A day after Hindustan Times reported that at least 50 people died of chronic hunger in Orissa’s impoverished Balangir district, the state’s opposition parties demanded the resignation of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik of the Biju Janata Dal.
The Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party are planning to raise the issue in the assembly on Thursday.
Neither the chief minister’s office nor the chief secretary responded to HT’s repeated phone calls and e-mails.
Orissa Congress chief K.P. Singh Deo said Patnaik had no moral right to continue in office and he would urge party president Sonia Gandhi for a visit to Balangir by a central delegation.
BJP chief Jual Oram said, “Government officials are becoming more and more insensitive to people’s problems. Naveen Patnaik should resign.”
The deaths — of at least 50 persons of 30 to 45 years of age — occurred during the past two years in 20 villages of the district’s five blocks. HT visited these blocks and interviewed 16 families that had lost one or more members because “they didn’t have enough to eat.”
Revenue Minister Surya Narayan Patra, however, said he would order an inquiry only if he was given a list of people who had died.
But in New Delhi, Kalikesh Narayan Deo, BJD MP from Balangir, said, “It’s not easy for starvation deaths to happen… But since it has happened, there is a need to put an action plan in place.”
Another BJD MP, Bhartruhari Mahtab, said “Despite the NREGS (National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) migration of labour does take place in Balangir, leaving the aged and infirm in their homes with no one to look after them.”
The People’s Union for Civil Liberties — on whose public interest litigation the Supreme Court had set up the Commission on the Right to Food in 2003 — expressed shock over the deaths.
Pushkar Raj, PUCL general secretary, said, “We naturally expect the court to take suo motu cognisance of the HT report… otherwise, we will request the court to take up the matter to ensure that starvation deaths are immediately stopped.”
Earlier, the Orissa government assured the Supreme Court twice of taking measures to prevent starvation deaths, especially after deaths were reported from the Kalahandi-Balangir-Koraput belt in 1992.
After remaining under observation for 10 years, the government once again promised steps in 2007 to cover nine districts, including Kalahandi, Balangir, Koraput and Navrangpur.
(With inputs from Satya Prakash in New Delhi)