Two ‘more equal’ seats have a striking common ground in Odisha

Both Hinjili and Kantabanji are bound by the migration problem. In some parts of Ganjam, it might have been aspirational in nature but across the arid western belt, it is distress migration.
Physically-challenged Rupa Tandi who has been left behind by his family, sitting in front of his house at Karuanmunda village in Kantabanji
Physically-challenged Rupa Tandi who has been left behind by his family, sitting in front of his house at Karuanmunda village in Kantabanji(Photo | Express)

A distance of 335 km between two places can change many things. Two different geographies could mean different lives, livelihood, dialects, climate, cultural practices, food and a lot more. But, between Hinjili and Kantabanji, there are dissimilarities and equally, a common ground.

Hinjili, for all the attention it garnered over the last two decades and a half, is like a reluctant celebrity. A quaint little semi-urban place, it has grown over the years into a municipal area with modern amenities. But life moves at its own pace and no one seems to be in a hurry. The cacophony of the modern day poll campaign is absent too, so muted is the election buzz in the Assembly constituency that has elected Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik five times since 2000.

“It has never been loud in Hinjili,” says Dibya Ranjan Sahu, a banker who has lived there all his life. Sahu believes Naveen’s quiet dignity captures Hinjili’s spirit. His constituency and constituents have reciprocated that sentiment.

As you head into Sheragada block, driving past the sun-dried farm fields on the serpentine road, shepherds in the far horizon catch your eye. Vegetable farms and poultry rearing units do appear but they are few and far between. At Brahmanchhai gram panchayat, a small, dilapidated shop greets you right at the entry to the village. Shop-owner Krushna Pradhan is 70 and an affable man. Of his two sons, the younger one lives here and drives an auto-rickshaw for a living. The elder one works in Surat.

Brahmanchhai has about 1,000 families. Many households have a member or two who have migrated to Surat, Bengaluru and Mumbai in search of work and livelihood. Twenty-nine-year-old Bauri Mallick belongs to one such family. He works in Bengaluru where he makes a decent Rs 25,000 as a loader. “There is no shortage of work there. I came home for Dandakaali Jatra but stayed back for the elections. During these times, the employer offers higher wages to retain us,” he says.

Krushna is happy with the BJD government schemes, allowances and has no qualms about family members migrating outside the state for work. “Our children will go where they find good opportunities. What matters to me is Naveen Babu is a good man,” he says. Bauri likes it in Bengaluru though. He can bargain up to Rs 30,000 from his employer when demand for work is higher.

Someswar Sahu studies MBA and works part-time. He was born in Hinjili around the time Naveen first came to contest from the Assembly seat and has since grown up with the tales of the BJD supremo. He adores the chief minister but wants better prospects in commensurate with his qualifications and generational aspirations. “Only Bhubaneswar has grown and bears potential while the rest of Odisha does not. That must change,” he says pointing at the global IT and consulting firms which have set up shop in the state capital.

Over 330 km away, Banmali Palace is a plush hotel property on the edge of Kantabanji town of Balangir district. Over the last couple of years, it has acquired some reputation for playing host to destination weddings and attracts affluent families from across western Odisha. It represents Kantabanji’s paradox.

A 20-minute drive from the hotel takes you to Karuanmunda, a small village in Turekela block. Once there, knock on any door and you find a son, husband or brother away in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh or Telangana, working to provide for his family. Four months back, Tapan Chhura and his wife Tura left three of their teenage children back in the village and headed to Tirupati. Their eldest son, Khira (16) and youngest daughter Ria, all of six, have accompanied them to the brick kiln.

Tapan wants to come back for the elections but cannot get away from his employer. “Seven of us are in Tirupati. Could you help take us back home for the elections?” he called over the phone one morning a few days back. He seems desperate but it’s unlikely he can come home to exercise his franchise. Thousands like him - some records put the total migrant's figure at 2.5 lakh in the western region - may not get to take part in the biggest democratic festival of the world this time.

For all their geo-sociological dissimilarities, both Hinjili and Kantabanji are bound by the migration problem. In some parts of Ganjam, it might have been aspirational in nature but across the arid western belt, it is distress migration.

Now these two Assembly constituencies have one more thing to share - Naveen Patnaik. After the BJD boss chose Kantabanji to be his second Assembly seat, his decision triggered a wave of speculations, political and otherwise. Opposition parties like BJP and Congress, have been using migration as a political weapon against Naveen and the BJD, and the CM’s Kantabanji decision came at an opportune time.

For voters like Tapan Chhura, Naveen brings some hope of deliverance from the vicious cycle of distress migration. Elderly villagers in Karuanmunda expect change to happen under Naveen’s watch. However, opponents want answers. Santosh Singh Saluja, who as Congress MLA has represented Kantabanji four times since 1995, says the BJD must explain what it has done for the region. “Kantabanji has one of the highest BPL rates while the Turekela block embodies distress migration. Look at the irrigation coverage. The BJD is answerable for this region’s prolonged impoverishment,” he says before heading out for campaigning under the blistering sun.

Kantabanji has long been a Congress bastion. Of the last 10 Assembly polls, it has gone to the grand old party six times, including the 2019 election which Saluja had won by just 128 votes, beating BJP’s Laxman Bag. Bag, who has risen from a very modest background, appears confident about crossing the bridge this time. For him, the prime issue of unemployment and livelihood resonates with the voters of Kantabanji. “There are no industries in this region, educated and skilled youth are forced to migrate. In absence of irrigation, farmers head out in search of livelihood in other states,” he says. In a region which enjoys BJP’s sway, Bag remains optimistic.

However, Naveen’s entry might upset the whole electoral balance. In fact, the BJD decision to field him from Kantabanji is seen as a strategy to leverage the BJD supremo’s popularity in western Odisha. The Assembly constituency is almost the mid-point from Kalahandi, Nuapada, Balangir and Bargarh. If he can do an encore of Bijepur in 2019, the BJD would stand to gain from a stronghold of both BJP and Congress.

Karuanmunda’s Tapan Chhura would be happy to know if it turns out to be much more than an electoral strategy.

Siba Mohanty

Resident Editor, Odisha

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