Kalahandi, Odisha, is a name that is almost ever-present in the books of development as a district in India that is so socially, economically and politically backward that there still exist ‘hunger-deaths’ and schools with no teachers. Swasthya Swaraj, a primary health organization working with 79 villages in 7 Gram Panchayats in the tribal-Dominant Thuamul Rampur Block in Kalahandi, and has been collecting primary data since its inception. While the area under study is small, it can be seen as representative of the larger region that surrounds it, and along with anecdotes, we can try to paint a picture that describes the current situation. So just how bad is it?
In 2015-16, the positivity rate for malaria was 52%. That means that one in two people who had fever and were tested had Malaria. It has come down to 13% in 2020. Only 25% of all deliveries happen at institutions, and 33% of all deliveries are high risk, and can result in death. 63% of all children are moderately or severely underweight (weight for age) and 78% of all children are stunted (height for age). 26% of all children are wasted (weight for height). Maternal mortality rates are at 302 per 1,00,000 live births and Under-Five mortality rate is 96 per 1000 live births.
Out of the 79 villages that come directly under Swasthya Swaraj’s projects, tarred roads only connect to about 8 villages, and government and private buses only pass through 5. During monsoons, 35 villages are almost completely inaccessible due to rivers, landslides and floods. Only about 5 villages have access to telecom facilities, while around 15 do not even have access to electricity.
Gender and equality
There is a big observable difference in social and economic status between the two prominent SC and ST communities. While Panchayat seats are reserved for STs, decision making is mostly in the hands of the minority SC communities. Higher positions in Aanganwadis are also dominated by SCs and often rations and other resources are redirected or sold before they can be distributed. Furthermore, literacy levels in ST women are significantly lesser than in men, along with a wage gap which reflects in similar work and tasks. The classic case of Sarpanch-Pati in seats reserved for women is also observed in the area, however cultural norms have preserved a higher decision-making power for women in ST households than the average household.
The majority of the tribal population is engaged in subsistence agriculture, with few from the SC population engaging in small businesses. Even if the farmers want to sell their crops, they receive one of the lowest rates in India, and with risk of droughts, many opportunities are washed away. Ownership of land under forest rights is also low, while mining agencies are eyeing the mineral rich hills on which the population resides. Young individuals from numerous families are forced to migrate to different states and often face social and economic discrimination.
Almost no schools function in our project villages. Teachers attend schools once or twice a year, while children enrolment rates are very low. Of the 1380 children belonging to 7-14 age group in Kerpai and Silet Gram Panchayats in the block, and enrolled in the schools, 66.8% are illiterate. 17.9% have studied up to class 1-3, 13.6% have studied class 5-7. Only 1.8% of the population of Kerpai Gram Panchayat (total population 5340) have studied up to class 8-10. The schools are present at an interval of every 3- 4 kilometers; however, they remain as ghost structures with no activity.
Environment and energy
Deforestation is happening at a large scale due to increase in population and commercialisation of farming, and at a rate that is not sustainable. Cash Crops which are not suitable for the geography such as Eucalyptus are being cultivated by few large land owners without any regulation. Deforestation is also leading to a more land-slide prone landscape. According to many farmers, extreme weather events are becoming more frequent. Over that, the area has an abundance of coal deposits which are under consideration for mining activities. It can lead to subsequent displacement and destruction of environment.
Heavily funded and popular schemes such as the ICDS, MGNREGA and PMAY-G rarely translate into the deeper sections of the region. Poor accessibility and lack of infrastructure paired with minimal human resource ensures that the schemes are only used by those who lie at the top of development ladder. Roads are rarely constructed; however, banners of ongoing and finished contracts are up for display just to remind the people about the blatant corruption.
Most of these claims are not backed by data, as almost none is available. However if one visits, or even talks to people in the region these discussions come up more often than usual. Health and education data are backed up by research done by Swasthya Swaraj, and the distressing circumstances are in coherence with the argument that almost all areas are severely lacking support and security. It is down to a level that a Scheduled Caste community can be seen discriminating.