"We need a relook at the entire approach to development in tribal areas"

Abysmally low literacy, high infant mortality rate and inaccessible terrain put a big question mark over the talk of inclusive growth in this tribal-dominated district of Odisha.

Considered a hotbed of Maoist activity, the death of 24 children at Potrel and Usakapalli in the Korukonda block and at Charkiguda on the outskirts of the district headquarters town Malkangiri has brought into focus the lacunae in the delivery mechanism. The children, aged five to 15, died in a span of two months due to a mystery fever — suspected to be Japanese encephalitis caused by mosquitoes.

Bordering Dantewada and Sukma of Chhattisgarh and Visakhapatnam, Khammam and East Godavari districts of Andhra Pradesh, Malkangiri in the southern corner of Odisha has an infant mortality rate of 56 per 1,000. It has six per cent literacy rate among tribal women. These figures were confirmed by S.B. Panda, Chief District Medical Officer. Sixty per cent of the district population of 4.5 lakh are tribals — mostly primitive tribal groups Koyas and Bondas.

After the Maoists converted the district into a warzone by changing its status from a shelter area after they were flushed out of north Telangana in Andhra Pradesh in the late 1990s, there is spurt in violence. Over 150 people including 80 policemen were killed in gunfire and landmine blasts. Collectors of Malkangiri and Sukma districts were abducted and let off after some of the demands of the Maoists were conceded by the government.

“There is no semblance of any coordination among various agencies involved in the development process. They don’t try to understand the culture and value system of the Adivasis,” says Saranya Nayak, in charge of Action Aid in undivided Koraput district.

She feels there is absence of a humane approach. “Huge amounts are sanctioned but there are no serious efforts to understand their language. They are treated as second class citizens and when they approach a hospital for assistance, they are blamed for coming late or not taking medicines on time,” she says.

During a visit to fever-hit areas located within the 25-km radius of the district headquarters, The Hindu found that except holding a three-day medical camp, no attempt worth mentioning was made to educate the tribals on improving sanitary conditions. The tribals sleep close to cow and pig sheds.

“What can we do when they come to us late with symptoms of Japanese encephalitis. Most of them consult Disari/Gunia [traditional healers] and consider evil spirits as the cause for the deaths,” asks K.C. Mohapatra, medicine specialist at the District Headquarters Hospital.

Malnutrition is a big problem in tribal hamlets, despite the supply of 25 kg per household at Rs. 50 for BPL card holders. The delivery mechanism is very poor due to corruption and unwillingness of employees to work in Malkangiri — considered a punishment posting. The posts of the Block Development Officer, the Tahsildar and the Notified Area Council Executive Officer are held by one person. Of the 87 sanctioned posts of doctors, 38 have been lying vacant. Half of paramedical posts are yet to be filled.

Superintendent of Police Akhileswar Singh says three of the six Deputy Superintendents posted in the district have not joined duty and have been ‘absconding’ for the past 9 months. “It’s unfortunate that the ideologically bankrupt Maoists don’t want the tribals to join the mainstream. They are obstructing development work in various ways as they want continuation of their grip to indulge in extortion and terrorism,” the SP told The Hindu.

“They don’t want roads to be laid. Despite issuance of a work order for the past eight months, the contractor has not started work on a parallel road to Malkangiri from Jeypore, a distance of 110 km. Travelling by public transport in this badly shaped road takes eight to nine hours.”

“We need a relook at the entire approach to development in tribal areas,” says Jitendra, an activist of the Regional Institute of Tribal Empowerment & Solidarity.