Mgnrega Some subsistence to some people for some time
When, as a callow reporter, I first started to study the Kalahandi Syndrome, a professor of economics from the Utkal University had said that amongst the reams of agonising literature, I should read two books. One was Sainath’s Everbody Loves a Good Drought and the other was the yet unpublished work of Dr Fanindam Deo Roots of Poverty. I had the good fortune to read the manuscript before it was published.
For the first time in many years I have found myself thinking of both books as the stark images from Odisha’s shame. Sainath’s book encapsulated all that was wrong with India’s rural programmes and with his tongue in cheek attitude he trivialised the poverty and misery. His book is one that has to be read with several glasses of whisky and coke in the lounge of India International Centre.
However Dr Deo’s Roots of Poverty is an empirical work and a no holds barred study on the dilemmas and uncertainties of Kalahandi. It is an evisceration of the poverty in Western Odisha. The root cause of poverty and the present situation are not merely due to the natural disasters and the consequent scarcity of food. The problem of poverty in the KBK (Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput) region is complex and has evolved over the last two centuries, with rapid acceleration in the last three decades. As a result, the endemic miseries, malnutrition, distress migration and ill health are all widespread. Dr Deo has searched for actual roots of poverty in the social history of the region.
This is the first book of its kind on the historical roots of poverty in Odisha. Unless the problems are seen in historical perspective, one cannot make an analysis of the painful human condition where people struggle with their coping strategies, or reach the root of the crisis.
The phrase poverty amidst plenty captures the record harvests of paddy, highest procurement by the Food Corporation of India in supposedly famine years, and even export of rice alongside the misery and hunger of the population, but without mass mortality. Dr Deo’s work is situated within this disjuncture. Drawing upon extensive research on five tribes of the region, the Gond, Kandha, Binjhal, Bhunjia and Paharia, he has given the political history of the region and the tribal peasant movements.
His study falls within the revisionist school of thought that considers famine to be a gradual process of socio-economic and biological decline, rather than a singular, spectacular event . Using ethnographic methods of research, Dr Deo starts his inquiry with the loss of entitlement to land through a historical study of tenurial relations and the abolition of intermediaries in the KBK region.
The KBK plans as well as MNEGRA are essentially destitution relief measures which provide some subsistence to some people for some time. These measures do not address what Dr Deo calls ‘structural deprivation’ of the tribal population of the region. This process has been well documented in the book, starting from the pre-colonial period where the tribal populace was controlled by the kings. The British Colonial regime forged alliances with these kings, who employed the upper castes to perform the economic and administrative roles. This situation led to many rebellions, which were ruthlessly crushed. This process of deprivation led to the loss of the rights of the tribal people over land and forest. The author has delved into colonial and royal records, folklore, literary sources and oral history to study the phenomenon.
Dr Fanindam Deo did his Ph.D from the Jawaharlal Nehru University. He was a Fellow in the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Simla. He has made a mark for himself in the field of history of the poverty in Western Odisha. He has, since 1977, been teaching in different colleges in Odisha and has seen and experienced the Kalahandi Syndrome first hand.
The book makes us understand that while many of the problems in Kalahandi as a whole are rooted in the past, there are clear lessons to draw from this crisis. The book is full of interesting insights and is worth reading for anyone who really wants to know why the poorest of the poor are still poor. And things are not always as bad as they are actually made out to be.
By Anil Dhir