Panchayati raj representatives in the Naxal-affected district have resigned en masse to protest the apathy to their development needs, but the Odisha government remains unmoved

Last month, 65 representatives of panchayati raj institutions in Malkangiri, Odisha, resigned en masse protesting against the apathy of the State government. All Adivasis, their principal demands have been the extension of an irrigation canal, road repair, and the supply of drinking water to villages. They had been making representations to the State Government and meeting officials but to no avail. Even after they resigned, Bhubaneswar has hardly taken note of the grave constitutional and governance crisis this has caused. What would the reaction have been had this happened in say Jammu and Kashmir?

Tackling Naxals

Panchayat raj institutions are integral to our constitutional edifice. No minister or bureaucrat from Bhubaneswar has decided to visit the district to establish an interface with the elected adivasi leaders. What can be more insensitive?

In early 2009, the Central Government decided on a significant initiative to deal with rising Maoist violence. Here, the deployment of Central forces was increased and States given support to add to their capability in coping with Maoist violence. The expectation was that a grid pattern of deployment of Central forces, supported by special forces with deep penetration capability, would facilitate developmental and governance initiatives. Affected districts were provided assistance under the Integrated Action Plan (IAP), which was one more method of gap-funding after the Backward Regions Grant Fund (BRFG). Besides, the districts were given additional funds under various Centrally-sponsored schemes. The strategy has worked wherever State governments have been able to benefit from Central assistance. Where the State administration is disinterested, the Central effort has yielded limited benefits.

Neither money nor security forces individually or together can win the hearts and minds of people, if money remains unspent and all that people see are large numbers of heavily armed personnel. This is precisely what happened to Malkangiri four years later. The State Government has been unable to create capacity or improve governance. Development schemes can hardly be implemented. Ministers and bureaucrats are unwilling to visit the district to personally take charge, review implementation or assuage the frustration of the Adivasis. There is a case for a rethink on our strategy to deal with what the Prime Minister has termed the biggest internal security threat to India.

Underutilised funds

During a recent visit to Malkangiri I met the Adivasi leaders. They were simple and straightforward in talking about the issues that affected them and expressed a great sense of helplessness at having been cheated by the government. They no longer trust it. Ironically, Malkangiri is among the top three Naxal-affected districts of the country with 60 per cent Adivasis and 81 per cent people below poverty line. The district gets generous funds under Central schemes as well as under BRGF and IAP yet fares poorly on all development indicators besides reporting extremely poor utilisation of Central funds. Malkangiri’s misery is being perpetuated by the insensitivity, inaction and neglect of a callous State government. Unfortunately, civil society has little time for the Adivasis. Innocent children are dying of diseases, youth are unemployed, women are vulnerable, farmers do not have access to irrigation and there is an atmosphere of bedlam and unprecedented institutional decay.

Poor infrastructure

Under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the district has received Rs.35.39 crore till February this year, but only Rs.14.78 crore has been spent. Out of the 3,024 units sanctioned under the Indira Awaas Yojana housing scheme, about 30 houses have been built. Under the IAP, the district has received Rs.85 crore out of which Rs.30 crore remains unspent. Malkangiri has as many as 36 health centres apart from the district headquarters hospital. But they remain non-functional as at least 40 posts of doctors, including specialists, are vacant against the sanctioned strength of 87.

Roads are in bad shape and people have been repeatedly blocking them to voice their anger, but to no avail. Road projects worth Rs.460 crore, of the Public Works Department, and Rs.630 crore under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) are yet to take off. Only 35 per cent of the funds under PMGSY have been used. Ironically, the Chief Minister holds the Works portfolio, which is supposed to maintain all major roads and look after the Water Resources department. Political executives from Bhubaneswar hardly ever visit the district. When they do, they never spend a night even at the fortified district headquarters. When Ministers, secretaries and bureaucrats are unwilling to visit the district and senior police officers move around in helicopters provided by the Central Government for security reasons, we cannot blame the district officials for their unwillingness to visit the interiors, particularly after the kidnapping of two Collectors from the Bastar region. The State Government has failed to build a bridge across the Gurupriya river that separates the cut-off areas from the mainland of Malkangiri district. The cut-off areas are essentially the eight gram panchayats of Kudumulugumma block separated from the mainland district by the Balimela reservoir constructed in 1977. The dam project separated some 33,400 people in 151 villages from the Odisha mainland though they are connected on the other side to Visakhapatnam district in Andhra Pradesh.

Rights violations

In 2001, the Collector and Superintendent of Police “ran away” from the district. On the Chief Minister’s request, the Central Government sent four battalions of Central forces as well as a helicopter. Money has also been provided for the modernisation of the police force. The State Government meets the entire expenditure on fighting Naxalites under the Security Related Expenditure (SRE) Scheme of the Central Government. To this, the Central Government has now sanctioned two engineer battalions to attend to road work in areas where contractors are not taking up work. Instead of providing security cover, the security forces have become the only government agency present or visible. There are repeated allegations of human rights violations. This when the purpose of security cover was to implement development work and sort out governance issues.

The Centre has poured in funds and deployed huge numbers of security personnel. But, what does one do if the State administration fails to implement and tackle governance issues? What if Ministers and bureaucrats do not carry out routine reviews and inspections? Since the kidnapping of Collector Vineel Krishna, governance has more or less collapsed. No development has taken place, fuelling the current crisis that has forced elected Adivasi leaders to resign.

The Adivasis are simple people, who have for long tolerated the highhandedness of the administrators and the police. Now, they have been left to face armed Maoists.

To me, this is a grave constitutional crisis and all efforts must be made to restore grass-roots democracy here.

(Niranjan Patnaik is president of the Odisha Pradesh Congress Committee.)

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