Odisha’s Kalahandi district — once the cause of global embarrassment for India due to its high number of starvation deaths — today stands tall with a five-fold increase in its rice production since 1999, figures reveal.
The agriculture ministry’s recent crop data ranks Kalahandi among the top 25 rice producing districts of India. The three-year average of its rice production ending 2010-11 was 468,000 tonnes, compared with a three-year average of just 82,000 tonnes for 1998-99.
Collector Gobind Chandra Sethi attributed the rise to “around-the-clock” irrigation and better farm input. The year 2010-11 was in fact historic as the production that year was 635,000 tonnes, an increase of 200,000 tonnes over the previous year and the reason for the top-25 billing.
The picture, however, was different in 1985, the year then PM Rajiv Gandhi visited Kalahandi and famously said: “Of every rupee spent by the government, only 17 paise reach the intended beneficiary.”
Planning Commission deputy chairperson Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who was then serving in the prime minister’s office, recalled: “Gandhi returned from Kalahandi and asked us to start a central fund to deal with starvation deaths there.” Gandhi’s personal interest resulted in the Centre’s first direct intervention in Kalahandi.
A long-term programme was worked out to improve the livelihood of people in not just Kalahandi but the adjoining districts of Bolangir and Kolatpur as well.
Further, a new district of Nuapada was carved out of Kalahandi, and the other two were also split for better administration, with the result that a total of eight districts were eventually covered. Since 1998, the Centre has pumped around Rs4,500 crore into the eight districts, with the result that Kalahandi’s rice production has consistently increased since 2003-04.
The picture, however, is not all rosy. The percentage of poor people in the district stands at 50% today, down from 88% during Gandhi’s visit to the undivided Kalahandi but still higher than Odisha’s poverty line of 37%. Not only are many parts of Kalahandi still backward but several impoverished regions of the undivided district are now part of Nuapada, which hasn’t seen as much progress as Kalahandi.
Such indicators have pushed the Centre to have a re-look at the definition of backwardness. Ahluwalia said there is a need to consider whether an entire district or certain blocks within it should be considered backward. “The dynamics of measuring backwardness have to change with time,” he said.
The finance ministry has already constituted a committee under chief economic advisor Raghuram Rajan to redefine poverty and come out with a composite development index for states based on new parameters.