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Anguish in Bolangir

Print edition : Mar 12, 2004 T+T-

The people of the Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput region are in abject poverty in the absence of any means of livelihood or relief assistance.


THE condition of the rural people, bad as it is in Orissa, is beyond imagination in the districts of Kalahandi, Bolangir and Koraput, which together form the KBK region, arguably the poorest and the most underdeveloped place on the map of India. The region, which has now been divided into eight districts, accounts for nearly 20 per cent of Orissa's population and covers over 30.59 per cent of the State's geographical area. More than 80 per cent of its people live below the poverty line. They suffer from severe malnutrition and endemic diseases such as malaria and diarrhoea. Starvation and migration are rampant, as agricultural yields in the region are abnormally low owing to erratic and unevenly distributed rainfall.

The situation in Bolangir district is particularly bad. The district is one of the most drought-prone regions in the country, with hardly any irrigation infrastructure in place. With more than 50 per cent of the forest resources depleted and in the absence of any alternative means of livelihood, hundreds of people from this region have been migrating to urban areas and neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal in search of work and food. Only about 5 per cent of the land in the district is cultivable, and that too only for a single crop. Although the average rainfall a year is 70-80 cm, the rains are erratic. While the Government of India and the State government have launched numerous schemes, including the Antyodaya Anna Yojana, the food-for-work programme and the National Family Benefit Scheme, to ensure the development of the region and to protect the people from starvation, there has hardly been any improvement in the conditions on the ground. Success stories claimed by the government are galore, but the actual picture is grim.

A senior State government official in Bhubaneswar told Frontline: "Even though every new government comes up with a new scheme for the development of KBK, the implementation of it so far has not been done in a manner that would truly benefit the people. There is a joke that in order to reach some of the remote regions in KBK, four modes of travel are required - a car, jeep and boat ride and then footslogging. As a result of this inaccessibility, medical facilities and other basic development infrastructure are absent in the region."

The official further said that land reforms were imperative in the KBK districts. One of the major causes of poverty in the region is the unequal distribution of land and the influence landlords have. In 1980, residents of Saraibahal Pada under the Tampakani gram panchayat, were allotted land to cultivate and to build houses. But to this day they have not received the title deed. Last year, 11 families were displaced from what was their home for the past 23 years, as the land the government had allotted belonged to another person. Bansidhar Banik, 45, and his wife and four children, who constituted one such family, now live in a makeshift hut on the roadside. "For years the landlord has been threatening us. I tried to explain to him that the government gave me the land, but he paid no heed," Bansidhar said. With his land gone, he can no longer cultivate. He tries to make ends meet by working for daily wages.

Surunani Sahu, 55, who lost her home to the landlord, is not willing to take it lying down. "I have filed a case with the Sub-Collector," she says. Pradip Pradhan, secretary of Humanity, a non-governmental organisation that works in the KBK region, told Frontline: "The villagers here live in constant fear of being displaced. Unless they are given on paper the legal right over the land the government has given them, they can be displaced from their dwellings any time." Those who have not been displaced yet are not in a comfortable situation either, as their lands give no yield and they are forced to supplement their income through manual labour. Most of the villagers in the region are yet to get their BPL (below the poverty line) cards, which would allow them some concessions in terms of rice purchase.

According to the 1991 Census, nearly 39 per cent of the population of the KBK districts belonged to the Scheduled Tribes. In Bolangir district, the condition of the STs is deplorable. At the Bolangir-Bargarh border, near the State's graphite mines, is the tribal village of Bartiya Barapali, inhabited by the Sabars, who were traditionally hunters. There is no road leading to the village; there is only one pathway through the bushes. The village itself is a picture of abject poverty; there are no visible signs of farming activity or food-for-work programmes. Even the surrounding forest cover is almost gone. Shikari Sabar, 85, the Sabar chief, told Frontline: "We get nothing from the government, not even water. When the river dries up, we dig the bed to collect water." A tubewell was dug a year ago, but it does not work.

The Sabars' only source of sustenance is what they can gather from whatever is left of the forest. "Mostly we collect bamboo and sell it in the nearby villages," says Shikari. But even the forest is out of bounds for them. "We cannot even collect fallen twigs from the forest floor without the foresters threatening us," says Prema Majhi. "They always threaten us that they will come and break our houses if we don't leave this place. Where can we go with our children? We have said, beat us, kill us, but still we won't leave," her sister Saibani says defiantly. "Officials of the local administration visit the place every year to collect a fine from us for encroachment in a protected area. Last year, they fined us Rs.700," Shikari said. Almost all the villagers possess BPL cards but no money to purchase food even at concessional rates. The closest medical facility is the hospital in Jamset, 15 km away.

Although pushed beyond the limits of endurance, these people have not forgotten the tribal tradition of hospitality and sharing. As this correspondent was preparing to leave the village, they humbly invited him to stay for dinner.