Nine-year-old Ram Prasad Bariha saw his brother, sister and mother die within a month — September 2009. His father, Jhintu Bariha (42), followed a month later.
HT visited five blocks of Balangir — Khaprakhol, Belpada, Tureikela, Bangomunda and Muribahal — where the deaths have orphaned 300 children. Balangir is 340 km west of Bhubaneswar.
The dreaded Kalahandi-Balangir-Koraput (KBK) belt of Orissa is yet to come out of the starvation-migration-death cycle. It accounts for 71 per cent of the state’s families below poverty line (BPL).
The region spanning the southwestern tribal tract of Orissa came under the spotlight in 1986, when news of starvation deaths and distress sale of children in Kalahandi drew the attention of then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. Tens of thousands of crores have since been spent on development of the region. Some areas, such as Kalahandi, have turned around.
But several pockets in the KBK belt remain trapped in abject poverty. In Balangir alone, about 62 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, official estimates say.
But data available with the Union Rural Development Ministry says only 476 (0.2 per cent) of the district’s 240,001 households covered by the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) have BPL cards that give them access to subsidised foodgrains.
The district administration is still in denial, so is state revenue minister Surya Narayan Patra. He said, “I have received a report from the Balangir collector on Jhintu Bariha’s family. It says starvation is not the cause of the deaths.”
Dr Purnachandra Sahu, chief district medical officer, said: “Most patients here suffer from malnutrition and anaemia.”
Patra said he had no information on the 50 deaths but would initiate a fresh enquiry into the Bariha case. “My whole family died due to lack of food,” said Jhintu’s father Champe (79). But Balangir collector Aswathy S said: “Jhintu Bariha was paid Rs 10,000 before his death.”
The state advisor to the Supreme Court-appointed Commission on Right to Food, said in its September 2009 report: “Inadequate food intake was taking a heavy toll on the health of the whole family.”
But Aswathy claimed, “We did everything possible for the family under the government’s social security programmes.”
These programmes never really took off in Balangir. The Western Orissa consortium for implementing NREGS admitted in 2008 that the scheme had failed to deliver in Balangir.
The public distribution system also has holes. Distribution is done according to the 1997 BPL survey even though another survey was done in 2002.
Also, in the last 13 years, many have branched out of their original families after marriage, like Jhintu. But they aren’t entitled to PDS facilities. Besides, many migrated to other states in 1997 and were left out of the BPL list.
Food, Supply and Consumer Welfare Minister Sarada P Nayak blamed the Centre: “The 1997 list left out many.”