This is just not another journalistic story and hence it cannot be reported, rather it has to be recalled and then narrated. This is a story about two women from Odisha, who, in July 1985, made it to the pages of every newspaper in India. Even Time, Newsweek, Washington Post, Le Figaro and the London Daily Mail carried their story. This is the tale of Phanas Punji and Banita, the two Odia women, who became icons that shocked the nation and the world. Their story struck the collective emotional chord of the nation, seared the conscience of India’s political and administrative classes and pitch forked Kalahandi and Odisha into the national psyche. Kalahandi became associated with backwardness and starvation deaths, and scholars of developmental economics got a new subject called “Kalahandi Syndrome”. Of all the 640 odd districts in the country, Kalahandi is arguably the most well known; perhaps next only to Kargil, thanks to Phanas and Banita.
In June 1985, Phanas Punji, the wife of Chabbi Punji of Amlapalli village in the then undivided district of Kalahandi had sold her fourteen year old sister-in-law Banita for Rs 40 (some say it was Rs 20). She did this in utter desperation, as she had two starving children, and the extra mouth to feed was too much for her. Her husband was a migrant labourer who had not returned home in months. Fourteen year old Banita was sold to Vidya Podh, a half blind middle aged labourer of the nearby village. Banita didn’t oppose to it as she was also concerned about the future of her brother’s children. The forty rupees Phanas got was just enough for 3 kgs of rice and a sari.
After the matter was reported in the vernacular dailies, it was picked up by the national media. The subsequent spiraling shock effect forced Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to visit Amlapalli. He, along with his wife Sonia, visited the thatched mud hut of Phanas Punji and heard her plight. Odisha’s Chief Minister JB Patnaik fumbled for words as he tried to explain to Rajiv what the distraught woman was saying. The Prime Minister had come prepared; he had in his entourage two Odia students from the Jawaharlal Nehru University at Delhi. Rajiv Gandhi brushed away the CM and the fawning officials, and heard Phanas and Banita’s story first hand, the students did the translation. A visibly concerned PM then doled out promises like confetti. A slew of relief measures for the region was announced.
To the local community, most of whom were completely ignorant about the world outside their village, the visit of the Prime Minister was a changing point of the lives. This small unknown village was overnight transformed into a glittering fairy land of plenty. An approach road was made; tubewells sunk, food grain and clothes were distributed. Their joy was very short lived, however they basked in the glory of the three months of fame while it lasted.
Rajiv Gandhi was just six months old as a PM. This was perhaps his first interaction with the real India that he had inherited from his late mother. When he came to power, he had bought with him hopes, dreams and aspirations of a new modern India for millions. Young, bubbling with enthusiasm, his was a promise to deliver the fruits of change and developments to the millions waiting in the wings since independence. The excitement of Rajiv Gandhi coming to power was felt in the heart and minds of many youth. I had just passed out from University, and along with a few of my fellow batch mates had gone to Amlapalli to see what our freshly minted PM would do and say there.
Rajiv Gandhi was many things to many people. He was young, open, sincere, concerned, committed, courageous, charming, and a probing man in a hurry. In many ways, he was a phenomenon. During his tour, he was full of energy and the security persons were having a tough time keeping up pace with him. The well laid out plans of the state government under the wily Janaki Ballav Patnaik were thrown awry, as Rajiv decided not to stick to the scheduled itinerary. He dashed about helter-skelter, pictures of him and Sonia wading knee deep in a stream were flashed upon the nation.
After his interaction with Phanas, Rajiv made a sudden unscheduled stop in a nearby village. It was the village haat day (the weekly market that is held in rural Odisha). Rajiv Gandhi got down from the Jeep and went amidst the melee of people. Typical as every haat is, there were the gathering of colorful adivasis and villagers. Handia, the local brew was being sold in every corner, there were drunks lurching about. There was a cock fight in one corner and wagers were being laid with wild cheering. Mutton and chicken was being sold, and in one corner there was a tent where people had lined up. The VCR had just recently reached rural India, and enterprising villagers often set up a tent and with the help of a generator screened X- rated films which were shown for fifty paisa a go. The curious Rajiv Gandhi dashed into one of these peep show tents and then stepped out as hurriedly as he had gone in. In one corner of the haat there was a small cubby hole cabin, with people lined up, which had the sign in Odia saying that it was the sarkari bhang and ganja shop. The Prime Minister enquired from the officials as to what was being sold, the smart sub-collector thought he could wriggle out and said “Cannabis Indica, sir”, presuming the botanical name would end matters. “You mean grass!”, shot back the incredulous Prime Minister.
