From Phanas Punji to Dana Majhi, nothing has changed

Published: 06th September 2016 03:57 AM  |   Last Updated: 06th September 2016 11:55 AM   |  A+A-


AMLAPALI/NUAPADA: Who really wants to be the ‘face’ of poverty? Dana Majhi does not. After two weeks of media inquiry, he’s had it. Like Sania Mirza in her post-match pressers, he reels off the data in a rat-a-tat-tat manner. He’s a man in grief, has three daughters to care for and a life to pick up. What kind of stardom is that anyway if a poor man’s grief-laden trudge on a country road is what it takes to remind a nation of its superpower poverty? Dana Majhi has reminded India that we used to know a woman called Phanas Punji in the 1980s. She was the Dana Majhi of Kalahandi in the Rajiv Gandhi years. Some websites still remember her as the ‘poster woman of poverty’, underlining our acute need for posters and photographs of women with lines of want and need on their faces.

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It was 1984 and Rajiv Gandhi was in the throes of ‘making a difference’, that decade’s code for achche din. Phanas Punji was found selling her 14-year-old sister-in-law Banita for Rs 40 and a saree. Her tale of destitution set against the grand theatre of the Kalahandi-Balangir-Koraput (KBK) region provided the nation an opportunity for self-flagellation and brought the Prime Minister down to this nether world for a photo op. In the present Dana Majhi saga, Phanas Punji is the flashback. She is now 55 years old and lives in Amlapali, now in Nuapada district which was carved out of Kalahandi in 1993.

But she isn’t pleased to be remembered. She bristles at any stranger bearing even the faintest resemblance of a journalist or cameraman who might approach her. “Go away. You guys take my pictures and sell them for a price while I continue to wallow in poverty,” she says.

Phanas lives in a house on the same Khariar-Kantabanjhi road where she was found hawking her sister-in-law back then. It’s a pucca house, built with money given to her under Odisha’s Mo Kudia Yojna. But her family has grown to six - son, daughter-in-law, their three children plus herself - and it’s a bit cramped.

Her old ramshackle hut still stands on the lot.She’s a cook at the local anganwadi and it pays Rs 2,000. But then, payments have not come for the last five months. Son Jagabandhu tills the small 2.25 acre patch of land left behind by his father but back-to-back droughts have killed his hope. He is yet to receive his agricultural input subsidy of Rs 6,800 for the loss of last year’s kharif crop.

This year, Nuapada has notched up a 22 per cent rainfall deficit. His application for a bore-well is pending with the local administration. The going is not good. In his thirties, Jagabandhu has grown philosophical. “I faintly remember being held up by the Prime Minister. It was a long time ago. My mother hoped things would change for better but they didn’t,” he says. 

Jagabandhu had to drop out of school after Class V as hopes of government support faded. The Punji family became overnight poverty celebs but things only got worse.

Joining the conversation sullenly, Phanas pours out her bile. “People got jealous of us and we were virtually cast out of the neighbourhood in Amlapali,” she says. Her husband had never been around, and after the poverty tourists went home, she became the sole bread-earner of the family.

The nation’s pity and the neighbours’ envy made things worse. A tubewell was promised and she applied for it. The papers were issued but someone cleverly hijacked it. “I asked and the authorities said the bore-well was for me but I never got it. I still don’t have one,” she says.

Jagabandhu and his wife Chanchala are working towards getting a motor pump.  If they raise Rs 30,000 the government will give a likely subsidy and the pump is theirs. The wife and he decided to save their NREGS wages and they’ve raked together Rs 4000 so far. “I don’t think we can ever manage Rs 30,000,” says Jagabandhu with a wry smile.

Other apathetic incidents

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Nuapada is one of the poorest districts in Odisha. At least 83 per cent of the families here live below the poverty line. Of them, over 50 per cent are tagged “very poor”, earning barely Rs 6,000 a year. Perennially drought-hit, Nuapada, Kalahandi and Balangir are witness to migration by the thousands every year. Phanas and her son have been spared that fate till now.

The latest district gazetteer calculates that one year of drought pushes the poor of Nuapada into 10 years of indebtedness. Even in a good year, a social function could deplete all of a family’s reserves and leave it in a food deficit.

The annual festivals are always a worry. Nuakhai, the biggest festival of western Odisha, is now here. It has to be celebrated with good food and new clothes to welcome the new rice of the season but for Phanas and Jagabandhu, it will be a just another day of struggle.

From mother to son, a generation has passed and the faces have changed on the posters. From Phanas Punji to Dana Majhi, this is Kalahandi reinventing itself, trying to make itself interesting to a nation that sends 65 satellites into space all at once.

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