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Despite Multiple Visits By Gandhis And Other VIPs, The Pot Is Still Black In Kalahandi — A Ground Report

Author: Jaideep Mazumdar
Publication: Swarajyamag.com
Date: May 12, 2024
URL:   https://swarajyamag.com/reports/despite-multiple-visits-by-gandhis-and-other-vips-the-pot-is-still-black-in-kalahandi-a-ground-report

• Conditions are so dire that some villages still engage in a barter economy.

You won’t find Isrupa on a map. A tiny hamlet under Trilochanpur gram panchayat in Lanjigarh development block of Odisha’s Kalahandi district, it is too small to figure on any map.

But many in Kalahandi know of Isrupa that’s nestled in the Niyamgiri Hills. That’s because Congress scion Rahul Gandhi visited this hamlet on 26 August 2010, after having succeeded in pressurising the Manmohan Singh government to deny a licence to the Vedanta Group to mine bauxite from the Niyamgiri Hills.

Rahul Gandhi had also visited the Lanjigarh area of Kalahandi in 2008 and 2009 to express solidarity with the Kutia-Kondh (also called the Dongria-Kondh) tribals who were opposing the grant of a mining lease to the Vedanta Group.

The tribe of nature worshippers hold the Niyamgiri Hills sacred and consider it to be the abode of their deity — Niyam Raja.

The Vedanta Group, which has a bauxite manufacturing plant at Lanjigarh, was eyeing the rich deposits of bauxite, estimated to be worth over $2 billion, in the Niyamgiri Hills.

Rahul Gandhi, in a bid to latch on to an issue that would catapult him into prominence, sided with the tribals.

On 24 August 2010, the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh rejected the environment clearance to the Vedanta’s Niyamgiri mining project. Rahul Gandhi journeyed to Niyamgiri the next day to claim credit for the denial of permission to the Vedanta Group and project himself as a hero to the tribals.

On 25 August 2010, Congress scion Rahul Gandhi walked about two kilometres on a narrow path through a dense forest of sal trees to reach the tiny hamlet of Isrupa.

He had taken a chopper to Jagannathpur — about 65 kilometres by road from Bhawanipatna (the headquarters of Kalahandi district) — and then driven about 3 kilometres down a dusty, potholed road to reach Balabhadrapur from where he walked about 2 kilometres on a narrow track through dense sal forests to reach the tiny hamlet of Isrupa.

He promised the moon to the Kutia-Kondh people: concrete houses, roads, well-equipped hospitals, schools, new livelihood opportunities, institutional support for agriculture and a lot more.

He wasn’t the first to make such promises. His grandmother and his father had done the same before him. Kalahandi, which translates into ‘black pot’, had faced recurring droughts that had impoverished the tribals, some of whom even died of starvation.
Indira Gandhi had visited Kalahandi in the early 1980s and promised to improve the plight of the local tribals. Rajiv Gandhi, accompanied by Sonia, visited Kalahandi in 1984 after reports of a man selling his child to feed his family appeared in the media.

Sonia Gandhi also visited Kalahandi in 2004. Rahul, during his August 2010 visit, had told the tribals that he would be their “soldier in Delhi” and would “fight” to improve their socio-economic conditions.

To find out, at a micro level, if Rahul Gandhi’s successive visits to Kalahandi in 2008, 2009 and 2010 had made any difference to the lives of the Kutia-Kondhs, I decided to visit Isrupa. 

It’s a smooth 40-kilometre drive down National Highway 6 from Bhawanipatna to Pokhari Banda from where I take the state road to Lanjigarh and then Balabhadrapur. From there, the road gives way to forest tracks that one has to travel on foot to reach Isrupa.

All that remains of the hamlet which Rahul Gandhi had promised to develop 14 years ago are huts visited by a recent devastation.

There is no one in the hamlet of five households — everyone fled one and half months ago when a large herd of elephants entered the village and went on a ransacking spree.

The people of Isrupa took shelter in the surrounding forests after setting fire to their houses to scare away the pachyderms. The elephants went away, but the humans did not dare to return.

Locals tell me that the residents of Isrupa have settled in some other villages with their relatives. But what strikes me is that all the destroyed dwellings in Isrupa are bamboo and thatch structures. It is apparent that the residents of the hamlet were living in abject poverty.

