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Ferment in Orissa

Print edition : Jul 21, 2001 T+T-

Even as the movement seeking statehood for western Orissa gains momentum, the State government renews its demand for special category status for Orissa.

THE demand for a separate Kosala Raj state, which remained low key for over 15 years, has gained momentum with the formation of the Kosala Party (K.P.) and the Kosala Ekta Manch (KEM). The key figure in this movement in western Orissa is the Bharatiya Janata Party legislator from Bolangir, Balagopal Mishra. The BJP's central and State leaderships, however, do not support the demand. But Mishra, has the indirect support of legislators from western Orissa belonging to all parties.

Despite opposition from the ruling Biju Janata Dal-BJP combine, Mishra in a hard-hitting speech in the State Assembly in March, blamed the government for turning a blind eye to the growing demand for a new State, which would cover 11 of the 30 districts of Orissa. They are: Bolangir, Sambalpur, Jharsuguda, Deogarh, Bargarh, Sonepur, Boudh, Koraput, Sundergarh, Noapara and Kalahandi. Most of these districts share a border with Madhya Pradesh. The mineral- and forest-rich western Orissa has 30 per cent of the State's population.

Regional organisations, such as the Western Orissa Janajagaran Parishad (WOJM), the Orissa Sanskriti Samaj (OSS) and the Western Orissa Liberation Front (WOLF), have joined the K.P. and the KEM to intensify the movement. Under these organisations, the movement has gradually assumed militant overtones. In the past two years, the people of western Orissa have responded to the call for the boycott of Utkal Divas, observed on April 1. In May, a conference was held at Sambalpur where a deadline of October 15, 2005 was set for the formation of the new State.

Premlal Dubey, K.P. chairman, told Frontline that Kosal Raj, which finds mention in the Ramayana, was actually what is now western Orissa. He feels that the government's main concern is with the coastal region while the western region has been largely neglected. People of this backward region are victims of acute poverty and deprivation. Sale of children, a high rate of infant mortality, and deaths due to malnutrition are major features of life in western Orissa.

In 1998, the Orissa government formed the Western Orissa Development Council (WODC) which was not readily accepted by political leaders belonging to the coastal districts. As the WODC does not enjoy full financial autonomy, it cannot undertake development projects. The Council was reconstituted early this year, but it needs government sanction for every project it plans to undertake.

MEANWHILE, the renewed demand for special category status to Orissa has virtually set the cat among the pigeons as far as the ruling combine is concerned. Both the BJD and the BJP accuse each other of providing the Opposition a handle. The BJD has already issued a veiled threat to Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee that the party would not hesitate to withdraw from the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) if the demand for special category status is not met. Reports of the Planning Commission having turned down the demand have put the BJD in a quandary. The State BJP, although not averse to the demand, has never voiced it.

Adding to the government's miseries, the Congress(I) and the Orissa Gana Parishad (OGP) have demanded that the BJD recall its Ministers from the Central government, if it does not have the courage to withdraw support to the NDA government, if Orissa is not granted special status. Bijoy Mahapatra, a former Minister who broke away from the BJD and formed the OGP in November last year, emphasised the need for the special category status. He said Chief Minister Navin Patnaik should call a meeting of the State Cabinet, adopt a resolution and send all Cabinet members to New Delhi to press for the demand.

Provoked by the developments, State Finance Minister Ramakrushna Patnaik hinted that the BJD might withdraw support to the NDA government if the need arose. He told Frontline that special status for Orissa was not a demand of the BJD alone but of the entire people of the State. He said Navin Patnaik had written to the Prime Minister in June in this regard. In his reply, the Prime Minister assured the Chief Minister that he would consider the demand sympathetically. Ramakrushna Patnaik said: "The Prime Minister is yet to announce the decision of his government. If the Centre refuses to concede our demand we will adopt any measure we deem fit. We will not compromise the State's interests. The BJD will not cling on to power at the cost of the people's interest. We are willing to seek a referendum on the demand, if challenged."

The Finance Minister said the Centre had so far ignored the demand on the plea that Orissa was not eligible for the status as it was not a border State. According to him, Orissa meets all the criteria, including a high tribal population, a high percentage of people living below the poverty line (47.15 per cent, according to the 55th survey of the Planning Commission) and a severe fiscal crunch, necessary for the grant of such status. "Orissa is more backward than several States that have been accorded the special category status. Uttaranchal, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura enjoy special status," Ramakrushna Patnaik said. When his attention was drawn to BJP State unit president Manmohan Samal's recent statement that Orissa did not meet all the criteria, the Minister said it was his personal opinion. "Some leaders at times make statements without knowing facts."

The BJD has also warned some Union Ministers against "encroaching upon" the State's demand. The warning came after a recent statement by Union Rural Development Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu in Bhubaneswar that Orissa could not be given special status as it was not a border State and did not meet some other criteria. He was also quoted in local newspapers as saying: "If you want special category status, take it. But no money." BJD leaders described the statement as most unfortunate.

The BJP-BJD tussle over special category status has provided the OGP an opportunity to be in the limelight. The OGP has been organising State-wide agitations for the realisation of the demand. Mahapatra's immediate objective appears to occupy the space of an effective political Opposition. The Congress(I), faced with growing infighting, has not been able to throw an effective challenge to the government.

IF there is one answer to the question why Navin Patnaik has got away with poor performance as Chief Minister, it is that his party has met with very little Opposition.

Despite Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi's experiment with frequent changes of leadership in Orissa, the State Congress(I) has failed to attain the position of a party that has ruled the State for decades. According to State Congress(I) sources, Sonia Gandhi will soon remove Janaki Ballabh Patnaik from the post of Pradesh Congress(I) president despite the fact that there is no effective replacement in sight. Patnaik, who has served as Chief Minister of Orissa for the longest period, was replaced by Giridhar Gamang on the eve of the Assembly elections in February 1999. Gamang's tenure as Chief Minister was brief and he was replaced by Hemananda Biswal. Sonia Gandhi rehabilitated J.B. Patnaik as State Congress(I) president in December 1999. The party was divided then as now and Patnaik remained in the post despite the party's miserable poll performance.