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With ever-improving governance, accountability, and all-round development, the Odisha story is shining brighter than ever before

Siddhartha Tripathy

Last month the Special Relief Commissioner’s office declared in an official statement that the number of human casualties resulting from lightning strikes in Odisha had reduced by almost a third from the previous year thanks to the use of early warning communication system.

Given that 465 such incidents had been reported during the 2017-18 period, with 401 each in the preceding two years, the figure of 320 lightning deaths in the corresponding 2018-19 period indeed represented a significant decline and a most welcome change.

The religious lot suggested that Lord Indra was kinder this time around. But, truth be told, the thunder god of Hindu mythology could not have garnered this credit had the State Relief Organisation and the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority (OSDMA) not taken the many steps they did meticulously over the past year to ensure the fewest possible number of humans in the state were struck by lightning.

First, the OSDMA developed an integrated decision support system (DSS) in collaboration with the Regional Integrated Multi-Hazard Early Warning System for Africa and Asia (RIMES), Thailand, which could keep a weather eye on potentially imminent  natural hazards such as lightning, heatwave, floods and droughts and send out timely alerts and warnings.

Then came the ‘Outdoor Alerting System’, an intelligent, automated system, which was installed in over a dozen blocks most vulnerable to lightning. Just before lightning strikes, or even otherwise during inclement weather, the siren installed in this cutting-edge system automatically goes off to alert people in the area.

However, that old saying – God helps those who help themselves – is making perfect sense for Odisha these days.

Take for instance the agriculture sector. Irrespective of how the Centre’s PM KISAN scheme works out in the state, whether it eventually includes the sharecroppers and landless farmers or not, the Naveen Patnaik government is making sure its Krushak Assistance for Livelihood and Income Augmentation (KALIA) scheme covers all those marginal sections of the farming community that need such benefits most desperately.

When BJP legislator Mohan Charan Majhi raised questions about the scheme and its implementation in the state assembly, Agriculture Minister Arun Sahoo could proudly declare that more than 51 lakh farmers have received financial assistance under the KALIA scheme so far.

Explaining that the total figure is comprised of 36.34 lakh small and marginal farmers and 14.70 lakh landless farmers, Sahoo said that the selection process for the remaining beneficiaries is going on.

Considering the state government had set the target under the scheme at 75 lakh beneficiaries, including 50 lakh small and marginal farmers and 25 lakh landless farmers, it has already progressed far beyond the halfway mark.

The minister also stated that state government has set aside Rs 5,501 crore in the 2019-20 budget and Rs 2,175.66 crore in the 2018-19 budget for the KALIA scheme, under which small, marginal and landless farmers receive Rs 5,000 in their bank accounts, and every beneficiary farmer gets

Rs 10,000 annually for two crops – Rs 5,000 each for kharif and rabi crops.

These swift results are thanks in no small part to Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s enhanced focus on accountability at all levels of his administration. He has been proactively persistent on this front.

In the middle of last month, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) President once again instructed his party’s MPs to submit bimonthly reports – from this month onwards – on steps taken to resolve problems faced by their respective constituencies as well as their Parliamentary performance.

In a letter sent to all the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha MPs of his party, the Chief Minister sought submission of written reports by the 10th of every alternate month so he could review the reports regularly and offer advice on how to work for the development and interest of Odisha.

Speaking of reports, the Justice M.M. Das commission of inquiry submitted its seventh interim report to the state government.

Investigating the multi-crore chit fund scam in Odisha, the commission furnished the details of over 100,000 small investors (those who invested less than Rs 10,000 in various chit fund companies) as it recommended that the government refund their lost money.

“In the seventh interim report, as many as 1,36,027 small investors have been identified during the inquiry from January 2019 to May 2019,” Justice Das stated, adding that the seventh phase of his inquiry involved 421 companies and around 1,931 investors had received their money back from the commission.

Six years since this one-man commission was set up, it has identified nearly 500,000 small investors who had fallen victim to the chit fund scam.

This progress is in sharp contrast to the way things have been going in neighbouring West Bengal, where the chit fund scam originated.

The chit fund scam is not the only scam on which the Odisha government has taken strong action. Some 836 officers in the state are facing the heat for their alleged involvement in corruption under various housing schemes in the state over the past two years.

Responding to written question from Congress MLA Santosh Singh Saluja in the state assembly, Panchayati Raj Minister Pratap Jena confirmed that the officials facing corruption-related complaints in the poverty alleviation schemes such as Indira Awas Yojana/Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (G) and Biju Pucca Ghara Yojana, were facing punitive action.

