Deaths and denials

Print edition : October 13, 2001

EVEN as reports of starvation deaths in the Orissa districts of Rayagada, Gajapati, Malkangiri and Kandhamal poured in, the governments at the Centre and in the State appeared to be working overtime to cover up the fact of the deaths. In response to reports of starvation deaths in many villages in Kashipur block of Rayagada district, the State Revenue Minister asserted that these were caused by the consumption of poisonous items of food. His response was based on the "investigative report" of the District Collector.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India and the Samajwadi Party demanded an inquiry by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). The Congress, which initially demanded a judicial inquiry, changed its stand and sought an NHRC inquiry too.

Sivaji Patnaik, CPI(M) leader, visited affected villages such as Pitajodi, Bilamala and Panasagoda. He told mediapersons in Bhubaneswar that he found no grain in the 40 houses that he visited. The Revenue Minister had told a meeting of the State-level Natural Calamity Committee in June that food stocks were kept at the disposal of gram panchayats so that they could meet the eventuality of distress and starvation. The sarpanches of Tikiri and Kashipur told Sivaji Patnaik that they did not receive any such stock or any instruction from the government in this regard. He found no entries in panchayat records relating to the receipt, storage or issue of food stocks. A joint team of members of the Orissa Gana Parishad, the CPI and the Samajwadi Party too visited the areas. The Congress played an important role in highlighting the failure of the State government.

Kashipur block comprises 17 gram panchayats and 704 villages. Its population is 1,01,451; of this, 60,402 people belong to tribal communities, and 20,767 to the Scheduled Castes. About 25 per cent of the people depend on agriculture for a livelihood and the rest are daily-wage workers. The literacy rate is 15 per cent. The total area of cultivable land is 37,124 hectares. Of this, only 758 ha is cultivated at present and paddy is the main crop. Although the majority of the people in the block are poor, only 15 per cent of them have ration cards issued for the below poverty line (BPL) category. According to a report submitted to the State government by the Special Relief Commissioner (SRC), in most of the cases the BPL cards are mortgaged to moneylenders and liquor traders.

Last year the Kashipur panchayat was directly linked to the State Secretariat through the GRAMSAT Yojana scheme, which was inaugurated by Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee. On that occasion a group of tribal women complained to Vajpayee and Chief Minister Navin Patnaik that contractors did not pay them the stipulated minimum wages. Their plight remains unchanged.

The refrain of the ruling party members and bureaucrats has been that the deaths in Kashipur are not owing to starvation and that mango kernel is traditionally eaten by the tribal people living in this area. But the question is: why should people continue to eat mango kernel 54 years after Independence? It is only a sign of their poverty.

The Revenue Minister told mediapersons that he had asked the tribal people to exchange mango kernel for rice and the officials had been instructed to do what was necessary. People rushed to their respective panchayat offices with sackfuls of mango kernel but no rice was available for exchange. Many panchayat offices now look like godowns of mango kernel. The Chief Minister said that since the government had decided to provide rice free of cost, no such exchange was required.

Schemes such as the Prime Minister's Antyodaya Yojana and the Annapurna Yojana remain on paper. The public distribution system is almost non-existent. The State government has not yet submitted to the Centre the number of people in the BPL category.

In the wake of reports of starvation deaths in Kalahandi and Koraput in 1987, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited the areas and announced a special scheme to tackle poverty. The P.V. Narasimha Rao government renamed it the "KBK Plan" (Kalahandi, Bolangir, Koraput). However, successive Central governments have not sanctioned any funds for the plan, which is nothing but an amalgamation of other Central schemes meant for the districts.

Crop failure and floods have only aggravated the poverty in the region, which is basically the result of the government's failure to implement land reforms and improve irrigation facilities. Moreover, tribal people, who are deprived of their right to earn a livelihood by selling minor forest produce, are exploited by landlords, contractors and moneylenders. The reduction in public spending in order to bring down the fiscal deficit has also compounded the woes of the people.

Santosh Das is a member of the State secretariat of the Orissa unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

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