The setting is idyllic; a lush mountainous region of the Eastern Ghats. To be more exact, a cluster of villages in the Koinpur and Gangabada panchayats of the predominantly tribal Raigada block of Gajapati district, in the interiors of Orissa. Ironically, while rich in scenic beauty, it is home to the poorest citizens of India.
In a paper published in 1988— Dimensions of Rural Poverty: An Inter-Regional Profile— the authors, economists L.R. Jain, K. Sundaram and S.D. Tendulkar, ranked 56 regions of the country on the basis of six inter- related dimensions of poverty. The economic criteria used: the proportion of the rural population below the poverty line, their per capita purchasing power and the Sen-Index which measures the intensity-dimension of poverty. The region which they ranked last (56), and hence tops the poverty list, goes by the nomenclature ORS Southern and includes the tribal areas of Ganjam— a majority of which, along with Raigada, fall in the Gajapati district created by the bifurcation of Ganjam.
Another factor that experts consider an indicator of extreme poverty is the Infant Mortality Rate (IMR). According to economists Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen in their latest book India, Economic Development and Social Opportunity (table 3.1), Ganjam is the worst affected district in India in terms of the IMR, laying claim to an alarming 164 infant deaths per 1,000 live births. This figure compares unfavourably with the IMR in the poorest of the three sub-Saharan African countries— Mali, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau.
Sen and Dreze point out that the figures for Ganjam relate to 1991, prior to the bifurcation of the district. The Planning Commission (PC) states that the "tribal areas of the district can safely be considered the worst off in all respects, especially in terms of the I M R". The areas covered in our study of the region now fall within the Gajapati district, which the PC identifies as among the "most backward" districts of India, based on 50 per cent weightage accorded to the SC/ST population and 50 per cent to agricultural, commercial, industrial and labour productivity.
As for citing Raigada as the poorest block and a few villages in the Gangabada and Koinpur panchayats as the worst-hit areas , we have based our conclusions on extensive discussions with N G Os working in this area. The PC, too, identifies Raigada among the blocks of former Ganjam district as being "at the bottom of the ladder". Our assessment was the same.