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By Niranjan Patnaik*

Consider the following:

On July 16, 2014 one Shyama Chandra Rao and his wife were arrested on the charge that they had sold their one month old baby for five thousand rupees. They admitted to have sold two of their children earlier. Family, relatives and neighbors were aware of all these sales. These events happened in Bhubaneswar, state’s capital and a few kilometers from the citadel of power, the state secretariat. Three sales would mean that this had been happening for the last five years in the complete knowledge of the locality.

How distant is our government from the poor? Geographically the distance was barely a couple of kilometers. But in reality the Government remains light years away from the people. In more remote areas, the Government is as distant as the stars in the sky. One of the Cabinet Ministers of the State Government admitted that this is a shame for the incumbent Government. But such self-flagellation does not reduce the gravity of the situation. Such is the level of deprivation among the poor despite tall claims and expensive propaganda by the ruling elite that parents are selling children not merely in remote rural areas, but even in the heart of the state’s capital!

source: ndtv.com
source: ndtv.com

In December, 2013, henchmen of a labour contractor chopped off right hands of two workers Nilambara Dhangada Majhi, 35 and Pialu Dhangada Majhi, 30, both adivasis, in Bolangir district. Recently, Supreme Court made some scathing remarks at the goings-on in the state and wondered if the state is in the dark ages. Migration of labour for survival or higher wages, particularly during the non-agricultural season, from the KBK region is widely known. And yet, the state government failed either to create jobs to prevent migration or stop criminal gangs from turning this economic event into an opportunity to sustain a new form of barbaric slavery and illicit trade of humans as cattle.

The savagery in this instance is only an indication of perpetual violence, coercion and unfavourable terms of contract under which a new form of bonded labour perpetuates itself right under the nose of the state government.

In the last few months, police have unearthed illegal kidney transplant rackets. But the suspicion is, what has been discovered is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. There are many people in Odisha willing to trade organs for making some money. Of course, this is a problem that the state shares with many other parts of the country.

Last week, a minor girl was rescued from Goa. Again, smuggling of girls or flesh trade is not unique to Odisha and is a global problem. But what is unique to Odisha is a convergence of the worst manifestation of poverty and malgovernance; children being sold, bonded labour and forced migration under coercive contractual terms, sale of human organs, smuggling of young girls. It should not be forgotten that Odisha has the highest level of hunger and malnutrition in India comparable to sub-Saharan Africa. Put all this together and the picture that emerges is utterly depressing.

( Courtesy : Xinhua Photo/Han Chuanhao)
( Courtesy : Xinhua Photo/Han Chuanhao)

The national media and elite is hardly interested in any of these. Within Odisha, if you raise these issues, you can be criticized for painting the state in a bad light by ignoring the spectacular development under the leadership of Naveen Patnaik. After all, he recently received an endorsement of his 15 years rule.

In fact, my understanding is Naveen Babu’s success is an indication of an extreme poverty and backwardness. People do understand the malgovernance, lack of industrialization and job opportunities. But the problem is: in a state with such high level of poverty, depravity and hunger, Naveen Patnaik has found magic potions like the one rupee rice scheme.

If people are willing to sell their children to live another day or sell themselves in the bonded labour market, they will certainly be beholden to a leader they perceive to have given them 25 kgs of heavily subsidized rice a month. They are concerned about their immediate survival and Naveen Babu has craftily used money given by the Central Government to take advantage of people’s desperation, hunger and depravity.

Niranjan Patnaik
Niranjan Patnaik

The poverty-line debate may produce different statistics regarding the number of poor, who need immediate attention and targeting. But, as the Raghurajan Committee report found, Odisha continues to be the most backward state in the country. Naveen Babu has remained in power for 15 years and has been claiming that poverty is getting eradicated rapidly except that his success and continuance of poverty are closely inter-related.

The problem in the political success of an inefficient administrator is that poverty becomes a necessity for success. Once people are out of their desperate conditions, they will seek employment, better infrastructure, improvement in agriculture and then they will find that the present Government has cheated them all along.

I am surprised how muted is the response of the national media to the story of the Rao couple selling three of their children right in the state capital. The national media wants to cover big news; human depravity of the sub-Saharan standard lacks high TRP in the Indian middle class homes. The national media is happier projecting the smiling face of Naveen Babu with the sound bite of his impeccable English; much better visual and sound bite than the agony of the Raos admitting to selling children or the cry of the two workers whose hands were chopped off.

Migrant labourers boarding a train to Hyderabad
Migrant labourers boarding a train to Hyderabad

The state of affairs in Odisha is a result of leadership failure across professions and political divide. Our intellectuals are hardly willing to voice dissent or nor do I find Odisha’s economists publishing research papers exposing the Government.

When I meet political leaders, retired professors, retired civil servants and seasoned media persons, I find a clear recognition of the debilitating effect of the BJD rule. But most are cynical and express helplessness. “What do we do if people are voting for Naveen in such large numbers?” asked one of them.

Of course there are a few, though really very few sensible people, who are still willing to endorse the regime and mostly for securing personal favours from the regime. Despite his political success, Naveen Babu is left without many supporters among the thinking class in the state, though they remain silent against the torrent of majority votes.

One wonders how does the state come out of this level of pessimism and cynical acceptance of misrule, if so many opt to just keep mum. One senior journalist compared the BJD rule to the last years of the left regime in West Bengal. Fortunately for Bengal, a strong political opposition emerged giving people an alternative. Bengal intellectuals, many of them left-leaning, supported the change despite their general support for the left ideology. They realized and accepted that political stability had made the state a moribund society and people had lost their creative energy to go forward.

Odisha also needs a strong political alternative and a more vocal intellectual class if the state is to be taken out of the quagmire of mal-governance and stagnation.

[This article is the English version of the original blog written in Odia by the author, a senior Congress leader, former Minister and a former President of the Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC). You can see the original blog at niranjanpatnaik.blogspot.com]