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Breaking the Kalahandi syndrome

File: Women from Dongria tribe carrying water atop their head as they arrive at the Niyamgiri hill on their annual Niyamraja festival in Kalahandi district.   | Photo Credit: Biswaranjan Rout

The lush green, pristine land of Kalahandi in southwest Odisha boasts a rich history, with an unbroken tradition of cultural heritage, tribal arts and handicrafts. Yet, plagued with recurrent droughts, famines, widespread hunger and malnutrition, Kalahandi remains etched in public memory as one of the most backward regions, rendering a situation of paradoxical pervasive poverty. But at present, it’s breaking the shackles of stereotypes, and dogmas.

Etymologically, Kalahandi translates to a storehouse of art. And today, it is taking decisive steps towards becoming a storehouse of culture, of infinite potential and thriving aspirations. The region is steadily scripting its own unique model of development, pacing itself through the Government of India’s Transformation of Aspirational Districts programme. Aiming to improve their socio-economic status, 112 districts across the country are consistently monitored on their relative progress across 49 key indicators in critical sectors such as health, education, agriculture and basic infrastructure.

Any comprehensive analysis of rural development must contextualise the local populace in terms of their ecology, history, culture and politics. Driven by the districts themselves, this programme that engages with the citizens must be applauded for realising a confluence of tradition with qualitative progress.

It seems there is great merit in the effective deployment of cooperative and competitive federalism at all levels of government — at the national, state and district levels — to realise common goals. The Aspirational Districts programme has encouraged multiple innovative practices across sectors, gearing Kalahandi towards ringing in a transformative change.

At first glance, the roads and infrastructure at the district’s headquarters, Bhawanipatna, a 10-hour drive from Bhubaneshwar, could surprise anyone at the proclaimed backwardness of this region. But then, moving just a few kilometres more, the fading signal bars on one’s phone serves as a reminder of the multiple challenges the district faces, including left-wing extremism, difficult terrain and accessibility.

Where continuous water supply, irrigation and electricity pose a major challenge, the district has merged modern technology with traditional wisdom to create solutions. Today, there are 31 gravity-based water systems, which harness the potential energy from spring water stored in higher ridges to provide water downhill through contours and channels. Set up in the most hard-to-reach areas, these systems ensure 24x7 tap water supply to 35 villages and 12 schools, helping over 5,500 beneficiaries. Tapping into futuristic energy sources, the district uses solar panels to fully power schools, residential hostels and even maintain refrigeration for vaccines and injections at health centres.

At Sai Surni, a village in Thuamul Rampur, one of the most remote blocks, one can witness an holistic, integrated health system, addressing the inter-connected challenges of accessibility, faraway settlements, maternal and infant mortality, and low institutional deliveries. A Ma Griha clinic or a waiting room for pregnant women, functions adjacent to a clean and well-maintained delivery unit, inclusive of a bike ambulance and a solar-powered cold point for vaccines. Besides ensuring that

pregnant women, sick children and the elderly get timely health care, these neatly designed bike-ambulances, consisting of a side-car bed, are also used for health awareness campaigns.

The contact numbers of the bike-riders are painted on the community walls and especially on houses with pregnant women, to ensure that they can be reached at short-notice in case of emergencies. Each of these seven Ma Griha clinics, spread across six of the most challenging blocks, facilitates safe deliveries for at least 50 women each month and ensures timely immunisation of the newborn children. Further, these bike ambulances have even helped reduce the incidence of malaria and fatalities from road accidents.

All of these initiatives are being run without fear or fail against the backdrop of a hauntingly beautiful forested terrain with far-flung settlements cradling the hills and tribal artefacts adorning mud walls.

Odisha is also home to NITI Aayog’s Sustainable Action for Transforming Human capital (SATH) project, catalysing systemic reform in education, through initiatives such as State-wide learning enhancement programmes, optimising school structures, organisation restructuring as well as strengthening monitoring and accountability. Both the Aspirational Districts programme as well as SATH unanimously converge towards improving learning outcomes.

Kalahandi serves as a litmus test to show that these projects are functioning well even in the most remote regions. Spot checks confirmed consistent and satisfactory responses to surprise comprehension questions, square root problems and even linear equations. Grouping and teaching of children according to their learning levels has resulted in a whopping 10-15% improvement in attainment across English, Odia and maths in classes 3, 5 and 8 across the State. Odisha’s novel move to merge its directorates of elementary and secondary education will further result in eliminating the artificial fragmentation in school education and boost learning outcomes.

The developmental landscape of Kalahandi reveals an interesting cocktail of modern practices being blended with the intrinsic cultural context. An interaction with beneficiaries, mostly tribal people, shows their receptivity towards development across sectors, showing increased civic participation and responsiveness of policy interventions.

It is incredible to witness expecting mothers being served hot, nutritious meals at a fully functioning Ma Griha clinic; it is wonderful to see colourfully painted schools with high attendance, their corridors ringing with the chorus of students quoting rhymes and lessons. It is deeply gratifying to meet children brimming with hope and a thirst to learn, articulating their vision and working for their future. From smiling young drivers of bike ambulances to a driven administration with the will to move forward, everything presents a ray of hope that the vicious cycle of underdevelopment can finally be broken.

There is no doubt that the district has a long road ahead to fully transform its development landscape, but there is evidence today of the success of policy innovations set within the socio-cultural context. Described as a global pocket of poverty, Kalahandi is spearheading the transformation of its identity. Previously infamous for lending its name to the Kalahandi Syndrome (synonymous with backwardness, deprivation and starvation), the district is now charting a progressive trajectory towards development. It serves as a stellar example of how even the most backward regions can transform with focused monitoring and fixed targets, providing an implementable template for similar regions across the country. And Kalahandi shall continue to grow, to evolve and unleash its aspirations.

(The author works in the school education sector at the NITI Aayog)

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2021 1:23:35 PM |

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