Rajiv Gandhi returned after announcing a bouquet of packages, but he went back convinced that the whole affair was only to malign the Congress-led government in the state. How could anyone starve or sell off a person for Rs 40 in a place where ganja was being sold by the government-controlled shop, drunks lurched about happily, meat and a variety of vegetables were sold in village markets, cock fights and X- rated movies were the source of entertainment? However, he was moved by the story of Phanas and Banita, and made the right noises about declaring the three districts as specials ones, and that they would be directly monitored from his office. The youthful Prime Minister’s visit resulted in a few acronyms being coined. KBK (Kalanandi-Balangir-Koraput) became the catch word for poverty and starvation, PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) was the place from where these districts would be henceforth monitored. For a change, the Malthusian idea that the poor and the hungry deserved their fate gave way to a kinder philosophy that saw them as innocent victims of the State’s apathy. Amlapalli became an icon of all that was wrong with Odisha—and India.
Since 1985, many Prime Ministers and Chief Ministers have come and gone, but the contours of poverty have remained unchanged. Both Phanas and Banita, who had come face to face with a prime minister, were relegated to their respective angst-ridden anonymities. They remained poor and distraught.
In these twenty-seven years, Kalahandi has undergone many upheavals. A huge amount of money has come and gone, but the district is still the poorest in the poor state of Odisha. Kalahandi has only become a ladder for politicians, bureaucrats and so-called development professionals. The plight of Phanas Punji and Banita, the ultimate icons of poverty, is still being written and rewritten. Kalahandi has been brought to the centre of discourse on hunger and poverty by media reports, writs in the Supreme and High Courts, debates in the Parliament and the Odisha State Assembly and campaigns by social activists. It has led to the intervention of Courts and the National Human Rights Commission. More then a dozen PhD degrees have been awarded by both Cambridge and Oxford Universities. Dozens of books have been published. Kalahandi has been a milch cow, which today, has been milked dry.
Twenty-seven years after I had first met her, I once again reached Amlapalli, which is just 8 kms from Khariar. Just off the highway, I met Phanas’s nephew Pustam Punji, who had a small house adjoining the road. However he refused to take me to Phanas, but sent his daughter along. Pustam was an accomplished artist, who had held exhibitions at Bhubaneswar, but was now reduced to fending for himself and his family by growing vegetables on his small patch of land. He went inside his hut and got two of his paintings. He told me that he had a solo exhibition at the Lalit Kala Academy at Bhubaneswar years ago and had sold many of his works, but now the muse in him had just vanished.
“Don’t believe half of what Phanas says”, he warned me, and added, “It will cost you quite some amount to meet her.”
The dusty road from the main highway soon transformed into a pucca concrete one, the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana had not bypassed the village. The camera was the giveaway, fingers pointed to the broken down house of Phanas. Behind the broken walls of her house, there was another small hut, the door of which was locked. This was the mud hut that Phanas had built after she had received Rs 10,000 under the Indira Awas Yojana.
The villagers told me that Phanas no longer stayed in the village but was living in the field near the school, where she had a job as a Anganwadi helper. She cultivated the small patch of land that she owned, and fended the nearby fields for the other villagers. Another villager told me that she was the owner of a well, which she had dug under the Jivandhara Scheme, she had been paid Rs 13000 for it. Her husband Chabbi had died four years ago, and she had married off her daughter. Her son was now a grown up man, married and worked as a farm hand whenever a job was available.
We made our way to the fields, which were full of wild flowers and soon reached her hut. She was alone with her grandchild, in her small lean to hut under a tall tamarind tree. The setting was picturesque, the yellow and silver flowers swayed gently in the breeze, Phanas sat on a charpoy and looked up enquiringly. Another chabbi-babu (photographer) had come, she would have tell her story all over again.
