Is urbanising rural Odisha sustainable and resilient?

August 21, 2023

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, especially young minds, and accelerate the modernisation process in rural areas.

The Odisha state cabinet, on 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.

For the Complete Article, See, Avilash Roul, Is urbanising rural Odisha sustainable and resilient?" Down to Earth, August 16, 2023.

Avilash Roul (Down To Earth, August 16, 2023)