Orissa deaths: Abject poverty comes into focus

BHUBANESWAR, AUG. 30. The raging controversy over the ``hunger deaths'' in Orissa's Rayagada district has gathered steam with the Collector denying categorically that anyone in the district died of starvation.

The issue, however, has brought into focus the backbreaking poverty of the region's hapless tribals, and the fact that there has been little improvement in their condition despite implementation of a series of welfare programmes by successive governments and voluntary organisations.

The opponents of the Biju Janata Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance Government have been extremely vocal in the past few days, alleging that people were starving to death in Kashipur bock of Rayagada.

The people were forced to eat mango kernels and other non-food items as they did not have money to buy food, the State units of the Congress and the CPI(M) alleged. The tribals, most of them landless, were not getting any work and there was no sign of any food-for-work programme in the area.

The Rayagada Collector, Mr. Bishnupada Sethi, has denied the charge emphatically. In a press statement late on Wednesday night, Mr. Sethi said as per the information available with them, 19 deaths occurred in the Kashipur area since July. However, ``by no stretch of imagination can they be called as starvation deaths''.

About the death of seven persons in Panasguda village, he said Mr. Biswanath Majhi, a resident of the village, hired some labourers to work in his field and provided them food. Seven persons, including three members of Mr. Majhi's family, died after eating the food, the Collector said. ``When one is employing the labourers, it is absurd to talk of starvation.''

In Bilamala village, Mr. Sethi said, four persons died ``after consumption of poisonous mushroom by mistake. Mushroom was used as a curry/supplement and not as main item of food.'' The death of four persons in Badamaribhatta and Tikri-Jhadia Sahi locality due to disease, ``is also being branded as starvation deaths,'' he added.

Four people also died in Pitajodi village, Mr. Sethi said. ``As per the medical opinion, these deaths took place due to food poisoning.''

Claiming that the administration was quite responsive to the situation, he said a series of developmental works had been initiated and all possible steps taken to help the people.

Referring to the food habits of the area's tribals, Mr. Sethi said they lacked a proper sense of hygiene and personal care. The tribals were used to eating mango kernel but the preparation tended to become poisonous as they stored it for a long time, he said.

Predominantly inhabited by Kondh tribals, Kashipur is one of the poorest blocks in the State. Allegations of hunger deaths have haunted it even in the past - when the State was under Congress rule in the 1980s.

However, one thing is clear. A majority of the tribals of Kashipur have been living without much income all these years. The benefit of various welfare programmes have not reached them for reasons better known to the successive governments. The authorities, who say the recent deaths are not due to starvation, too admit that poverty is the main problem.

By all accounts, the issue of hunger has taken centre stage and politicians of all hues are busy reaping the benefits.