From the belongings that they could not take when they fled, it is apparent that they were extremely poor. There is no evidence of any development having visited the hamlet.

Ironically, the herd of elephants also broke a concrete tablet — the only concrete structure in the hamlet — that had announced the construction of a community hall there under the ‘Ama Odisha, Nabin Odisha’ scheme for Rs 2.5 lakh.

It’s no surprise that there is no sign of a community hall — local officials and contractors seem to have pocketed the entire money.

What’s more striking, though, is that Rahul Gandhi won accolades 14 years ago for visiting this hamlet to celebrate the ‘victory’ over Vedanta, but forgot about it on landing in Delhi.

Unsurprisingly, this is what had happened with his grandmother and parents who used their visits to Kalahandi to project themselves as champions of the poor tribals, and forgot about the latter soon after.

However, while Rahul Gandhi can claim in his defence that the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), and not the Congress, is in power in Odisha, Naveen Patnaik can have no excuse to offer for the condition of the tribals of Niyamgiri, and in fact of the entire tribal belt, remaining the same for decades.

The BJD has been in power in Odisha for 24 years, enough time to have brought about a drastic change in the lives of the Kutia-Kondhs. But these tribals continue to live in excruciating poverty, worsened by endemic corruption and official apathy.

Not finding anyone in Isrupa, I visited Phuldumer village deeper inside the forests of Niyamgiri Hills.

This small village of 13 households is officially a ‘model village’. There are some concrete structures built by the state government — goat sheds, an anganwadi centre, solar panels, toilets etc — painted in pale green (like all government buildings in Odisha). All are in disuse.

Despite Phulmuder being proclaimed a ‘model village’, its residents are extremely poor, suffer from a host of ailments and have only one full meal a day. They cultivate millets, ginger, turmeric and pigeon peas (arhar dal) in small plots of land.

Ramo Majhi is waiting for his wife to return from Lanjigarh where she has gone, with other women of the village, to sell some ginger. She had left in the morning and was expected to return by late afternoon because she walked the entire 20 kilometre stretch to Lanjigarh, the nearest market.

Ramo says that no one can afford the fare (Rs 5) charged by three-wheelers which ply on the route.

“Our annual income, when the crops are good, is about Rs 15,000 to Rs 18,000” he says. That is not enough to sustain his family of nine — his aged parents, wife and four children and one daughter-in-law.

“We skip meals by turns. The free ration (5 kilos of rice supplied to the poor across the country by the Union Government) is a big help,” he told Swarajya. His parents do not get old age pension, and most children in the village suffer from severe malnutrition.

There are no schools in the area, and that means Ramo’s children will not get any education. “They will cultivate the small plot of land I have and, in times of dire need, work as labourers in nearby areas,” Ramo says matter-of-factly.

Tirme Majhi, 69, who is laying out pieces of raw mango to dry on the roof of her small hut, says she does not get any old age pension and has only one meal a day. Tirme’s cousin Rabri Majhi, who is busy slicing raw mangoes along with her granddaughter Oni, also hasn’t received any help ever from the state government.

Mamata Majhi is worried about her five-month-old daughter Priyanka who hasn’t received polio shots because the ASHA worker who used to visit the village infrequently has passed away.

Tipli Majhi, 50, told Swarajya that life hasn’t changed at all since the time she was a child. “We were very poor at that time, and we are poor now also. I think we are poorer now,” she says.

Rupul Majhi, a widow, stays with her two unmarried daughters and sustains her family with the meagre earnings from selling ginger and turmeric that she grows on a small plot of land on the hills above the village.

“I make about Rs 1,000 a month. Hadn’t it been for the free rations, we would have starved to death,” she told Swarajya. I ask her youngest daughter — Dundi — about what she would like to do in life.

“Nothing much,” she replied resignedly. “Get married, have kids, raise them,” she adds. “We are destined to lead such lives. We can’t aspire to anything else. Politicians have come and promised us a lot of things. We have learnt to disbelieve all those promises,” she said.

