By Saachi Sharma:
Kashipur, one of the 11 blocks in the tribal-dominated Rayagada district of Orissa, is famous for being infamous. In this hilly area devoid of any administrative, medicinal or welfare network, acute poverty had percolated to the very bottom of it’s almost non–existent social hierarchy (they follow a system of community living called misa–bhida, where they provide free labour to each other) with reports of starvation deaths and sale of children emerging from as early as the mid 80’s. Would such a place be of any importance to the political class with the sole virtue of harrowing poverty?
Well, no. Kashipur has one of the largest bauxite reserves in the country. A joint multi-million dollar alumina project of the Aditya Birla Group and ALCAN, backed by the state, was vehemently opposed by the tribal who voiced their environmental concerns and stood to lose their notional and selective control over natural resources. The state, on the other hand, underlined the need for a ‘labour based industrial project’ that would ensure employment (and taxes). The ensuing clashes between the police and the tribal left three anti mining protestors dead, thereby resulting in government officials ceasing their already rare visits due to ‘security reasons’. Increasing deaths because of consumption of tanku peju (gruel prepared from boiled mango kernel) were being reported. When people were asked why thet carried on the consumption of tanku peju despite the deaths, they said they had no choice. The endless rain and frequent flash-floods had destroyed whatever little crop they could grow and the government had not included Kashipur in the list of flood affected areas. With no food or employment at hand, the tribal took to eating mango kernel, even if it was killing them.
The way the government officials responded to this crisis was even more appalling, they claimed mango kernel had nutritional value and was the traditional diet of the tribal! On the contrary, those tribal villages like Siriguda which had enough food grain ceased their consumption of this deadly mix, thus discrediting the State’s defense that the tribal wanted to consume mango kernel.
The same parrot-like defense was sought by politicians even before the media in an attempt to disguise the failure of the anti–poverty schemes and preliminary investigations based on the viscera of two out of 21 dead people attributed these deaths to consumption of ‘infectious food, not starvation.’
A Member of Parliament brushed aside reports of a woman dying of starvation by saying she died of severe Anemia, obviously neglecting to mention how the Anemia was caused. A point to be noted here is that according to the archaic 19th Century Famine Code, which is still in use, a person is said to have starved to death only if no traces of food have been found in his viscera, discounting his ‘last ditch attempt at survival’ by consumption of non–food items like mud cakes, mushrooms and roots. Thus, if politicians were to be believed, starvation could only be caused when the other party was in power.
Within days of this media outcry, there was an influx of politicians including Naveen Patnaik and Shanta Kumar, who arrived with sarees and utensils, only to have mango kernel thrown at their cars by angry tribal women. Subsequently, relief cards were issued, employment generation schemes started and community infrastructure like mandays were built. However, this deja vu didn’t last for long. With more sensational news on the cards like 9/11, Kashipur was soon forgotten which emphasized on the media’s inability to follow through and more importantly, the state role–one that has to be enforced because of the institution’s absolute disregard for self – undertaking responsibility.
As of now, not one brick has been laid in the proposed site for the Alumina Plant due to the robust opposition by the tribal for the last 12 years, who strive to save their fertile agricultural land, forests, mountains and water-streams, the very basis of their livelihoods. This has lead to a discord between the state authorities and tribal, who feel alienated and cheated. The violent protests regarding the construction of a police station can be attributed to the distrust among the tribal, but then again, with no schools and health facilities, the police station will only serve as a tool in the hand of the politicians to squash the protests and strip Orissa off its natural reserves.
The story of Kashipur underlines the putrid nexus between the politicians, bureaucrats and government officials which lead to a dysfunctional state, and by extension, social security schemes which should be targeted at and be inclusive of the poor. A wonderful piece of investigative journalism, the media did show exemplary grit and perseverance in uncovering the underbelly of the Public Distribution System (PDS), pitiable condition of tribal areas, legal loopholes, advent of the resource exploiting corporations and the inefficiency and falsehood that earmarks the politicians, however it also brought to light media’s inability to see a story to its end.
Image courtesy: http://www.agragamee.org/foodsecurity_mgmt.htm