Tens of thousands of students across Odisha broke into impromptu celebrations earlier this week when the state government announced subsidized loans for them from banks to pursue professional studies. Intended to benefit students with annual family incomes of less than Rs 4.5 lakhs, the beneficiaries were pleasantly surprised, but not taken aback.
In poverty-stricken Odisha where deprivation rules and hunger is rampant, chief minister Naveen Patnaik has made it a habit to surprise his subjects with periodic sops. The subsidized loan for students was the fourth-term chief minister’s seventh sop this year, and possibly his 50th in the last 15 years.
“It is a government of, by and for sops,” says Bijoy Mohapatra, a senior BJP leader and bitter critic of Patnaik. But the chief minister remains unfazed by the criticism and continues to give out doles to different sections of the people at regular intervals. He rolled out his most ambitious sop at the beginning of this year, when the government announced subsidized lunch for the urban poor for just Rs 5 a plate.
The Ahaar scheme was initially launched in five towns including the steel city of Rourkela, but its impact was instant. As people feasted on the hot meal of rice and lentil, Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (BJD) swept the urban body poll, prompting the government to extend the sop to all 30 district headquarters of the state.
Initially pegged to cost the state Rs 15 crore a year, Ahaar is expected to cost a lot more now following its implementation across the state. Opposition parties say public money is being squandered on non-productive populist measures, but the government insists it is all being done for people’s welfare.”We should not always think of costs,” points out ruling party leader Bijay Nayak.
Since he took over the reins of the state in 2000, Patnaik has displayed single-minded devotion in giving out doles. “He has some scheme or the other for almost everyone in the state,” says political commentator Rabi Das. There is rice at Re1 per kilogram for the poor, cash handouts for pregnant mothers and even financial assistance for cremation of the dead. The Odisha government also has schemes for giving out mosquito nets, bicycles, blankets and even umbrellas. “He has perfected the practice of sops into an art,” Das adds.
The slew of measures has helped Patnaik to stay on the right side of the popular mood and win successive assembly elections. For that matter, he even took care to win favour with Lord Jagannath, the presiding deity of the state, before this year’s car festival in the temple town of Puri. Ahead of the festival, he announced the setting up of a model school for providing free education to the children of the temple servitors, besides houses and insurance coverage of Rs 2 lakhs for them. Patnaik’s sops are meant to appease one and all, including the Gods.