Some 79 officers have been suspended and 22 disengaged while draft charges have been framed against 35, Jena revealed. In addition, he said 268 officers had received show-cause notices for disengagement while explanation had been sought from 432.

In keeping with Naveen’s vision to make his state the undisputed sports capital of the country, the Odisha government is also working towards putting in place a new policy.

“A new sports policy will be introduced soon in the state. It’s in the draft stage and formulated in line with the national sports policy,” said state Sports Minister Tusharkanti Behera last month, in response to a question of BJD MLA Bhupinder Singh in the House.

Noting that Odisha does not have a sports policy at present, Behera explained that the goals of the Sports and Youth Affairs department were being realised so far through many schemes, guidelines and notifications.

The government has recognised 40 sports disciplines in the state, and sports associations receive special grants for organising national and international championships in Odisha under the aegis of their respective national federations.

The Sports Minister also stated that the government continues to reward sportspersons in recognition of their performance at international and national sporting events by providing them with jobs across various sectors.

Some of the brightest examples are ace sprinter Dutee Chand who landed a job in Odisha Mining Corporation and athlete Srabani Nanda who got employment in Odisha Hydro Power Corporation (OHPC), apart from nearly 100 other sportspersons who have joined Odisha police, Behera revealed.

While things are looking all win-win in sports, the same may not be said for the transport and infrastructure sectors where the Odisha government has been dealing with niggling challenges.

Last month Railway Board Chairman Vinod Kumar Yadav revealed the main reason behind the slow progress of important ongoing railway projects in the state.

Land acquisition has been the main hurdle, he admitted, adding that the Railways and the state government are working together to sort out the issue as soon as possible.

While he confirmed that the allocated fund for the projects of the state could not be fully utilised due to the land acquisition issues, Yadav revealed that the government has allocated more funds in the current financial year than the previous one in anticipation of a sustainable resolution.

Yadav also reiterated that funds will not be a constraint for economically viable projects what with the ready availability of Extra Budgetary Resources (EBR), should it at all be necessary considering the Union Budget 2019-20 has allocated Rs 5993 crore for the railway sector of Odisha.

In either case, Yadav assured, all important stations will be equipped with WiFi by this September and CCTVs by end of this financial year, with Bhubaneswar station’s main entrance all set to be redeveloped with the help of state government.

Meanwhile, Union Petroleum and Natural Gas Minister Dharmendra Pradhan has called on Railways Minister Piyush Goyal to run two independent trains – Bhubaneswar to Jagdalpur and Bhubaneswar to Junagarh – for the benefit of those living in Odisha’s Kalahandi district.

In his letter, which was released to the press, Pradhan wrote: “The present system creates many difficulties for the passengers especially from Kalahandi. Sometimes, passengers are not able to board the proper coaches due to the complications involved. I am also given to understand that if this proposal is accepted the train shall run in full capacity due to huge demand of connecting between Bhubaneswar, the capital city and Kalahandi.”

Almost a week before that, Naveen had made a similar request to the Union Civil Aviation Ministry.

In his letter to Union Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri, the Chief Minister stated that the passenger load was enough now to make a direct flight between Bhubaneswar and Dubai feasible.

“I would request you to impress upon Air India or any other Airlines to introduce direct international flight between Bhubaneswar and Dubai to meet the growing demand of people of Odisha for international travel,” Naveen said in the letter.

Thanks to rising industrial investments and tourist footfalls, Naveen explained, Odisha has been witnessing rise in passenger traffic from and to various global destinations.

Although many international airlines have expressed interest in commencing flight operations from Biju Patnaik International Airport for the route, the Chief Minister continued, restrictions on landing rights were deterring such initiatives and operations.

“In the absence of direct flights from the state to other international destinations like Dubai and Middle East countries, the passengers face immense difficulty to go to the desired destinations,” the Chief Minister pointed out, concluding that the problem can be resolved if air connectivity is established between the state capital and the commercial capital of the United Arab Emirates, which serves as a top international passenger transit hub.

Although Air India does have international flights from Bhubaneswar to the Middle East via New Delhi, this stopover option makes the trip a costlier and more time-consuming affair.

Now that the Chief Minister is pushing for it, many state watchers reckon that the Bhubaneswar-Dubai connection is just a matter of time. Their optimism is based on the outcome of a similar request that Naveen had made last year to Suresh Prabhu, the then Civil Aviation Minister, for a direct flight between Bhubaneswar and Surat.

