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Rooted in backwardness

Print edition : Jun 03, 2005 T+T-
PRAFULLA DAS in Bhubaneswar

WHAT is it that turns ordinary people into murderers when someone is branded a witch? Is it the innate `wickedness' of people that finds expression in such collective purges? Or should we turn to the socio-economic background to locate the reasons for witch-hunts?

Nearly 85 per cent of Orissa's population lives in rural areas and depends mostly on agriculture. The State has abundant natural resources including water. But more than 48 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line in the rural areas. Anti-poverty and employment-generation programmes have not been of much help. Growing unemployment remains a burning problem.

The worst sufferers have been the tribal people and the Scheduled Castes. The undivided districts of Kalahandi, Bolangir and Koraput and other tribal-dominated districts of Sundargarh, Mayurbhanj, Keonjhar, Malkangiri and Kandhamal continue to present a picture of chronic underdevelopment, the tribal population remaining the most disadvantaged social group. Poverty in the State is overwhelmingly a rural phenomenon and there are significant regional differences in the incidence of poverty within the State, according to the Orissa Human Development Report 2004, recently brought out by the State Government with the help of the Planning Commission and the United Nations Development Programme.

The rural poverty ratio in the southern region is more than two and a half times that of the coastal region, and the ratio in the northern region more than one and a half time that of the coastal belt. Poverty is acute and widespread among the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe populations in the southern and northern regions - it is in these regions that 88.56 per cent of the State's tribal population and 46.23 per cent of the Scheduled Caste population reside. In the case of the rural tribal population, the incidence of poverty, at 71.51 per cent, is the highest among the 16 major States of the country.

The benefits of various welfare programmes are yet to filter down to the tribal poor living in the remote areas of the State. The infant mortality rate and the under-five mortality are respectively 10.3 per cent and 19.6 per cent higher for the tribal population as compared to the State's population as a whole, while the child mortality rate is 52.7 per cent higher. Immunisation cover remains the poorest in the case of tribal children compared to other social groups and the aggregate population. Only 26.4 per cent of tribal children are completely immunised against all diseases that can be prevented through the use of vaccines; 18.2 per cent have not received any vaccine at all, and 55.4 per cent are only partially immunised, according to the report. The nutritional status of tribal women is similar to that of tribal children.

There is also significant disparity between rural and urban Orissa in literacy rates, which are 60.44 per cent and 80.95 per cent respectively. This is evidently because of the better physical and economic access to education in urban areas.

The tribal district of Malkangiri has the lowest literacy rate of 31.26 per cent as against 80.19 in Khurda district, which includes the capital city of Bhubaneswar. Koraput district has a literacy rate of 36.20 per cent; Nabarangpur has 34.26 per cent; Gajapati has 41.73 per cent; Kalahandi has 46.20 per cent; Mayurbhanj has 52.43 per cent and Keonjhar has 59.75 per cent.

However, Sundargarh has a literacy rate of 65.22 per cent. This is primarily because of industrialisation and the establishment of industrial towns, such as Rourkela, and the role played by Christian missionaries. But the remote areas of the district, where people have little access to education and health care, still remain backward in education.

The district-wise poverty ratio of the State shows that Kalahandi district has 83.76 per cent of its population living below the poverty line, Koraput district has 78.65 per cent; Kandhamal 75.42 per cent, Mayurbhanj 68.42 per cent, and Keonjhar 61.92.

The huge public investments and growth so far have been concentrated in a few pockets of the State. Some tribal districts have a high concentration of mining activities and many polluting sponge iron units with little development in the condition of the tribal population. Broad-based growth would essentially mean development of infrastructure and making education and health care reach the remote areas and the tribal-dominated districts.

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