The hut was a makeshift affair, the blue tarpaulin was weighed down with the firewood that she had collected. There was a small chullah outside her hut, and on the tamarind tree was nailed a small mirror with a comb. A grinding stone stood at the base of the tree. Phanas covered her face and offered the charpoy to us. No photographs, she said, and it was only after she was assured that I would pay her that she removed her saree from her face.
In March 1993, Kalahandi was bifurcated into two districts and Nuapada was carved out for administrative convenience. Phanas’s village is now in Nuapada, and the school where she is employed as a helper is just nearby, she gets Rs 1500/- a month.
She soon started her litany of woes— she had not been paid her salary for the last three months. Her small vegetable patch had brinjals, pumpkins and some other crops sown. She was certainly not a picture of penury or hunger any more, rather she was in very good health, wore decent clothes and a seemingly gold pin dangled from her nose. She wore six gold pins in her ears too.
The government babus do not listen to her anymore. Her husband died of tuberculosis, and she now has to fend for the family. Her son is a no good idler, he does not go to work. She toils the field after her school job, and just manages two square meals for the family. Yes, the Rs 2 per kilo rice has made a difference, but she had been promised of all good things by Rajiv Gandhi himself. “I am sure that money was sent for me, but the babus siphoned it all off,” she complained.
“What did Rajiv Gandhi ask you?” I asked her.
“He asked me if I would have sold my daughter instead of my sister-in-law, Banita. I told him that no one would buy a small child, otherwise I would have done so. I got a very bad name for giving Banita away. The villagers told me that I would be arrested and put in jail. I was afraid to meet Rajiv Gandhi, but the Collector assured me that nothing would happen. Maybe I would have got all that he promised had he lived, I was very saddened to know of his death. The villagers are all against me. They are jealous of me. They keep calling me names. They accuse me of bringing infamy to the village.”
After the death of her husband, she ran from pillar to post and the Collector gave her Rs 10,000. It was all used up in paying off the moneylenders from whom she had got money for his treatment. The son had got a loan of Rs 10,000 from the Utkal Gramya Bank at Khariar, and has not paid back any amount. The bank has been repeatedly sending notices for paying up Rs 19,500 that had accrued with interest. She got one of the letters from inside her hut and showed it to me.” Please ask them to write the amount off, there is no way I can pay it back,” she said.
Meanwhile the son along with his wife returned from the fields. He too had his sob story, and there was soon a competition of sorts between mother and son. Jagabandhu Punji sidled up to me and whispered that his mother was now too old for the Anganwadi job, and could I please manage to get his wife appointed in her place.
ROOTS OF POVERTY
In popular literature and media, the Kalahandi Syndrome is something that still means hunger deaths, acute poverty, and child sale. Dr. Fanindam Deo, the Principal of Khariar College, whose book Roots of Poverty is an empirical study on the Kalahandi Syndrome says, “Whether it be education, healthcare, infrastructure or any other development indicator, the poor have hardly been benefited. Government officials, NGOs, and businessmen have looted Kalahandi and its poor in every possible way. There has been visible above the ground development, but this has not percolated down to the beneficiaries. The emphasis should have been on effective livelihood improvement programmes, rather than populist schemes.”
The dimensions of poverty are many. While priorities vary, greater weight should be given to poor people’s crying out against the agony of hunger and sickness, the deprivations due to lack of work, the anxiety of insecurity, the injustice of discrimination and the sheer frustration of powerlessness.
The Western Odisha Rural Livelihoods Project (WORLP), an initiative managed by the Odisha Watershed Development Mission, is partially funded by the DFID, the UK Department for International Development. It was launched by the Naveen Patnaik government in August 2000 and covered the four poorest districts of the State. Besides the KBK region, Bargarh District was also included.
Supporting new patterns of rural development, WORLP was intended to reduce poverty by promoting livelihoods initiatives for the poorest. The livelihoods approach adopted by WORLP focused on building and working with people’s existing strengths and resources. The approach was about informing, enabling, initiating and empowering appropriate choices for long-term well-being.