I venture further into another village by the name of Khemondipadar. There, I meet Sonari Majhi, 64, who is sorting ant eggs on a bamboo tray. “This is our delicacy. I’ll fry it and have a feast,” she said.

“This is all we can afford because it’s available for free,” she told Swarajya, adding that she had tasted chicken once a few years ago and it was good. But she, or anyone else in the village of 23 households, cannot afford to have chicken even in their dreams, she says.
Guda Majhi, 68, has been invited by Sonari for the feast of ant eggs. “This will be a rare occasion for me. I’m looking forward to having a full meal after ages,” he told Swarajya.

Guda Majhi, like most other elderly in the villages dotting Niyamgiri Hills, doesn’t get the old age pension he’s entitled to. He is a widower and childless, and has no one to look after him. And he has, like all other fellow members of the Kutia-Kondh tribe, resigned himself to his fate.

“Whatever Niyam Raja deems will happen,” he says with an air of despair and resignation.

I find Godaram Majhi, 52, and his wife Phuldei Majhi, 41, sitting forlornly in front of their tiny mud hut. Godaram’s eyes are bloodshot and his eyesight is failing.

“He caught an infection five years ago and despite many visits to the hospital in Lanjigarh, and the medicines he has been taking, there has been no improvement. He can barely see now,” said Phuldei.

“The doctor at Lanjigarh told me to take him to Bhawanipatna for better treatment. But we just can’t afford that. Over the past few months, the hospital at Lanjigarh didn’t give him medicines; a lady there said they’ve run out of medicines. I cannot afford to purchase the medicines from a pharmacy,” she said.

The couple have two minor children to look after. They, like their counterparts in other villages in Niyamgiri Hills, do not go to school. “They will grow up and get on in life according to the wishes of Niyam Raja,” said Phuldei. She has no dreams for them, except that they stay healthy, get married and have children.

Tudu Majhi is the only one among the menfolk of the village who is engaged in some work. Others were just lazing around or napping when I reached Khemondipadar on a Saturday (11 May) afternoon.   

“People have no work to do, nothing to look forward to. There is no hope for the future either for themselves or their children. We don't even have enough to eat. The only escape from our miserable lives is (locally brewed) alcohol. Alcohol has ruined lives, but you can’t really blame people for taking alcohol. What else will they do,” Tudu told Swarajya.

Tudu is fashioning bells from bamboo that will be strung on the necks of goats that are let out to graze.

“I have a few goats and get some milk from them that I sell locally. But most of my customers can’t pay me regularly because they’re desperately poor. Very often, they pay in kind — turmeric or millets or pulses that they grow. We still have the barter economy here,” said Tudu, who was a member of the local gram panchayat a few years ago.

Tudu, and all other tribals of the Niyamgiri Hills who spoke to Swarajya, are unanimous in their view that the high-profile visits by VVIPs — the entire Gandhi clan and successive chief ministers of the state, including the venerated Biju Patnaik (father of Naveen Patnaik) — have never benefited them.

“They come, give lofty speeches about doing a lot for us, get themselves photographed, and get a lot of favourable coverage in the media. But our plight remains the same. Nothing changes and we have been leading the same lives that our fathers and forefathers had led. We still starve, we can’t send our children to school and have no dreams. All we can hope for is to ward off death,” said Tudu.

The Kotia-Kondhas exist in a time warp, leading grim and uncertain lives. And this is the stark reality of not only this tribe, but all other people of Kalahandi which continues to reel in poverty and utter neglect.

People have little faith in politicians because the Congress and the BJD which have ruled the state over most of the last 77 years since Independence have done nothing for them.
The Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP’s) Bikram Keshari Deo won the Kalahandi Lok Sabha seat in 1998, 1999 and 2004, the party’s Basanta Kumar Panda won the seat in 2019.

However, argues Malavika Devi, the BJP candidate from Kalahandi this time, the primary responsibility for economic development lies with the state government.

“The Union Government can do little if the state government is not interested in working and is mired in corruption. That’s why I’m telling the people of Kalahandi that unseating the Naveen Patnaik government is necessary to usher in development. Only with a BJP government in the state and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Centre can Kalahandi hope to develop and emerge out of poverty,” she said.

It is this deliverance that the people of Kalahandi have been agonisingly waiting for all these decades.

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