“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception”- Aldous Huxley
A frail and diminutive woman wills her body along the muddy road with her back crouched, bent by the weight of sheer poverty. She treads along, her vacant eyes staring into nothingness. She carries a frail child in her arms. She will go on to sell that child. For a pittance of 40 rupees and 2 sarees. This has gone on to become the defining image of Kalahandi.
Even today, the name conjures up vivid images of starving people living in desolate conditions. This was the perception with which we proceeded for our 10-day district attachment in Kalahandi. Little did we know then that by the end of it, our perception was going to change.
We packed our bags and headed for the district preparing ourselves for the worst. Instead, we witnessed large houses and commercial establishments on widened roads that were well-lit with newly installed streetlights. Much to our surprise, there was even a multiplex with a 13-seater special theatre screening the latest Bollywood movies, something that cannot be found even in many metros.
The paradox of Kalahandi is that it has remained one of the most backward districts in the country, despite being endowed with a bounty of ecological, mineral, and cultural resources.
Over the next few days, as we traversed through the district, we could see lush green paddy fields on both sides of the roads dotting the landscape, where farmers were busy throwing liberal amounts of fertilizer onto their fields. In contrast to the parched earth that we expected to see.
The once prosperous region was brought down to its knees by a series of droughts and famines that had occurred in the 1920s. The final blow was the drought of 1965-66 that not only broke the economy of the region but also the spirit of the people. The lack of rainfall had resulted in continuous crop failure. The majority of the population, who were agricultural laborers found themselves without a job. The rich became poor and the poor became poorer and the poorest became destitute.
And then came the Indravati Project. Set up in the early 2000s, it has radically changed the face of the entire district. With a steady supply of water, agriculture started to revive. The erstwhile fallow land has begun to witness double-cropping of rice. The cultivation of rice has grown to such an extent that Kalahandi, derogatorily referred to as India’s Ethiopia, today has become the 2nd largest rice procurer in the state.
With paddy production going over the roof, rice mills have begun sprouting near the fields that has put the economic trajectory of the district on the up. So much so that today, people are migrating from the adjoining districts of Andhra Pradesh to cash in on the prosperity. After all, not everybody loves a good drought.
Kalahandi is home to the infamous Niyamgiri hills that has been subject to much controversy in the recent times. Home to the indigenous Dongria Kondh tribe amidst pristine forests, it is also a rich source of Bauxite- an industrially and commercially important mineral. Having already ingested several editorials on the issue, we were aware of the plight of the tribals. A visit to Vedanta Ltd in Lanjigarh enabled us to see the other side of the coin.
The Vedanta plant was an industrial behemoth with a large network of pipes, storage cylinders and huge tanks. Trolley cars were chugging along efficiently transporting the bauxite from one centre to the other. An aptly named digestion tank was breaking down the aluminium in it's belly. The entire plant was coated in a grim red colour, perhaps a reminder of the plight of the Niyamgiri people who reside on the hills that overlook the factory like a mute spectator.
Discussions with the officials covered various issues such as hindrances to development and over-sensationalization of the matter. It led us to conclude that there were concerns on both the parties involved and had there been some rational heads involved in the decision making, an amicable solution could have been arrived with everyone happier at the end of the day.
Situated at 72 km from Bhawanipatna, the district capital, lies the scenic block of Thuamul Rampur. Which also happened to be one of the most backward tribal areas in the district. Though the visit was a long winding one that had sapped our energies, it was definitely worth it.
Known as the Kashmir of Kalahandi for the snowfall it receives during the winter season, it was once a thriving tourist destination in the state. Continued neglect and lack of initiatives led to the tourists moving to better pastures. The erstwhile tourist complex has today become a dilapidated building, run down by the ravages of time, standing as a silent witness to the changing times.
There were two defining visits on that day- both to primary schools very close to each other and both so different from the other. The first one was an example of everything wrong with the education system. Absent teachers, broken blackboards, unfurnished classrooms, poor ventilation, cramped space, dysfunctional bathrooms, and an erratic power supply. As we walked through the school, we witnessed the portents of a demographic disaster.
With laden hearts, we proceeded to the next school which was a stark contrast to the previous one. With well-manicured gardens running along the boundaries of the walls and tall imposing statues of religious figures, the school was being run by an enlightened individual who took upon this institution as his life’s mission. Motivated teachers, robust infrastructure systems and a speckles environment, it was a model school for the entire region. We even got a chance to interact with the highly talented students. Particularly, a young tribal girl who had enthralled us with her sharp singing.
As I lost myself in her melodious song, there was only one question haunting my mind- what if there were such hidden talents in the other school who will remain hidden forever.
Traversing back on the long winding road, we realized that not everything is hunky dory; the recent Dana Majhi episode bears testimony to the fact. Nor is Kalahandi the same poverty-stricken district it was a few decades ago.
Kalahandi’s past was a dark one. The future, certainly is not.