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Backwardness and a mood of cynicism

Print edition : May 07, 2004 T+T-
in Bhubaneswar

COME election time, and the politics of hunger and deprivation takes centre stage in Orissa. Politicians of all hues start promising people the moon; never mind if the State continues to remain in the news for its gut-wrenching poverty, starvation deaths, sale of children, migration and natural calamities.

Orissa is being marketed by the State Tourism Department as the `Soul of India'. But with no perceptible change in the economic condition of the people, the feeling that all politicians are blissfully ignorant about the real issues and problems facing the people is shared by a large section of the electorate.

Nearly 50 per cent of the people live below the poverty line. Despite possessing massive mineral reserves and huge stretches of gemstone fields, the State has made little headway in industry. Although a large part of the population is dependant on agriculture, the lack of adequate irrigation facilities continues to dog the sector. To add to the woes, lakhs of poor tribal people and Dalits are migrating to distant towns in the State's coastal belt or outside to eke out a living.

For lakhs of illiterate, poverty-stricken people living in the State's interiors, elections are just a political ritual divorced from developmental issues such as the availability of roads, clean drinking water and medical facilities. Politicians visit their locality only to canvass votes.

As real issues have not been attended to for decades, the vast majority of people living in Orissa's rural areas appear to have developed a kind of cynicism towards governments both at the Centre and in the State. The bureaucracy, known for its sloth and negotiable integrity, has ensured that development remains a pipedream. The majority of people feel that it is the lack of political will that is responsible for the poor state of affairs.

Ramesh Pradhan, a resident of Loisingha in Bolangir district who supports the demand for the creation of a separate Koshal State, says: "While our big towns are shining so much, why can't our villages shine even a bit? All we need is irrigation facilities and employment opportunities. Nothing is changing in our villages despite the tall talk of development. Maybe our politicians don't want anything from us except our votes."

Taking note of the backwardness of the Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput region (KBK districts) and the western districts, the government has formulated a revised long-term action plan (RLTAP) for the development of the first three districts and the Western Orissa Development Council for the latter. But both the organisations are headquartered in Bhubaneswar and development continues to take a back seat. The reason could be either a lack of or improper utilisation of funds.

Anuradha Mohanty of Jana Adhikar Abhiyan, a network of civil society groups in the State which brought out a `people's manifesto' in the run-up to the polls, says: "No political party is taking up issues concerning the poor people. Politicians win elections through gimmicks and by highlighting the image of their leaders. In the process, Orissa remains backward in various spheres."

Anuradha adds: "Those fighting the polls are hardly entering the villages. Unless those seeking votes go to the remote villages and assess the situation prevailing at the grassroots level, they would not be able to know the needs and aspirations of the people. Good governance will continue to be a pre-election promise of politicians."

In their election manifestoes, both the ruling Biju Janata Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJD-BJP) alliance and the Opposition Congress(I) promise to impress upon the Centre to accord Orissa the status of a special category State in order to hasten its development.

Although both sides have been unable to convince the people that they can deliver on their promises, the ruling coalition appears to be ahead of the Congress(I). By and large, people feel that nothing tangible has been done so far for the development of the State. Political parties are far from being accountable to the people. Meanwhile, Orissa seems to have fallen off the development map.