Rudradhar Nag, 60, a frail farmer from Deogaon in this district, is planning his umpteenth migration.
He began his journey for a livelihood in 1987, after one of many spells of drought. He had to feed a wife and three sons, so he boarded a train to work in a brick kiln in Andhra Pradesh’s Vijayanagar district.
This was a year after a young Rajiv Gandhi, then the prime minister, visited the neighbouring Kalahandi district, following reports of drought-induced starvation deaths and distress-sale of children.
An eight-hour journey across Orissa showed how India’s economic reforms — supposed to have transformed millions of lives and changed the country’s image in two decades — were anything but inclusive.
After huge spending in the Kalahandi-Balangir-Koraput area by the government and private companies, the Nag family’s struggle still continues. “My two-acre plot feeds us for barely four months,” Nag says.
His is one of many stories of poverty, debt, migration, low productivity and hunger.
During his early days as a brick kiln labourer, Nag earned Rs 3,000 a month — barely enough to survive. Today, his family, which has nine members, including his wife, three sons, a daughter-in-law and three grandchildren, earns about Rs 26,000 a month for six to eight months a year.
For the rest of the year, Nag depends on government dole. The 25 kg rice that he gets every month through the public distribution system lasts just 12 to 15 days.
In Deogaon, his shanty has not changed for decades. There is no drinking water or sanitation. But he does have a privileged view of the electricity lines running over his house.
India’s economic growth engine never planned a stop at Balangir. The reforms of 1991 transformed the economy into one of the world’s fastest growing and unleashed a construction boom, creating a huge demand for migrant workers. But farmers and farm workers from this region were left unattended.
Like them, millions across the country benefited little from the boom. As a result, even as the world has come to see India as an economic powerhouse, officials count nearly 400 million Indians living below poverty line.
“The fruits of economic liberalisation have gone into the hands of a few, bypassing the majority of the state,” said Narasingha Mishra, a former minister and Congress leader from Balangir.
Official figures estimate that only 3% to 6% of land is irrigated in the district, where nearly 90% people are still rural and depend on agriculture, according to the 2001 census.
Perhaps the most telling statistic is Balangir’s death rate — it has risen from 48 per 1,000 people in 2006 to 51 in 2009.
Mishra said the money allocated for projects was never spent and was sent back to the central government.
“In the first decade of liberalisation, most of the wealth was created for the middle- and upper-middle classes. It is only in the second decade that money came in for rural development,” said Kalikesh Singh Deo, an MP from Balangir.
A local farmer leader, Sudhir Parichcha, described the changes in the past 20 years of reforms this way: “If you are a farmer, you are happy. If you are a farmer, you are sad.”
(With inputs from Priya Ranjan Sahu)