDA’s score would fall to half the 1999 level - even less, if the Congress(I) accommodates all the secular parties and tendencies. (Whether this happens under the new president, J.B. Patnaik, is an open question.)

There is widespread resentment at the Patnaik government’s obsessive enthusiasm for privatising State assets. If it had its way, it would sell what remains of the public sector - despite Orissa’s disastrous experience with electricity privatisation. Orissa was India’s first state to implement the World Bank-designed break-up of its electricity board, leading to privatisation. Today, power tariffs are three to four times higher than five years ago. The average middle class household, according to one estimate, pays about Rs. 1,000 in monthly power bills - assuming that no air-conditioners are used - without a commensurate improvement in supply and distribution.

Patnaik and his advisers were all for selling off the controlling shares of Nalco (National Aluminium Corporation). Now, Nalco is a perfectly profitable, well-managed, company, which has withstood tough competition. It has recently invested Rs.3,000 crores in expansion, modernisation and diversification. This is in addition to repaying all its loans, and giving the Centre Rs.4,000 crores in dividends and taxes - out of its own profits. Nalco employees strongly protested the sell-off move and Patnaik backed down - and with him, the Centre, which, however, went ahead and sold off Balco (Bharat Aluminium Corporation).

Nalco is again under pressure. Last fortnight, its chairman-cum-managing director C. Venkataramana was accused of having molested a female employee in a Mumbai hotel. There is unanimity among Nalco staff that that charge is "simply incredible" and not in keeping with the officer`s character and past conduct. A majority apparently believe that he was framed by vested interests out to malign Nalco and facilitate its privatisation. It is hard to vouch for this story, but that is the unmistakable mood in Orissa - and not just among Nalco employees.

There is also widespread sentiment that big private business groups have not done well by Orissa. They have exploited its immense natural wealth - iron ore, bauxite, manganese, chromites and so on - but not ploughed back their profits nor established downstream industries. One of the most incisive and articulate critics of private business’ conduct in Orissa is Akshoy Kumar Biswal, IAS, a former executive with several public and private industrial enterprises. Biswal says that several major factories have recently sacked their workers and rendered them destitute. The many names he reels off include the Birlas’ Orient Paper Mill which stripped Orissa’s forests, and has now shut down. Private businesses have successfully bankrupted the State’s financial and industrial promotion corporations by defaulting on loan repayments.

THE State government’s finances are in a mess. It no longer invests even in maintaining productive assets. The only good highways in Orissa are private tollways like the four-lane 20 km-long Bhubaneswar-Cuttack road. You have no choice but to use it: a car pays a toll of Rs. 10, a taxi Rs.15, a bus or truck the equivalent of 1.5 litres of diesel, adding some 15-20 per cent to running expenses. As soon as you are off the tollway, the highway dangerously narrows and the potholes reappear.

The State has signed another hare-brained agreement, this time with Indian Oil Corporation (IOC), to set up a refinery at Paradeep port. As Biswal points out in a very perceptive paper, this involves a weird bargain. The project’s capital cost is Rs.7,500 crores. But the Orissa government’s contribution to the project by way of exemption of sales tax and other levies will be close to Rs.7,000 crores. This will generate only 500 jobs for Oriyas - at a cost of Rs.14 crores each. This makes no sense.

Perhaps, Orissa’s most depressing story pertains to the Adivasis of Koraput district. Sharadini Rath, who published "Poverty by Price Indices" in Economic & Political Weekly (October 4, 2003), is now conducting a study of incomes, wages and nutrition in Orissa for the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies, Bangalore. She tells me that when in Koraput, she was shocked at the widely prevalent state of severe malnutrition.

The Kandha and Paraja Adivasis in the two villages she is surveying have no food security worth the name. Their grain stocks are close to zero. Some literally do not know where their next meal will come from. They somehow make do with a gruel of ragi, rice and lesser millets. They cannot afford even a drop of oil.

Says Rath: "Child mortality in the area is shockingly high. It is hard to talk about infant mortality proper because most people are illiterate and nobody remembers the ages of their children. But some 80 per cent of all women report the death of a child. The worst-off people are the Kandhas I’m studying in a hill village in Raigada block. They are already down rather early in the year to eating powdered mango kernels ." (Usually, this happens in the summer months.)

The Adivasis are in a "low-level equilibrium" trap: too little food, too little energy, too little work, too little income, hence too little food ...

Surely, Orissa deserves better. Many of its people certainly think so. They are joining the larger struggle for a humane, just and equitable order. Civil society is gradually stirring itself, as are progressive parties and groups. One can only hope that Orissa’s people will make a clear, unambiguous choice - to throw out the BJD-BJP combine, get rid of malgovernance, and to chalk out a better future for themselves.

See online : Frontline

P.S.

in Frontline, volume 21 - Issue 05, February 28 - March 12, 2004.

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