People's Democracy(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
Shocking Reports Of Starvation Deaths
INVADING new territories in Orissa, the expanding empire of starvation deaths has established its foothold in the districts of Rayagada, Gajapati, Malkanagiri and Kandhamal. The name of Kashipur block in Rayagada district has recently become too well known. The highlights in the press and media, the debate in parliament, the intervention of the Supreme Court and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) have brought the issue to the nations attention. But, instead of behaving in a responsible manner, the NDA governments at the centre and in the state have been working overtime for their Operation Cover-up.
In the first week of August, a news appeared in the press that a number of villagers had died of starvation. They were Julem Majhi (55), Sindei Majhi (26), Lakhuna Majhi (36) and Araji Majhi (8) of village Pitajodi, Chandu Ilias (5) Wana Majhi (65), Haras Majhi (25) Sorojini Majhi (30), Gahadi Majhi (18), Kumuti Majhi (23) and Lachhi Majhi (18) of village Panasgoda, Subarna Todia (48) and Ghoshi Todia (33) of village Jhodiapada, Saibati Jhadiani and Madhuri Naik (3) of village Maibhata, Sadhu Majhi (50), Surata Majhi (28), Paila Majhi (23) and Sulme Majhi (21) of Bilamala. All these villages belong to block Kashipur in Rayagada district.
The revenue minister promptly repudiated the allegation, on the basis of the district collectors "investigation report," and asserted that these deaths were caused due to the consumption of poisonous food. As if the people were fond of taking poisonous food!
The CPI(M) immediately demanded that the matter be enquired by the NHRC. The CPI and Samajwadi Party made the same demand. Though the Congress initially demanded a judicial inquiry, later it switched over to the demand of an NHRC enquiry.
CPI(M) leader and former MP, Sivaji Patnaik, rushed to the spot and interacted with the villagers of Pitajodi, Bilamala and Panasagoda. To his surprise, he did not find a single grain in 40 houses that he visited. The sarpanch (panchayat chief) of Tildei told him that when Sadhu Majhi of village Bilamala was in distress and since his ration card was mortgaged, the sarpanch had to divert a portion of BPL rice from his brothers quota to him. Still this exercise could not save the life of Sadhu Majhi.
At the state level Natural Calamity Committees meeting held in June 2001, the states revenue minister had reported that reserve food stock was kept at the disposal of the panchayats to meet any eventuality. But the sarpanches of Tikri and Kashipur said they had not received any such stock or any instruction from the government. Patnaik verified the receipt register, stock register and issue register of these two panchayats and found that no such entry was made as could verify the claim made by the revenue minister. Patnaik collected the mango kernels and other uneatable items from the people and exhibited them in a press conference at Bhubaneswar, the state capital.
A joint team of OGP, CPI and Samajwadi Party too visited the spot. The Congress is also trying at the local and state level to highlight the failure of the state government.
EXTENT OF POVERTY
Kashipur is a tribal dominated block of Rayagada district. It has 17 village panchayats and 704 villages under its jurisdiction. Its population stands at 1,01,451; out of them 60,402 are tribals and 20,767 belong to the scheduled castes. The percentage of literacy in Kashipur block is only 15 per cent.
While 20 to 25 per cent people depend upon agriculture, 75 to 80 per cent earn their livelihood as day-labourers. The cultivable land is 37,124 hectares. But people do paddy cultivation in only 758 hectares.
Though the people of the locality are very poor, only 15 per cent of them have been issued BPL cards, the exact number being 15,472. In his report to the chief minister, the special relief commissioner said that these BPL cards are mortgaged to moneylenders and liquor traders in most of the cases. He asked the Tehsildar to raid the house of one Dada Sabot, a local moneylender, and BPL rice was seized from his house.
It may be recalled that last year Kashipur panchayat was directly integrated with the state secretariat through the GRAMSAT Yojana. The prime minister inaugurated the scheme and, in their talks with him and the chief minister, the tribal women complained that the contractors were depriving them of the minimum wage. Nothing was, however, done.
