There is only one SBI branch in Kashipur, and just to get into it, one needs to wait for an hour. Once you get in, it might take an hour or more to get the work done. Wednesdays are worse due to the weekly market. People travel from 5-25 km away to come to the market, and hence, visit the bank on the same day. There is no public transport to travel locally except on Wednesdays. The buses go up to thrice a day depending upon the location. Hitchhiking is the best way to go. Walking for 5-6 kms is not a big deal. In fact, it is referred to as ‘short distance’. Accessibility is a huge issue, be it fundamental needs or infinite wants.
A few villages are extreme outliers. One of them is Mandijhola. It is surrounded by high mountain ranges from all sides. The village has 60 houses consisting of nearly 400 people. They walk one hour a day just to collect water. The locals first got electricity in 2018. Agriculture is the main source of income. Every week, around 30 men walk to a jungle, to collect bamboo. They make different products out of bamboo and sell them in the Kashipur market. Thanks to the auto-rickshaws on the market day, they carry the bamboo products in it. The weekly income from this sale ranges between INR 200 to 600 per person. There is no internet connection in the village.
While speaking to people in their 20s, I got to know that they keep themselves engaged in agricultural activities throughout the day. It is limited to 7-8 months a year depending on the climate. A few times, they are not involved in anything as there is nothing to do. The land owners are already working on the piece of land they own. There are hardly any job opportunities. Most of them would agree to work on anything that comes their way. People usually travel to Visakhapatnam, Thrissur, Chennai, or Raipur for work. They would spend about a year or less there and come back to their homes to stay until the money is exhausted.
After nearly eating rice twice a day for the last five months, I asked people about their favorite food. It was rice. They were okay eating it thrice a day every day of the year. “Jo Mila wo kha lega hum“, is what they tell me. Even with chicken or mutton, the meal is incomplete if there is no rice.
The proportion of food taken during the meal is not related to the taste or liking. It is just meant for survival.
The dependence on the government is high. From education, hospitals, food (PDS), shelter (PMAY), jobs (MNREGA) to the construction of water tanks and fences around their farms, public intervention can be seen. It pays them to construct roads that will connect their remote villages to the outer world. Even for developing water facilities for their village, people expect to get paid over and above the expenses being borne by the government. A colleague said, “Unko pata hai agar hum nahi karenge toh koi aur aa ke kar dega”.
Similarly, in case of putting fences or growing cash crops on their own farms, they would do it only if they are paid for labor while all the other costs are given by the implementing agency. If they are not paid with labor, they would rather not have these facilities. Of course, not everyone behaves like this but they all rely on the state for all their small and big needs. There is no doubt that the government intervention is required as basic needs cannot be substituted with anything else and these places are highly inaccessible. But is it not making them too dependent? What is the ideal solution then? I do not have the answers. Setting up large businesses in the form of schools and hospitals may not be possible as people do not have the purchasing power to spend on such services.
The role of government is much wider and deeper that I thought. Before coming to India Fellow, I could only look at businesses as institutions. Back home in Mumbai, the roads are constructed by the government, and the local trains and buses are made quite affordable. But apart from these, I never understood where all the tax money went. On the other hand, here, in these remote villages, bare minimum facilities are still not available. Are the interventions making their lives better?
If one finds everything one needs, free of cost, one might not work for anything but food and clothing. If they have never stepped out of their villages and blocks, they would never know about the rest of the world. Even on traveling to a big city, they would find cars, buildings, and lavish hotels but would they be able to wrap their head around that world?
Looking at the history of last 30 years, of Kashipur and neighbouring blocks in Rayagada district of Odisha, two places caught my attention: Tikri and JayKaypur. Tikri is where the Utkal Alumina plant is located. People had shown resistance against the construction of this plant for almost a decade. The project was on hold for many years. The revolt went violent and three people were killed in the police firing. But today, Utkal Alumina mines the cheapest bauxite in the world. The venture is 100% export-orientated. The factory has given employment to a large number of people.
I happened to meet someone who was shot in his leg during the firing. He told that after this incident, even revolting people joined Utkal. It gave compensation and jobs to people who had lost their land and livelihoods. Tikri is as good as Kashipur block headquarters today. I do not know which side was right or wrong but the consequences can be clearly seen now.
JayKaypur/J.K.Pur has a different story. J.K. Paper mill is one of the largest producers of paper in India. The mill has been around for more than 50 years. They have a huge factory 10 km away from the district headquarters. The factory has led to the overall development of the place, so much so, that it is now named after J.K.
Is building businesses the way to go? Like it or not, money is one of the most important tools for overall development of an individual or a society. How free a mind would be if it had all the money to fulfil its needs? My bigger question, still unanswered, remains: What is the government’s exit plan?