In 2011, New Delhi-based organisation Sambodhi Research Foundation conducted a survey about the effectiveness of the programme. Based on their report, DFID claimed that out of the 1,24,692 families in the project area, the economic condition of 33,989 families has improved. The report says that almost 95 per cent of the beneficiaries have benefited from the several government welfare measures.
The Odisha government is constantly tom-tomming the decline of poverty in the state. However the parameters for determining poverty are being rewritten. The Tendulkar Committee set up by the national development council has suggested that “poverty should be estimated on the basis of consumption based on cost of living index instead of caloric intake”. It said that the basket of goods should also include services like health and education.
The new poverty line is different for rich and poor states and also different for rural and urban areas within a state. In simple terms, by the traditional method a person or family is termed poor if he did not have enough income to have quality food. But the new method says that, apart from food if a family or person does not have enough income to afford the basic health care and education, he can be called poor. Today, a majority of the state’s population are not in a position to afford basic health care and education.
With these new standards, the poverty level of Odisha will rise drastically. Only food security cannot improve the standards of the poor. Access to health care and education are two vital parameters and the government has the sole responsibility to bring improvements in these areas along with the livelihood without which the real poverty level will not come down.
Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, in his 1938 address at the 51st session of Indian National Congress at Haripura had said that the country’s primary challenges were poverty, illiteracy and hunger.
In this context, in his maiden address made on the August 15 this year, the former Finance Minister and current President of India said, “It is indeed a wake-up call to Indian polity that even 65 years after Independence and 74 years after Netaji Subhash Bose’s observation, the number of poor in the country today outstrips the population of the country in 1947.”
I asked Phanas to come with me to her village. She reluctantly agreed and led us single to her village, though the fields and past the school where she cooked the midday meal for children. The school building was freshly painted and had the map of Odisha drawn on one of its walls with the village Amlapalli clearly marked on it. There were advertisements of Dixcy Underwear and Banian, Tata Tea and Konark Cement on the walls of the houses on the highway.
Amlapalli too has undergone change. All the 30 houses have now got electricity under the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen. Vidyutikaran Yojana. Fifteen households have television sets, the DTH dishes were gleaming in the afternoon sun. Many of the villagers owned mobile phones and four of them had their own mobikes. The Sarpanch owned a tractor, his son was a petty contractor. To understand just how poor Amlapalli is, I could look at all this, or look at the children in the village. Their poverty was disguised by development. To me every child who crowded around me looked undernourished. Seven-year-old Padmini Punji, daughter of Kishore Punji, came shyly and showed me her disability certificate. The distraught father told me that he had been given Rs 1300 just for one year and then it was stopped. I had to point out to him that the Handicapped Certificate was to be evaluated every year, as the medical board has cited her case as one of temporary disability. Yes, she had been given a tricycle, but it broke down very soon.
In Odisha, poverty-alleviation programmes consistently fail, and poverty starts getting ‘concealed’ or ‘disguised’ through various legitimate and illegitimate means with the result that the poor do not appear to be poor. In all probability, the nose ring and ear pins that Phanas wore were brass, not gold.
Phanas sat outside her hut, and narrated her wish list which she presumed I would go and give to Sonia Gandhi. She asked me to write it all down, lest I forget.
The villagers told me that Phanas was no widow, she is married to the sarkar, the State, which has been taking good care of her. Go and see Banita, she is the victim, no one visits her.
I coaxed one of the villagers to come along with us to Banita’s village, which was just about 10 kms away from Amlapalli. The highway marker on the State Highway showed the village of Baldha as just 1 km away. Ironically, Banita’s village is in the District of Balangir, and there is a big administrative chasm which separates her from Phanas.
Hers was the first hut in the village. We walked up to the door, and called out, I was curious to meet Vidya Podh, who was the bad man in the whole affair. It was he who had bought Banita for Rs 40. He refused to come out, instead a child ran out to summon Banita who had gone to nearby fields for winnowing the recently threshed paddy stalks.
