The haunting image of a tribal man with the lifeless body of his wife on shoulder and an inconsolable daughter in tow has brought back the dark memories of Kalahandi that once epitomised Odisha’s impoverishment and collective callousness. It seems to have come full circle. And this time, Dana Majhi mirrors all that is wrong, not just with the administration but with society as a whole. The Melghar native’s 10 km journey on foot from the District Headquarters Hospital at Bhawanipatna to Shagada where he hoped to find a transport for his dead spouse has shaken the conscience of a nation which has a short memory.
The shocking pictures of a grief-stricken Majhi and his innocent minor daughter have exemplified the sheer apathy and indifference of people who watched the father-daughter duo take a long heartbreaking walk but did not come forward to help. Exhausted by the physical and emotional stress, the two would stop by once in a while to catch a breath but it stirred no chord in any bystander’s heart. The insensitivity of people is what must shame all. After all, it took a reporter of a local TV channel, Ajit Singh, to make the first call of assistance for an ambulance to the district collector and the health authorities but till that happened, everyone watched the whole proceedings with utter inhumanity. Sadly, Singh is now being accused of capitalising on Majhi’s misery. His ethics as a journalist is being questioned. Hardly anyone acknowledges his effort to organise an ambulance for the hapless. What a shame! How cynical have we become?
The less said about the pathetic administrative system the better. The first reaction of Kalahandi district authorities was to wash their hands of the matter that originated in the District Headquarters Hospital at Bhawanipatna. Within a day of the first inquiry, the local administration gave itself a clean chit and blamed Majhi for running away with his wife’s body as if he was a criminal.
Only a growing outpouring of shock nationally and internationally could bring the Naveen Patnaik administration to own up to its failure and seek a second probe. Worst of all, the district administration, in its bid to save its skin, picked up Majhi from his home as he was busy with the rituals for his dead wife and was probed for killing his wife who died of tuberculosis.
That brings us to the pitiable healthcare delivery system in the state which has historically been found wanting. Majhi was just another victim. The insensitivity of doctors and paramedic staff in peripheral government centres is common knowledge as the plight of the poor and downtrodden does not move them. Only money matters. There are incidents galore where the underprivileged have been left to fend for themselves.
Majhi may be a defining image of a malaise that afflicts Odisha. Two decades ago, when a hungry Phanus Punji sold off her minor sister-in-law Banita for a measly sum of Rs 40 to bring food to her plate, Kalahandi, known to be the rice bowl of Odisha, shot to headlines.
A few years later, starvation deaths prompted then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao to announce the launch of a special Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput (KBK) scheme. It seems nothing has changed despite thousands of crores of rupees pumped in to revitalise the region. The Naveen Patnaik government, which has been in power for 16 years, has doled out freebies for the poor one after the other but the fact remains that its populist womb-to-tomb schemes have failed to deliver in the absence of proper monitoring and implementation at the grassroots.
Its indifferent and an utterly inept bureaucracy and an insensitive local administration have ensured that most welfare programmes exist only on paper. Not long ago, the death of 19 malnourished children in Jajpur’s Nagada had blown the lid off the shambolic administrative efficiency. Charting out a path of growth through industrialisation and urbanisation will not just work unless Naveen gets out of his ivory tower and sets his administration in order.
The proposed Rs 90,000 crore investment that his government claimed to have garnered at the Bengaluru investors meet will mean nothing if Kalahandi continues to wallow in backwardness and Dana Majhis make international headlines.
Resident Editor, Odisha