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Development yet to reach Orissa's Niyamgiri Hills

Development yet to reach Orissa's Niyamgiri Hills

Poverty, lack of local teachers, paucity of schools, poor communications facilities and lack of awareness are the main reasons why it lags behind in education.

 Women from the Dongria Kondh tribe sit under a tree on the foothills of the Niyamgiri hills Women from the Dongria Kondh tribe sit under a tree on the foothills of the Niyamgiri hills
The country celebrated its 67th Independence Day last week. But for Sinhari Kadaraka, a resident of Parsali village, Kalyansingpur block, Rayagada district, Orissa, life has not changed much since 1947. Like most inhabitants of this tribal village - part of the gram panchayat near the Niyamgiri hills where Vedanta Alumina wants to mine bauxite for its plant at Lanjigarh, but is being resisted by the locals - she doesn't know her age. She has just walked six km along a rocky path - the only route available - to the panchayat samiti office. She had been sanctioned a grant of Rs 6,000 by the gram panchayat to create a drinking water facility for herself. Her village depends on a nearby stream for drinking water, but it dries up in summer. She has not yet got the money.  

Was there any reason for the delay? Speaking in Kui - an Oriya dialect - Kadaraka says the village sarpanch, also a woman, needs to attest her application but has not done so. "The sarpanch's husband recently joined the Maoists," she says. "The police are hunting for him, so the sarpanch has stopped coming to the panchayat samiti office. No matter how often I come, she is never available."

Kadaraka has now approached the panchayat samiti's grievance cell. Hers is a family of seven - her two sons, two daughters-in-law, a grandson and a grand daughter-in-law and herself. The elder son is a peon at a nearby school where salary payments are irregular. The younger one is in Kerala, looking for work. Kadaraka and her daughters-in-law collect forest products from the dongar (forests) on the hills near Niyamgiri to eke out a living.  

Officials at the block development office admit the area remains backward. Poverty, lack of local teachers, paucity of schools, poor communications facilities and lack of awareness are the main reasons why it lags behind in education. And because so few are educated, it is a tough task getting the tribals to participate in the electoral process, choose a sarpanch and so forth. The tribals depend mostly on agriculture, daily wage labour and collection of non-timber forest produce for their subsistence.

Since Maoists are active in the region, they have seen to it that road communication does not improve, so they can continue to evade the security forces' combing operations. There are no roads to 10 of the villages in the gram panchayat of which Parsali is a part. No contractor will submit a tender to build roads in this area. "All the other gram panchayats in Kalyansingpur block, barring Parsali and Korapa which are Maoist infested, have been connected by concrete roads," says Loknath Dalbehera, Block Development Officer, Kalyansingpur.

The tribals still prefer their traditional occupations over other forms of employment. "We have issued job cards under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme for all the 616 families in the Parsali gram panchayat," says Dalabehera. "But they don't want this 100-days guaranteed employment." Some other schemes, however, have been successfully implemented, he says: subsidized rice supply - 25 kg per month per family at Re 1 - under the public distribution system, the old age pension scheme and the Indira Awaas housing scheme.

Will Vedanta get to mine its bauxite? The Supreme Court's order on April 18 this year said it could be allowed only if the concerned gram sabhas of Rayagada and neighbouring Kalahandi districts gave their consent. "Accordingly, the state government has been holding gram sabha meetings in the area," says Dalbehera.