A cursing Vidya was coaxed out of his hut, I could not understand the expletives that he was using, but they were certainly not pleasant one. A life of poverty is a life without dignity. Banita’s husband was more then half blind, he stood listlessly by the door to his small hut. The clothes he wore were torn and tattered. In the last twenty-seven years, he had seen a lot of journalists, they had all questioned him on the bride price that he had paid.
“Where did the helicopter land? I did not hear it,” he enquired sarcastically. “It is Rajiv Gandhi or Biju Patnaik who has come calling? Introductions are made. Oh, just another chabbi babu (photographer)”, he said and then went back inside.
IT’S NO FUN TO PROTEST ON AN EMPTY STOMACH
Phanas and Banita are the living proof of the fact that Indian politicians and policymakers are totally divorced from ground realities. It is a cruel joke and mockery of India’s poor, who are resigned to be ruled by people who go to Western universities to understand their national poverty.
In 1985, after meeting Phanas Punji, Rajiv Gandhi had said, “Of every rupee spent by the government, only 17 paise reaches the intended beneficiary.” The remark had triggered a controversy then. Last year, his son and the would-be scion of the Congress, Rahul Gandhi had said that even five paise of a rupee sent by the Centre were not reaching the poor. In 2009, during a press conference, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh admitted “leakage” of funds earmarked for development works, but said it was “not as big” as was mentioned by Rajiv Gandhi.
“Leakage of funds earmarked for development does exist. But, I do not admit that these leakages are as big as was mentioned by Rajivji,” he told reporters. “I think, particularly in areas such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), there are provisions which will help over a period of time curb the leakages. I sincerely hope that in years to come, the Right to Information Act (RTI) will act as a powerful device to ensure that the leakages are curbed,” he said.
Sumitesh Hota, who runs the NGO Youth for Action & Research at Khariar, is appalled to see lavish expenditure of public money by politicians, bureaucrats and the NGOs. He has seen food grains meant for the utterly poor rotting in government godowns.
Kalahandi, which was known as rice bowl of Odisha, has become her history. The irony is that despite starvation, the district continues to be a net exporter of paddy, with the highest number of rice mills in the state. This not only illustrates the paradoxical situation of scarcity amidst plenty in a famine-stricken region but also makes it hard to explain hunger. Poverty and hunger in this region are not only spatially located but certain sections of society are worst victims of hunger, starvation and near-famine conditions even when there is no drought and no crop loss. It is always the marginalised landless tribals, lower castes and women amongst them who are vulnerable to processes of famishment and impoverishment. The persisting phenomenon of poverty and destitution, inequity and regional disparity, increasing alienation of land, land fragmentation and land encroachment provides an understanding of the large-scale deprivations, distress conditions and experiences of hunger. Together they represent acceleration and deceleration of starvation and the battle to survive.
On our insistence he emerged once again, this time he was angry. He asked us to go and meet Banita, he has nothing to say. We waited for her by the roadside, a few villagers collected around us and gave tidbits of information. He is a bad man, he beats her up. This was not his hut, he had a house further up the road. They do not stay there as they fear that the roof would fall down on them. They have half a dozen cows.
Before making this trip, I had studied Banita’s black and white photograph taken when she had been sold in 1985. In her photo, she was childlike and cherubic, as she had stood with her hands holding the small cloth which passed off as a saree. Her pretty face had showed the puzzlement and curiosity of the innocent, she could not understand all the attention she was getting. It was a picture that had moved millions.
Banita made her way from the field, she walked haltingly towards us, stopping after every few steps she took. As she came nearer I could get a hint of the same curiosity. Her face has aged harshly with the decorated lines of backbreaking labour and poverty. However, even though she was just in her late thirties, Banita was now a picture of what Kalahandi meant then and now. Her cheeks were hollow, the eyes were sunken. Her cheek bones jutted out prominently and she was a picture of abject misery. She could have easily passed off as Phanas Punji’s mother. She was breathless and sat down; the ordeal of rushing from the field was too much for her. Weak, emaciated, and certainly suffering, she looked up to me enquiringly.
