Is urbanising rural Odisha sustainable and resilient?

Infrastructure development is necessary and urbanisation is a choice, but not at the cost of sustainability of rural areas

By Avilash Roul
Published: Wednesday 16 August 2023
Photo: iStock

Rural Odisha has been battling alcohol dependence for decades. The government of Odisha has launched a new scheme with the aim to cultivate spiritual sensibility in villagers, specially young minds, and accelerate the modernisation process in rural areas.

The Odisha state cabinet, July 9, 2023, approved several projects, including Ama Odisha, Nabin Odisha scheme, which aims to protect places of worship, improve infrastructure and preserve local heritage. 

In other words, the schemes plan to urbanise and spiritualise rural Odisha. However, the question arises whether these interventions are sensible, sustainable and suitable for rural Odisha at a time of multiple planetary crises of food, water, climate change, population growth and loss of biodiversity.

Deciphering the intentions behind these orchestrated announcements is not that difficult — the intervention is better for votes than being sustainable or sensible. 

Firstly, the objective of the government seems to be to keep the flock together for the 2024 general elections and probably a sooner Odisha Assembly election. Using Nabin instead of Nua as usually used in Odiya context for ‘new’ is a deliberate attempt for use in election campaigns even during the restricted implementation of the code of conduct, as it is pronounced similar to ‘Naveen’ — the Chief Minister’s name. 

Secondly, the scheme bypassed the secular aspect of our constitutional governance by announcing to promote, preserve and protect only the Jagannath culture and tradition of the state in every village to counter the Bharatiya Janata Party’s increasing consolidation of support in urban Odisha. 

But what about preserving and protecting religions and faiths of other communities residing in rural Odisha? Will the government go the extra mile to propagate the likes of Bhakta Salabega’s story — a Muslim devotee of Lord Jagannath? 

Third, the projects are aimed at filling the coffers of the party workers and their cohorts — contractors, suppliers, labourers, elected representatives from the party and salaried employees of the state government in Panchayats — to prepare for election expenditure. One would not be surprised to hear stories of rampant and systemic malpractices in the Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRIs) and related governmental agencies. 

Last but not least, the scheme will help retain the rural voting share of the present government, no matter the cost. 

Whatever the intentions behind such populist and grand schemes, the substance matters. Ama Odisha, Nabin Odisha is the new avatar of Ama Gaon Ama Bikash (Our village, our development) initiative that was active during 2018-2019, just before the 2019 elections. 

With a budget of Rs 1,250 crore, the programme aimed to bridge the gap in infrastructure development in villages. Of the 3,24,523 projects sanctioned under the Ama Gaon Ama Bikash scheme, 2,94,623 have yet to be completed, news reports showed. 

The guidelines for the 2019 scheme suggested local people, community organisations, public representatives, officials and other stakeholders of the Gram Panchayat would identify and suggest such required projects. However, the question again remains on whether this actually took place. 

The budget for the new scheme is three times more, at Rs 4,000 crore for all 6,798 Gram Panchayats in Odisha — Rs 50 lakh for each Panchayat. The repackaged mission’s primary objective is a step ahead in terms of infrastructure development and urbanisation while protecting heritage and preserving Jagannath culture. 

Let’s focus on infrastructure development and urbanisation. 

Critical appraisal

There are items under the scheme that are in the right direction, like providing urban facilities, infrastructure improvement in primary education, sports facilities, digitisation of rural society, banking facilities and empowerment of women and youth. 

However, 24x7 access to affordable health services, which is one of the primary requirements in rural areas, is not itemised. Merely improving and constructing infrastructure with many vacant positions in schools, hospitals and other essential services are useless. 

Another question arises  — is the government mindful of increasing its ranks in surveys by government think tank  NITI Aayog for achieving the United Nations-mandated Sustainable Development Goals? In 2021, Odisha was among the lowest five states.  

One of the biggest issues plaguing rural Odisha is the fast disappearing agricultural society. There are neither capital nor human resources. The agriculture sector is in distress and climate change will make it harder in the coming days. 

Paddy sowing was hit hard due to the deficit monsoon in June-July this year, but the grand scheme has no mentions of alleviating the agriculture sector in rural Odisha.

In Aul tehsil, Kendrapara district, around 7,000 hectares of land have been left vacant for more than 50 years without augmenting food production. It is equivalent to 18,000 acres of land area (Bheda as in the local language) encircled by the left embankment of the Brahmani river and the right embankment of the Kani and Kharasrota rivers, respectively. 

Similarly, to facilitate villages being self-sufficient in addressing climate change, rejuvenating and restoring micro-ecospheres in villages, generating income, and enhancing better health, the scheme must look into creating ‘fruit forests’ on degraded land by the villagers / communities. 

However, we must ask whether the scheme pays attention to such opportunities for raising the living standard in rural areas. 

Under the new programme, projects would be suggested or recommended by local people, community organisations, public representatives and other stakeholders. The PRI and drinking water department would approve and bring in consultants / agencies to execute the projects with Panchayat Samiti. 

For the first phase of approving projects, collectors of all districts were asked to submit the proposal by July 31, 2023. 

Using Mo or Ama as My or Our in every scheme and project sponsored by the government with taxpayers’ money seems to be a ploy for co-opting citizens and silencing critiques over a participatory approach or citizens’ ownership of a project. 

In 2017, Our Village, Our Plan scheme envisaged Panchayats undertaking planning for economic development and social justice. But how far has this been literally and figuratively adopted in approving the projects at the PRIs? Do the Panchayats have planners yet?

If Pattamundai municipality in Kendrapara district does not have a planner, what about the 6,798 Panchayats? Instead of the participation of the inhabitants of villages in the decision-making as claimed by the government, the governance of Odisha seems to revolve around the bureaucrats-consultant-party nexus model. 

How do we address the systemic corruption linked to this model? Transparency is one of the pillars in the much-hyped and so-called 5T action plan (equivalent to Odisha cabinet in decision-making). However, the department of Panchayat Raj and drinking water websites  does not have annual reports for 2018-2019, 2019-2020 and 2020-2021. 

Can the government share the details of projects so far completed in the PRIs at the Panchayat offices / blocks / tehsil easily accessible to citizens? 

The government claimed a web-based management information system (MIS) for monitoring the scheme and a dedicated app for sharing photographs before, during and after each project with GIS tagging shall be developed under the scheme. But again, who will monitor and evaluate the schemes and would they be government agencies? 

The government must devise an independent mechanism for monitoring and evaluation over corporatised escape mechanism like MIS. By uploading pictures before, during and after each project must not be considered an accurate monitoring effort. 

All the high-profile projects completed in 2022 are either locked, denying access to the public or in damaged conditions. Post-project accountability is zero. 

Take the example of the high-profile Mo Pokhari (My Pond) project in Sahira Gram Panchayat in Aul Tehsil. Photo sessions are not going to limit the possibilities of malpractice. 

The government must allow independent monitoring during the implementation of projects and independent evaluation after two years of physical completion of the project. Transparency begins with sharing information with all stakeholders as a priority.

The gap between rural and urban dichotomies is gradually waning, mostly unwittingly, in the present century. The Odisha government must consider policy frameworks for urban and peri-urban areas to control and address unmindful and maldevelopment at the earliest.

Infrastructure development is necessary and urbanisation is a choice, but not at the cost of sustainability of rural areas. 

Avilash Roul is Principal Scientist at Peri Urban Initiative Global, IIT Madras and Senior Fellow at Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict at New Delhi 

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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