So when he put up the poster, which cost him more than his daily earnings (the Orissa government-fixed minimum wage, by the way, is Rs 30 for an eight-hour work day), in his cramped mud-and-thatch hut, his wife Bhagyabati kicked up a fuss. "I told her," says Bhuniya, "that these great leaders got us our Independence, they fought hard. So we should never stop dreaming, hoping that things will improve some day, I'll get a job and there will be enough to eat and proper clothes to wear."
In the bleak wastelands of Raigada, ringed by wooded hills and almost falling off the edges of southern Orissa, Bhuniya and his kin are among the 11,257 families—there are a total of 13,025 rural families in the area—who live below the poverty line. They have annual incomes of Rs 11,000 or less. The pastoral idyll of this blighted land is deceptive too: Raigada block with its 56,448 residents living in 211 villages spread over some 515 sq kms is also, according to a Planning Commission study based on 36 relevant parameters of poverty, "at the bottom of the ladder." Says Bishnupada Sethi, sub-collector of Paralakhemundi, the district headquarters of Gajapati under which Raigada falls: "I understand it's the poorest block in the country today." When Outlook first reported on this region (Nothing but Despair, February 14, 1996), Raigada was the country's poorest pocket....
This understanding has failed to move the highest in the land. After all Raigada also falls under former prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao's Berhampur constituency, some 130 kms from Bhubaneshwar. "I have never seen the man I've voted for ever," says Kamalasingi resident Punia Sustri, who has mortgaged his only possession, a one-acre plot, to a local NGO for a Rs 2,000 loan.
Sustri's predicament is shared by most of his neighbours. Every five years, most of the 225 residents of his village, trek an arduous five kms to Tudumulu to vote. Subsequently, very few report sightings of their elected candidates—even the local legislator now lives in Bhubaneshwar as a minister of the J.B. Patnaik-led Congress government. "Is there another election next month? So fast?" asks Sabitri Khanduala, 26, a widow who lives with her mother and two daughters and earns Rs 15 a day carrying 30 kg of paddy on her shoulders to the Burjango market. "Elections are good fun. Are they supposed to bring any change in our lives?"
They evidently haven't. Consider this. Over 50 per cent of Raigada's population—80 per cent of which comprise scheduled castes and tribes—have simply no work. The official literacy rate of 26 per cent is considered a sham by local officials. PWG men from across Andhra Pradesh are active in the area, but conscientious government officials and representatives belonging to the seven NGOs working in the area say the real threat to Raigada's progress comes from the local "TWG or the Touts War Group", the euphemistic homespun acronym for the powerful network of middlemen who corner all developmental work contracts.They also bankroll local politicians, grease the palms of the police and officers, and intimidate locals.
It's not that Raigada has a hostile terrain to justify such a rural ghetto. There are lush sandalwood and teak forests—Gajapati has over four per cent of Orissa's forests—and in parts cashewnuts, tamarind, paddy, tomatoes, papayas and even oranges grow well. But the touts fleece farmers and smuggle wood. "There is much pessimism among local people about developmental work even when we are serious about it," admits Raigada block development officer (BDO) Rabindra Panda.
The pessimism is not unfounded. A Rs 2 lakh-worth check dam, constructed by a Congress panchayat samiti member who doubles as a contractor to irrigate lands of 18 farmers, crumbled recently, a year after it was inaugurated. Some eight panchayat secretaries have been suspended for large-scale siphoning of rural funds. Villagers who constructed sanitary wells haven't been paid wages in two years. A school consistently showed an attendance of 48 students, while only 18 attended it, facilitating looting of rice under the midday meal scheme—125 gms for a child a day. The literacy sham was exposed when the vigilance department seized records last November showing that some Rs 64 lakh under the total literacy programme for Gajapati had been spent in 11 months. "This is just the tip of the iceberg," says Sethi.
A recent study by Sethi on the consciousness of the Raigada tribals about their land rights is shocking. He found that consciousness was "poor", most of the people were "harassed when they approached revenue authorities or advocates", and villagers had to "bribe the revenue inspector to get listed as landless." Sethi also found the distribution of the ceiling surplus land was a farce. "Whenever there are a number of landless people, the land is settled in favour of the person who can pay more bribe."
People don't have enough to eat, but Raigada boasts a 56-line electronic telephone system—35 lines have no takers. Electricity came to Kamalasingi 10 years ago; only one family can afford a connection. Three wells were sunk in the village four years ago, but they are dry. "The wells are a menace," says Trinath Naik. "Everytime a couple fights, the wives threaten to jump into them." Meanwhile, villagers are pouring out in the streets to watch Prakash Chandra Sabar, Somnath Bisoi and Prafulla Raula, school dropouts, dancing for alms to feed their families. "This is better entertainment," says Jambhubati Nayak, a homeless widow, "than the polls."
(This is the first in a series of special features on forgotten areas, issues and people—the reality that is India, untouched by elections.)