Any doctor would have diagnosed her condition as one due to severe calorie deficiency and that she was just half her normal body weight. Since Banita could hardly walk and was not strong enough to carry any weight, the children were responsible for bringing water to the hut each day.
Twenty-seven years after her little face had pulled the Prime Minister and his wife to this unknown village, I heard the story of Banita, her blind husband and their five children. Since that fateful day, she had seen nothing new, except the five children that she gave birth to in a yearly succession. She is still married to that blind man who thrashes her regularly, and has to fend for her flock, come rain or sunshine. She told me that she had recently sent her eldest son off to Raipur to fend for himself. She had married off her eldest daughter. The other children were going to school, but one of them was always kept back at home because of the blind Vidya.
She wrung her hands in utter helplessness and despair. I asked her about Phanas, she was still bitter. She recollected the times when the whole family was living on the little income of her brother Chhabi. They were happy times, but after her brother left, she became the heaviest burden to the family and specifically Phanas. In order to get rid of the burden, Phanas sold her off even though she knew that Vidya Podha is poorer than Chhabi.
The marriage was not recognised as they could not afford the communal feast, and the couple were ostracised by the villagers. For fifteen years she had been a loner, until the local MP Bhakta Charan Das came forward and arranged the feast. Banita told me that he just gave the feast, not any gold or utensils, which were customary. After the feast, he has not appeared in years.
Like Phanas, Banita too has been given the job of an Anganwadi helper. She has been sick and has not gone to work for months. The supervisor has held back her salary for the last six months, and insists that she will be paid only when she rejoins.
She too was a beneficiary of the Indira Awas Yojana. All she received was Rs 10,000. The contractor who built the house did a slipshod job. Banita took me and pointed to the big cracks on the walls. The family is afraid to move in and prefers staying in the old hut which belongs to a Harijan. She keeps her six miserable cows in the Indira Awas house. She has no land to till. The half acre that they had was mortgaged for her mother-in-law’s last rites. Poverty, amongst other things, leads to loss of self-esteem, and Banita did not want her grown-up children to face the social apartheid that she had undergone for years. She has borrowed money from moneylenders and has a hard time even in paying the interest.
“Come inside my hut and see for yourself, we have no grains”, she said. I declined, it would have been voyeuristic intrusion into her poverty. Half her time is spent going to the hospital at Khariar. The doctors have told her that she has to undergo an operation. The pills they give her do no good. She cannot get herself admitted as she has no money. I told her that the treatment would be free, she refused to believe it. I asked her to get the prescriptions, but she had lost them.
Sumitesh, a young social worker from Khariar, offered to take her to Cuttack or Berhampur where the state run medical colleges could treat her, but she cannot leave behind the blind Vidya.
Unlike Phanas, Banita had no wish list for Sonia Gandhi. She was resigned to her fate, utter hopelessness and despair was written on her face. “Chabbi Babu, do something for my treatment, if I die what will happen to my husband and the children?” she said.
Returning from her village, I saw an interesting milestone on the road: It read “N.H. 0 K.M.” I cannot understand why such a milestone was put up by the authorities, but in one way it is indicative of Banita’s plight. The road is one of no hope, not the new hope that was promised.
Later at Bhubaneswar, I met the officials concerned and got the form that is required form seeking medical assistance from the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund. The two page application, which I sent to Banita, requires the signatures of the Tahasildar/Sub Collector, medical Officer, Head of the Hospital and the MLA/MP/Minister. I wonder if Banita will ever be able to get it signed.
On November 9, I got a desperate call from Banita’s village. The school master told me that Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik was visiting Khariar and could I arrange for her to meet him? It was a tall order which would have been very difficult to comply with on a short notice. I am sure Banita must have waited in her hut, with the desperate hope that the CM would come calling.
Sonia Gandhi is now the chairman of ruling alliance UPA. She might have forgotten the episode of Banita and Phanas Punji. I have sent Phanas’s wish list. I have written to the CDMO and the MLA for expediting Banita’s treatment, for I am sure if she does not undergo the operation that she needs, she will not live long. I wonder what will happen to Vidya and the children then. Maybe, another Prime Minister will come calling.
By Anil Dhir From Kalahandi