The case for change – What is the deal with Odisha?

On a recent ride back home on the metro, a colleague turned to me and genuinely asked me a question. He asked, ‘So what is the deal with Odisha?’. It is not the first time I had heard this question. 10 years back, when people would pose this question, they would imagine a state where wild animals and humans walk on the streets of Bhubaneshwar together (the imagery is from a tweet by Tavleen Singh). But, now the question is more nuanced. It does not dismiss the changes in Odisha in decades and nor does it imagine a feudal state where floods, Rasogolas and Sudarshan Patnaik make it to the news. So, what does that question mean and what is the deal with Odisha?

The deal with Odisha is that it has abundant resource wealth, it has a stable government for the past 17 years, it has people who are aspirational but still it is crawling when it is supposed to run. The deal with Odisha is that it is just getting by and getting by is just not good enough now.

Let us take one example. Niti Aayog had come up with a composite Health Index combining indicators on the status of health outcomes, health governance and information and status of key inputs and processes. Out of the 21 states included in the study, Odisha got a composite rank of 18 in 2015-16. This was to spots below the rank of 16 which it had in 2014-15.

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But, this statistic will make more sense when we look at the change in incremental ranks. Odisha had an incremental rank of 14 which indicated that 13 other states had performed better than it in the course of one year on key health indicators. This included states like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and West Bengal which have some resource, geographical and demographic similarity with Odisha. This sums up the question that my friend asked. It is not that Odisha is stagnant in all quarters, but wherever it is moving, the progress is at a laggard pace and that is the root of the discontent.

According to the Rajan Panel, Odisha was the most backward state in 2013. The NFHS round 4 survey shows that only one-tenth of households in Odisha have access to piped water supply and 65 percent still do not use a sanitation facility. Only 5 percent of rural households in Odisha have access to piped water supply.

According to Niti Aayog, in the year 2016, the infant mortality in Odisha is 44 which is the second highest in the country and much higher than the national average of 34. While most states have completely electrified their villages, Odisha is still among the bottom 6 states in terms with 9 percent of villages still languishing without electricity. [1]

As of April 2017, Odisha also featured in the bottom 6 states in terms of rural electrification. 46 percent of the households in Odisha are yet to be electrified [2]. There is enough and more to be said about the pace of development in the state and the above figures are indicative of just some of them. We are moving forward but with a chip on our back and 17 years of rule of BJD should have been enough to address that.

The Party President Amit Shah recently addressed a massive congregation of party leaders and supporters in the sweltering heat of Bhawanipatna in the Kalahandi district. Union Ministers Dharmendra Pradhan and Jual Oram along with the state leadership were in full attendance and this was one of the biggest public meets organized by the BJP in recent times.

Amit Shah tore into the ruling BJD dispensation but the difference this time was that he had irrefutable facts in hand. He spoke of more than 50 percent of Odia families living in kutcha houses (NFHS puts it at 55 percent), he spoke of the 46 percent households living without electricity and the 95 percent of the rural households without a piped water connection in their houses. 17 years of a stable government, multiple schemes and the people of the state are struggling for basic amenities.

He pointed out, that in a rapidly connected world, more than 12000 villages in Odisha are not connected by roads and the funds under Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana are lying unutilized. The roots of isolation that the state and its people face lie in these statistics. From the case of Encephalitis in Malkangiri to the harrowing stories of Dana Majhi carrying the body of his dead wife, the health infrastructure of Odisha lies in shambles. Amit Shah pointed out the cases of acute malnutrition in the state, shortage of doctors and demanded accountability from the government. Continuing with the flagging of basic necessities he spoke of the 66 percent of the schools where there are acute teacher shortage and 6 percent of the schools where just 1 teacher is allocated for Grades 1 to 5.

He spoke of the intrinsic role of the people of Odisha in contributing to the development of other states like Gujarat and Maharashtra. But, these youth do not have the opportunity to contribute to the growth of their own state because the state has not been able to provide jobs for them. He mentioned the long list of central funding that has been provided to the state for various development schemes and asked the Naveen government to clarify what exactly was slowing down their development activities. He summed up his speech by saying that the time has come for Odisha to get a Chief Minister who speaks their language, who understands their issues and who is able to harness the potential of the natural and human resources of the state.

In the end, one sentiment of Amit Shah will resonate long after his visit ends. Amit Shah emphatically diagnosed the problem of the BJD by saying that the government is tired of governing. A governance fatigue has set in. A fatigue which has made ‘just getting by’ a governance philosophy.

The question that my friend had is an undercurrent in the state. It is often not expressed as eloquently because as I mentioned earlier, we are getting by after all. But if things continue the way they are, how many more decades of a stable government under a one-man rule would it take to get villages electrified and roads constructed and teachers in every school? How long would it take for Odia youth to get jobs in their home state instead of migrating outside?

After 4 terms of BJD, the answer is clear. There is one way of doing things and that will not change the fifth time around. So, if there is a demand to do things differently, a political disruption is needed. This was the sentiment that Amit Shah and the Odisha BJP flagged in their rally today and this empty space of aggressive development is what they are trying to occupy. The battle is long drawn and there is a lot of time for the people of Odisha to contemplate on the basic question. Is slouching and walking at a leisurely pace enough, or is it time to straighten up and sprint.

Pratyasha Rath is a social sector consultant with a keen interest in politics, policy and all things Odisha.

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