HEIGHT OF INSENSITIVITY
Encouraged by its earlier successes in media management to project an artificial efficiency in handling the flood situation, the state government again resorted to a similar endeavour. The revenue minister was excessively vocal in refuting the charge. Nay, he went on asserting that no death took place due to hunger and that mango kernels were the age-old traditional food of the tribals in the locality. The chief secretary, an outspoken advocate of liberalisation, stooped still lower to the level of a cheap politician and told that mango kernels happened to be a nutritious food. He was rightly snubbed by opposition parties and the press with the advice that he must replace the other nutritious food items in his family by mango kernels.
Thus, beginning from the states revenue minister to the chief minister and some central ministers, everybody played the same cassette --- that the deaths were no starvation deaths and that mango kernels were a traditional tribal food item. To provide legitimacy to this official campaign, union minister Jewel Oram told that he himself grew up on mango kernels. These gentlemen failed to tell us why people are consuming mango kernels instead of rice or wheat even after 54 years of independence. Is it not a symbol of the persistence of poverty in the area?
The revenue minister declared in a press conference that he had asked the tribals to exchange mango kernels with rice and that the officials were instructed accordingly. The result was that the people with sacks of mango kernels rushed to their respective panchayat offices only to return back with empty bags, without rice. Today, panchayat offices have become the mango kernel godowns. The chief minister said no such exchange was required as the government had decided to provide rice free of cost. This too turned out to be an empty announcement. As a result, the chief minister and the union food minister had had to face the wrath of the people of Kashipur during their visit to the area. People threw mango kernels and mud at their cars. The local people heckled the local MLA, Bibhisan Majhi, during the chief ministers visit.
SITUATION STILL WORSENING
Now disturbing reports have come from village Sapalaguda in Gajapati district, Tumudibandha block in Kandhamal, Dashmantpur in Raygada, Baipariguda in Koraput and Thuamul-Rampur in Kalahandi that hundreds of people have lost their lives either due to starvation or after eating what is uneatable in the absence of proper food. To date, schemes like Antyodaya or Annapurna have not yet started. The state government is yet to submit to the centre the number of people living below the poverty line. At the NDC meet, the chief minister only quoted the Planning Commission statistics that 47 per cent people in the state are living below the poverty line and 38 per cent among them belong to the SC and ST categories.
But the chief minister is sadly mistaken. Since the share of the SC and ST groups in the states population is 38 per cent, their share among the poverty stricken people cannot be the same. It is more, and much more. This kind of superfluous approach found its reflection in the affidavit submitted by the state government to the Supreme Court, that invited the indictment of this apex judicial institution. On September 3, the Supreme Court issued the instruction that "Let us target the area which need an immediate attention and Orissa appears to be in the greater need." But neither the state nor the central government has paid any respect to the SC instruction.
Starvation deaths are nothing new for Orissa. Starvation deaths in Kalahandi and Koraput rocked the countrys conscience in 1987. Rajiv Gandhi, the then prime minister, visited the area and announced a special scheme. It was later renamed as KBK (Kalahandi, Bolangir, Koraput) Plan by the P V Narasimha Rao government and is still in force. But from Rajiv Gandhi to Vajpayee, no central government has sanctioned any special fund for the project. The plan is nothing but an amalgamation of other central plans earmarked for the districts, with a little excess amount. The fate of the sanctioned amount is shocking. From 1987 to 1997, a scheme was in operation in Kashipur area with aid from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). The special relief commissioner found that the major portion of the amount had been looted by corrupt bureaucrats, politicians and the NGOs during the regime of both J B Patnaik and Biju Patnaik.
The absence of land reforms, failure to promote irrigation facilties, the deprivation of tribal people of their livelihood from forests, predatory exploitation by landlords, contractors and moneylenders, and massive corruption --- these are the main causes of poverty and hunger in the district of Kalahandi, Rayagada, Koraput, Malkanagiri, Nawrangpur, Gajapati, Boudh, Kandhamal, Nuapada, Sonepur and Bolangir.
The CPI(M) has organised a relief camp at Bilamala and Upardhesaka villages. The state Kisan Sabha president Abhiram Behera is operating the camp. On behalf of the state units of AIKS and AIAWU, a dharna was staged before the state secretariat on September 3, while the CPI(M) observed September 6 as "Kashipur Day." A massive dharna was organised at Cuttack on that day. The partys state secretariat member Jaganath Mishra recently visited different areas of this starvation zone.