Odisha

A double battle

Print edition : June 19, 2020

Migrant labourers of Biripali village of Balangir district qurantine themselves under a road culvert as they were not allowed to enter their homes. Photo: bsiwaranjan rout

People gather to sing “Bande Utkal Janani”, Odisha's unofficial State song, to motivate COVID-19 warriors, in Puri on May 30. Photo: PTI

Odisha is grappling with an unprecedented economic crisis triggered by the prolonged lockdown even as the coronavirus infection shows signs of increasing with the return of migrants to the State.

MIGRANT workers from Odisha who began their journey on foot to their homes soon after the lockdown was announced on March 24 are yet to reach their homes in the urban centres in the State. Their huts in the slum clusters remain empty. Many street vendors who live in these slums have not returned to their hometowns and those who returned have not found work in their villages as the COVID fear continues to haunt people. The administration’s efforts to revive livelihoods through various employment generation schemes have not proved beneficial even as it continues its fight against COVID-19 by ramping up testing and ensuring treatment of infected persons.

The government’s focus in the initial weeks was on strengthening the health care infrastructure to cope with the emerging public health crisis. But its responsibility multiplied when phase-wise extension of the lockdown affected the State’s urban and rural economy. The twin crises became worse when lakhs of exhausted migrants returned from other States and abroad, and many of them tested positive for COVID-19, thereby adding to the State’s burden. In mid May the State had to cope with the onslaught of cyclone Amphan, which caused severe damage in several coastal districts. The Centre’s interim assistance of Rs.500 crore helped it in carrying out restoration work in the affected areas.

Thanks to the proactive approach of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, who had prepared the machinery to cope with COVID-19 by declaring it a State disaster, Odisha managed to emerge as a lead performer in the management of the pandemic. In May, the number of patients in hospitals and COVID care centres who recovered was more than the number of positive cases. When the total number of positive cases increased to 2,104 on June 1, as many as 1,126 patients had recovered and gone back home. With nine deaths reported so far, including two who had comorbidities, the mortality rate in the State remained one of the lowest in the country.

Apart from establishing 34 COVID hospitals with a combined bed strength of 5,493 and 296 intensive care units, the administration was able to test 1,55,690 samples until the midnight of May 30.

The government has been laying stress on social distancing and quarantine measures to contain the spread of the virus. More than 16,000 temporary medical centres (TMCs) have been set up at the gram panchayat level with facilities for quarantine of over seven lakh returnees.

Community participation through panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) and women’s self-help groups (SHGs) is another achievement of the State. The TMCs are managed at the panchayat level through the active participation of the sarpanch, elected representatives, SHGs and the people.

Although officials say that about four lakh migrant workers have returned to the State since the first week of May, unofficial estimates put the figure at around six lakh since thousands of them managed to return from neighbouring States during the initial weeks of the lockdown before the registration process to return began early May.

As the urban economy remains paralysed with the closure of hotels, restaurants and small enterprises and a slump in the tourism sector, farmers and poor people in rural interiors are struggling to eke out a living with the collapse of normal life.

Livelihood intervention package

After granting certain concessions to industries to resume operations, the government-announced a Rs.17,000 crore special livelihood intervention package to boost the rural economy by improving livelihoods. The package, which will be implemented between June 2020 and March 2021, is aimed at reviving the livelihoods of the rural population, including farmers, wage earners and migrant workers.

The funds will be used in agriculture, fisheries, animal resources development, forest and environment, cooperative, and handlooms and handicrafts sectors to generate employment opportunities. Chief Secretary Asit Kumar Tripathy said all the departments concerned would work towards implementing the new initiatives.

The Bhubaneswar-based social scientist Sudhir Pattnaik was not enthused. He said the government did not have a comprehensive livelihood survey in hand to implement its plan to create livelihood options. It is high time the government carried out skill mapping of migrant workers to provide them work according to their skills, he said.

Sudhir Pattnaik also emphasised the fact that the interests of sharecroppers should not be compromised at any cost in view of the State government’s recent ordinance allowing investors and farmers to enter into an agreement for contract farming.

With all their savings exhausted during the lockdown and with monsoon set to affect work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) in the coming months, the poor people have difficult times ahead.

Many of the youths who have returned are not particularly happy with MGNREGS work as the sole rural job creation initiative. The new generation migrant youths have skills such as dyeing and tailoring. The government should create livelihood options by taking into consideration locally available resources and skill sets of the youths, experts feel.

In order to ensure food security of the poor and needy, the government announced that all eligible migrant workers returning to the State would be covered under its food security scheme. A total of 3.18 lakh people, who were out of the food security net in the State before the lockdown, have been added to the list of beneficiaries since the last week of March.

In order to create employment opportunities for skilled workers, the State Council of Ministers has approved the proposals for the establishment of two industrial parks, a textile park at Dhamra in Bhadrak district and a medical park at Dhenkanal. While the Dhamra project is expected to create employment opportunities for 20,000 people, 16,000 people will get jobs at Dhenkanal. The Cabinet has approved many proposals, including an amendment to the State tourism policy to facilitate land allocation for hotel projects.

In order to fight the pandemic in the coming days, the Council of Ministers decided to form committees at ward level for effective community surveillance. The decision follows the active participation of PRIs in the fight against COVID-19.

The people of the State have wholeheartedly supported the government’s initiatives to control the spread of COVID-19. This was evident when Odia people responded to the Chief Minister’s call and sang the patriotic song “Bande Utkala Janani” on the evening of May 30 in honour of COVID warriors who have worked tirelessly to contain the spread of the contagion.

Naveen Patnaik may draw similar support from the people when COVID-19 cases start decreasing in the coming days and the measures he has initiated to face the economic crisis start bearing fruit. As rebooting of the economy becomes a priority, Odisha has no time to waste in planning and executing strategies to create new jobs on a war footing. Feedback on creation of jobs has to come from the grassroots level with the involvement of elected representatives.

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