In the hunger capital of India, hunger doesn’t live any more.
Lush rice fields have replaced the parched land along the highway; the NGOs that were once here in the scores are mostly gone and the once-sleepy town of Bhawanipatna in southwestern Orissa is now a bustling centre of commerce, with a hotel that even has an elevator.
Welcome to the unrecognisable new face of Kalahandi, the proverbial headquarters of hunger in the 1980s.
And much of the credit is owed to the Indravati Dam project, which began channelling water to the parched fields in 1998 and has since restored life to more than 50,000 hectares of farmland in Kalahandi.
The dam has made farming viable again, and created jobs for those in non-irrigated tracts who were otherwise forced to migrate to other parts of the country in search of work.
Remittances from those who migrated in the past to escape poverty has also added to Kalahandi’s new-found economic momentum, said Jagdish Pradhan, leader of a farmers’ group in western Orissa.
“Although the economic disparity has widened and the glass is still half empty, abject poverty is not widespread in Kalahandi anymore,” Pradhan said. “That is why you don't hear of starvation deaths any more.”
One indication of the growing prosperity is the five-fold increase in the number of rice mills in the region — up from just 30 a decade ago to over 150.
There has also been a surge in the sale of motor vehicles and construction material, and there is now a shortage of agricultural workers.
The change is affecting decades-old political equations in the region. Voters’ expectations have changed, as have their loyalties.
Not having enough food for the family is no longer a concern, so cheap government doles don’t net votes anymore.
The new demands reflect the new aspirations: A central university in Kalahandi; colleges for engineering and medical sciences; more teachers in schools; better prices for farm produce; and a railroad network to help improve business.
These issues will decide which way votes swing in this election, says Bharat Thakur, a social worker in Bhawanipatna, the district headquarters.
Already, the Congress has started sitting up and taking notes. The party has bent its own rules to field Bhakta Charan Das from Kalahandi, even though he lost in the last three elections.
With people expecting more than free grain, they wanted a candidate with his finger on the pulse and Das has been in the forefront of a number of popular campaigns in the area.
Battling anti-incumbency is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Bikram Kesari Deo of the royal family of this erstwhile princely state. Deo has won three successive terms since 1996.
“People generally voted for him because they felt he wouldn’t do anything bad, even if he didn’t do any good,” says Pramod Khamari, who owns Bhawanipatna’s showcase Hotel Bhagirathi, with ‘almost 3-star’ facilities.
“This time,” he says, “the sentiment is: Why should we vote for him if he can’t do any good?”
Nothing mirrors Kalahandi’s transformation better than Khamari's entrepreneurial success.
Back in 1992, he was a bus conductor and ran a small restaurant. As Kalahandi’s economy turned around, he ventured into transportation.
Three years ago, when UK-based Vedanta Resources began setting up an alumina plant nearby, he came up with the hotel.
Today, his hotel is usually full up, with visitors to Vedanta’s plant site accounting for more than two-thirds of the guests. And Khamari is investing Rs 60 lakh in another hotel nearby.
There was a time, Khamari says, when his makeshift restaurant at the bus station would see daily fights between the manager and customers who had eaten more than they could pay for.
“We fought over two rupees, three rupees,” he says. “Today the same customers are asking our waiters to keep the change.”