Dana Majhi's tale begs the question: Why is rich Odisha in such a poor state?

Ashok Swain
Ashok SwainAug 28, 2016 | 11:06

Dana Majhi's tale begs the question: Why is rich Odisha in such a poor state?

Odisha hardly manages to get the attention of the national media. However, the shocking footage of Dana Majhi, an adivasi, walking 12km, carrying the dead body of his wife on his shoulder, accompanied by his crying daughter has become international news.

It might be difficult for some to digest, but even newspapers in Nigeria have widely covered it.

As if this story was not enough, another image of hospital workers breaking the bones of the dead body of an old woman the very next day has added to Odisha's poverty "mystique".


From time to time, one horrific story or other reflecting abject poverty in the state shocks the nation for a few days and then Odisha completely disappears from country's political discourse and media attention. And, Odisha continues to carry on its business as usual.

No doubt, Odias are mostly poor, but Odisha is not. Odisha possesses huge mineral resources, having 33 per cent of India's iron ore deposits, 25 per cent of the coal, 60 per cent of aluminium ore, 98 per cent of chromium ore, 67 per cent of manganese ore and 30 per cent of mineral sands. It has rich forests, fertile agricultural land and an extensive coastline with the most beautiful beaches in the world.

Naveen Patnaik hasn't made any sincere effort to eradicate rural poverty and bring development to Odisha.

However, this natural endowment has not at all benefited most of the people of the state, particularly the socially under-privileged groups.

The Raghuram Rajan panel, with a revised index of backwardness to determine which states need special assistance from the Centre, ranked Odisha in September 2013 as India's most backward state.

The Odisha government's economic survey of 2014-'15 claims the state recorded the highest reduction in poverty among all major states between 2004-'05 and 2012-'13. However, a close look at the survey shows continued high poverty and regional disparities in development.


Still, with 32.6 per cent of its population dubbed as poor, Odisha is only behind Bihar in poverty headcount ratio (HCR). Along with Madhya Pradesh, Odisha has the highest percentage of rural poor in the country.

Odisha is blessed with fertile land, a comfortable climate and vast natural resources. It is mostly a peaceful state, with almost no communal or caste violence. Maoist menace is relatively recent and limited to the border areas of Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh.

The state has not experienced political instability for nearly four decades. Political leadership has been usually suave, educated and image conscious.Then the question arises, why Odisha continues to be one of the poorest and most backward states of India?

If you ask an urbane Odia the reason for high rate of poverty, the most common answer you get in a hushed voice is "Odias are lazy and lack ambition". Historical and cultural reasons are thrown in to justify their point.

However, when you see the image of Dana Majhi in particular or the hardworking poor Odia struggling to make ends meet in village fields in a hostile environment in general, that "lazy" explanation does not really stand.


Academics and intellectuals blame the rent-seeking state following the old development policies framed during the colonial period and weak political leadership without any clout in Delhi to receive central assistance. The quality of the state and political leadership in Odisha is not very different from its neighbouring states.

However, on one thing Odisha stands out is that there is clear lack of distribution of power among various social groups in the state due to upper castes' unchallenged domination of state politics since Independence. On the issue of caste politics, Odisha continues to be an enigma.

Odisha has one of the highest densities of adivasi population in the country as they form 23 per cent of the total population, concentrated in non-coastal areas. When Odisha's Dalit population (17 per cent) is included, the two categories constitute 40 per cent of the population and give Odisha the largest proportion of scheduled groups in the country, among the major states.

There are 62 adivasi communities and 93 dalit communities in the state. Thus, despite their numerical strength, neither adivasis nor Dalits in Odisha have emerged as an independent political force, and elites of these groups have been largely co-opted within existing upper-caste dominated power structures.

Odisha's OBC population is equally heterogeneous. Up to 200 different communities have been put in the OBC list. Unlike Yadavs, Kurmis and Koeris in Bihar and UP, Odisha's majority backward khandayat community has failed to mobilise as a political force demanding its rightful power share from the state.

Khandayats are divided in many sub-castes and some of them pretend to belong to higher castes and find it difficult to be bracketed within the backward category. The sub-caste division among khandayats has prevented them from being the 'Yadavs' of Odisha politics.

In the absence of political mobilisation of Dalits, adivasis and OBCs, upper caste control over political parties has remained unchallenged since the inception of the state, leading to lack of accountability of political leadership and continuing pathetic condition of development in the state.

Also read: 4 stories from India that will make humanity hang its head in shame

The upper caste political leadership has been neglecting the core agriculture sector for long. In recent decades, due to chronic poverty and unemployment, millions from socially under-privileged groups are migrating from Odisha to other parts of India.

Biju Patnaik in the 1960s and JB Patnaik in 1980 used industrialisation as a political slogan, but did not really do anything about it on the ground. For the last one-and-a-half decade, Naveen Patnaik is in power and his electoral success is due to his clean image and populist policies, but without any sincere effort to eradicate rural poverty and bring development to the state.

Odisha is yet to experience the political mobilisation process of Dalits, adivasis and OBCs as is going on in other parts of the country. In the absence of that, the upper caste-dominated state politics will continue to ignore them and their betterment.

To break the poverty trap of the large of section of its population, Odisha needs to join the rest of the country and see that the political elites of these under-privileged groups become critical actors in state politics.

Unless there is a serious challenge to the upper caste's tight grip on political power in the state, Odisha will keep providing shocking images a la Dana Majhi.

Last updated: August 29, 2016 | 18:21
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