The rising social and development index in Odisha appears to be a misnomer as large parts literally continue to writhe in the dark ages, strangled by superstition and blind belief that have propagated sorcery and witch-hunting. In a most recent incident two persons were beaten to death by a lynch mob on suspicion of practising sorcery in a village in the southern district of Gajapati. Ironically, the villagers employed another purported sorcerer to identify the two victims.
The police may have arrested more than a score of people including a sarpanch but the incident epitomises a malaise that runs deep. Only last month in another incident villagers fed excreta to a man, accusing him of practising witchcraft, in Ganjam. Social ostracism, torture, parading naked, feeding excreta and even lynching people on suspicion of being sorcerers or witches is common despite the existence of the Odisha Prevention of Witch Hunting Act, 2013. As many as 17 of the 30 districts are beset with the problem. The crime branch records show at least 154 witch hunt killings between 2010 and 2013, but the figures only reveal a fraction of the incidence as most cases are not reported. The issue is complex and problems manifold. Tradition and customs, lack of education, infrastructure, access to healthcare and justice for the marginalised tribal communities coupled with a serious neglect of the social evil by the government and law agencies has rather sustained and nurtured the practice even to this day.
For many tribal communities, sorcery continues to be the first recourse in illness and diseases, theft or justice. In case of wrongs, the blame is on persons suspected to be practising sorcery or witchcraft. Women are the worst victims. Though Odisha is among the few states in India to enact the law against witch hunting with stringent punishment, enforcement is lacking due to ignorance of policemen. A concerted effort alone can get rid of the evil. Strict enforcement of law should accompany a sincere effort to educate the tribals against the practice with the involvement of all sections. Strengthening of infrastructure is also a must.