Chinks in Naveen Patnaik's armour: Agriculture is "dead" in Odisha

Urban-centric growth model leaves villagers fuming in eastern state

ajay

Ajay Singh | April 7, 2014



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"Chasi to mar gaya (Chasi is dead)," blurted out a frail-looking villager in the middle of a conversation with a group of BJP workers at the party's district headquarters in Balasore. An interesting battle is on hand in this Odisha constituency, where union minister Srikant Jena is in the fray against a formidable BJP rival, Pratap Sarangi.

This sudden interjection by the farmer called Jatinder Nath Nayak jolted me a bit. "Who is dead?" I inquired rather concernedly. "Nobody, he is saying agriculture (called 'chasi' in Odiya) is dead in Odisha," said a party officer-bearer, explaining this unwarranted interjection amid a political talk.

But Nayak, a marginal farmer, was not to calm down easily. He narrated the woes agriculturists have been facing across the state. In the midst of mindless growth that has seen improvement in infrastructure, facilitating development of real estate across the state, agrarian economy is practically ruined. In the past five years, 1,000-odd farmers have committed suicide due to indebtedness.

“We neither get adequate irrigation facilities nor encouragement to produce traditional crops,” said Parashuram Behra who owns nearly 50 acres of land but is hardly interested in agriculture. “In villages, Naveen Patnaik's freebies and doles have changed the work culture,” he said, adding that it has become difficult to find farm labourers because they get rice at Re 1 per kg and would not want to toil in the field.

Obviously, there are enough indications to suggest that an essentially urbanite Naveen Patnaik has focused more on mining and infrastructure growth than agriculture. While the skyline in state's urban centres has visibly changed, poverty and misery are stark in the rural landscape. The eminent sociologist Rita Ray described this anomaly as the legacy of deeply entrenched feudal politics of the state.

“It is true that the state relied heavily on Andhra Pradesh and other states for its requirement of fish, chicken, eggs, food grain and vegetables,” she said, adding that even the supply of adequate rice had to be ensured from other states. “Indeed this is not a happy situation,” she said. But she admitted that the rising middle class of Odisha is increasingly fond of Patnaik. “His image as a doer has generated goodwill among the middle class,” she said.

What is evident in the course of these conversations is that Patnaik has exposed certain chinks in his armour. For instance, there is a groundswell of anger against the government for allowing chit fund operators to exploit gullible villagers along the West Bengal border and run away with their money to the tune of Rs 20,000 crore. In Balasore, villagers are particularly angry with Odisha's finance minister Prasanna Acharya who rubbed the salt on victims’ wounds by saying, “Did you ask me before depositing this money?”

What is quite perplexing is the fact that despite the presence of Srikant Jena as sitting MP and his stature as union minister, the Congress seems to have given up the fight. The district Congress headquarters is locked and wears a desolate look. Jena, who comes from neighbouring Jazpur area, is looked upon as an outsider. On the other hand, BJP candidate Pratap Sarangi has emerged as a champion of the local causes. As MLA Sarangi has been raising all these issues and has earned a well-deserved reputation. His bachelorhood and Bajrang Dal background gives him the image of an unconventional politician. Sarangi is now tearing apart the Odisha model of development. The irony is that the Odisha model is a clear replica of the Gujarat Model which keeps the rising Indian middle class in a deep trance.

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