Soon after Odisha parliamentarian and Surat MP Darshana Jardosh met the current Civil Aviation Minister with the same request, they returned with the news that the Bhubaneswar-Surat flight will indeed start operating soon, twice a week.

However, the biggest challenge at present seems to be on the law and order front. Incidences of missing children and rape of minor girls in Odisha, especially over the past few years, have been on the rise. This is an issue that the opposition has been relentlessly using over the past few weeks to put the ruling BJD on the backfoot.

On July 22, just a day after an eight-year-old girl was found lying unconscious in a garbage dump in Angul district with injury marks suggesting that she had been raped, and two weeks after another 17-year-old was gang-raped in Sundergarh district, the state assembly was a scene of raucous chaos with opposition parties demanding the resignation of the Chief Minister over the issue.

The House had to be adjourned several times by Speaker Surya Narayan Patro after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress called for discussion with the ruling regime regarding rising crimes involving minor girls and missing children.

They also sought details about the steps that the government was taking to deal with the issue.

During Zero Hour, Leader of Opposition Pradipta Naik said: “Many children have gone missing during the last four years. The government also submits a reply every time but no steps have been taken to curb the crime. The state government is not concerned about the safety of children. The government should clarify what is being done over the increasing incidents of missing children. The Naveen Patnaik-led government has turned a deaf ear to the rising atrocities.”

Congress MLA Narasingh Mishra joined in raising questions about the rising cases of rape of minor girls in Odisha and accusing the Chief Minister of not being concerned about the collapse of law and order in his state.

Not long after Mishra dramatically asked whether the five-time government gets voted to power for minor girls to be raped, followed by Congress MLA Santosh Singh Saluja putting the spotlight on the sexual abuse of an HIV-infected girl at a shelter home in Kalahandi district, the Speaker instructed the state government to inform the House about the measures being implemented to check such crimes.

If July 22 was disturbing at the House, the next day saw absolute chaos as both the BJP and Congress disrupted it right from the start of the question hour up until the evening.

Emphasizing on the need for the government “to act tough on the issue”, leader of opposition Pradipta Naik said the Chief Minister “brought shame to the state” by remaining absent in the House and not offering a clarification on the matter.

Following him, Congress Legislature Party leader Narasingha Mishra thundered: “If there is no debate in the House on the rising rape cases and missing children, then what is the meaning of running the House?”

The statistics look gravely concerning indeed.

Over the past decade, 17,528 rape cases and 13,246 murder cases have been reported in Odisha.

As per the official data that Minister of State for Home Dibya Sankar Mishra himself revealed in the House, the state saw 2,502 cases of rape reported last year, an increase from 2,221 rape cases in 2017. The trend continues, considering 937 rape cases have been reported until May this year.

As regards murder cases, the figure was 1378 last year and 563 up to May this year.

However ghastly these figures might seem, Odisha’s crime rate is about the same as the national average. Among the 36 state and union territories that India is comprised of, Odisha ranks 18 in terms of recognisable crime rate, as per a report published a couple of years ago by the National Crime Records Bureau.

On the top of that list are Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP is in charge– being in power at the Centre as well as in UP.

Yet the BJD government is highly unlikely to be using these facts as excuses in its defence. If the past is any indication, it is going to step up efforts – if it has not already – to tackle this challenge. Heads are likely to roll wherever the administrative machinery is found to be not up to scratch.

Naveen has been repeatedly voted back to power since the turn of the millennium because he has largely been successful in satisfactorily tackling the challenges that his state, his administration, his party and – most importantly – the people of Odisha have faced.

The BJD’s convincing victory in the Patkura constituency (where elections had to be postponed twice – first due to the death of BJD candidate Bed Prakash Agarwalla in April, and then later again due to cyclone Fani in May) late last month once again indicated the enduring trust of the Odisha public in their five-time chief minister.

Patkura was expected to be a tightly contested two-way prestige battle, considering veteran politician Bijoy Mohapatra (former BJD stalwart and Naveen’s bête noire) was in the fray with full force of the BJP behind him. But BJD candidate Sabitri Agarwalla bagged 96,017 votes, an impressive 17,920 votes more than Mohapatra’s 78,097. This effectively ended what is expected to be Mohapatra’s last bid to enter the Odisha Assembly, where he has not been able to step in despite repeated attempts over the past two decades.

With the elections done and dusted, his prestige intact and popularity soaring, the Chief Minister can focus on taking steps to make the state a safer place, particularly for its women and children. Until then, this noise on the law and order front will – at worst – serve as a jarring blip in the Odisha shining story.

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