16 Aug 2019

Cover Story


Despite the Talcher coal mine tragedy and the protracted trouble in its aftermath, the Naveen Patnaik government has continued delivering the goods for Odisha

Siddhartha Tripathy


This month started off on a somewhat grim note for Odisha due to something that happened in the state towards the end of the previous one.

Late in the evening of July 23, just before midnight, there was a dreadful accident at the Bharatpur open-cast mining project in the Talcher Coalfields of state-run Mahanadi Coalfields Ltd (MCL).

A strata collapse led to a massive landslide in the mine, killing at least three coal miners and injuring at least nine. By the evening of July 26, when the bodies of three coal labourers had been recovered and search was under way for a fourth one trapped under debris, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik announced an ex-gratia payment of Rs 5 lakh each to the next of kin of those who died in the accident.

The next day V.K. Singh, manager of the project, was suspended for his alleged negligence that led to the accident. In the meanwhile, MCL directors monitored the rescue operation conducted by the NDRF and the MCL mines rescue teams as a probe was launched to ascertain and detail the reasons behind the accident.

But that did not stop the locals from continuing the strike they had begun from the day of the unfortunate incident. They had a few specific demands: a safety inspection of the entire Talcher Coalfields; a high-level probe into the causes of the incident; compensation of 3 crore and a permanent job in MCL for a family member of deceased labourer.

With MCL calling those demands unjust, the agitation was on its ninth day as of August 2. By this time, a halt in coal production and supply from MCL’s Talcher Coalfields – where an average of 2.1 lakh tonne coal is produced daily during the rainy season – had resulted in losses exceeding Rs 300 crore to the company and exchequers of the state and the Centre.

According to an MCL statement, the halt in operations of the mines not only dealt massive losses to the company, but also affected the livelihood of the 15,000 workers of MCL, 12,000 contractual workers, 10,000 truck drivers, apart from the businesses of around 5,000 businessmen.The company statement also pointed out that the strike has affected the earnings of around more than 40,000 families of Talcher district.

Significantly, the coal shortage also badly affected power generation at NTPC's 3,000 MW Kaniha power plant and the 460 MW Talcher Thermal Power Station in the state.

"The prevailing situation may result in acute shortage in power supply to Odisha as well as other states such as Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and the North East states as well as to the states of southern parts of the country," an NTPC statement said.

As for the MCL, with agitators preventing any safety check and regular maintenance from happening, fears rose that such forceful closure of the mines, especially during the monsoon season, would make them increasingly vulnerable to fire accidents and electrocution.

Fortunately, after nearly a fortnight-long labour strike, a middle ground was finally reached between the protesters and MCL as the company offered each of the deceased family a sum of Rs 30 lakh and agreed that a person from deceased’s family would be provided with a contractual job first, which will be converted into a permanent job a month later.

Amid these bitter circumstances the news of Rasagola, one of India’s best known delicacies, getting the Geographical Indication (GI) tag in favour of Odisha came as a sweet relief. (In short, the GI tag is a name or sign used on products identifying them as having a specific geographical origin and possessing qualities of that origin.)

The news was all the sweeter because it marked the conclusion of the state’s long drawn out battle with neighbouring West Bengal over the origin of the famous sweet.

Odisha had moved the Chennai-based GI Registry for its version of the delicacy after West Bengal was awarded the GI tag for its variant 'Banglara Rasagulla' in November 2017. Odisha had been claiming that the famous delicacy originated in the state years ago as it was first served at the Lord Jagannath Temple, the 12th-century shrine in Puri. The word Rasagola had been recorded in the 'Dandi Ramayana', written by Odia poet Balaram Das way back in the 1400s. In comparison, the Bengal Rasagola was introduced by Kolkata-based confectioner Nobin Chandra Das in 1868, as per Jagannath Cult researcher Asit Mohanty, who had submitted a report on the matter to the state government.

With the GI Registry finally granting the GI tag to 'Odisha Rasagola', the delectable ball-shaped syrupy sweet was registered under the Geographical Indication of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act, 1999.

Even Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik openly expressed his joy over the development.

"Happy to share that #Odisha Rasagola has received GI Tag in Geographical Indication Registry. This mouth-watering culinary delight made of cottage cheese, loved across the world, is offered to Lord Jagannath as part of bhog since centuries," Patnaik tweeted.

However, he was doing a lot more than that in the mean time to enable Odisha to deal with far bigger – and real – challenges the state faces.

The Odisha government greenlighted on August 6 seven investment proposals worth a total of Rs 1,036.39 crore, which will create almost 2,800 jobs. The proposals – approved in principle by State Level Single Window Clearance Authority (SLSWCA), held under the chairmanship of Chief Secretary Aditya Prasad Padhi – were from various sectors such as tourism, food processing, metal, plastic and logistics.

The next day, the Chief Minister launched 22 new projects, worth Rs 4,461.42 crore, which will create more than 9,000 jobs.

"I congratulate all the companies on this milestone and assure everyone of complete facilitation support from the state government. These projects will usher in the next era of industrial growth in the state and will contribute towards the vision of an industrially prosperous Odisha," Naveen said.

Stating that Odisha aspires to be one of the nation’s top three investment destinations, he added: "Towards achieving this vision, we have devised the '5T' strategy in which transformation goals will be achieved through teamwork, transparency and technology enablers in a time-bound manner."

He also revealed that the strategy was already yielding positive results on the industrial growth front.

"In the past 20 months, we have undertaken groundbreaking and inauguration of over 120 industrial units with an investment of Rs 92,686 crore in the state creating employment opportunities for over 1.2 lakh people," the Chief Minister said.

All of this is also part of a long-term plan for sustainable growth, evident in Industries Minister Dibya Shankar Mishra announcement the following day that the Odisha government is developing a Vision 2030 for downstream industries to achieve more than 50 per cent value addition to the primary metal produced in the state.

Addressing more than 60 steel manufacturing companies, the Minister said the Naveen Patnaik administration was taking unique initiatives to provide skilled manpower for all industries setting up in the state. The government is also committed to providing an ecosystem conducive to the setting up and expansion of industries and manufacturing facilities.

The Biju Janata Dal boss has also reasserted his government’s zero-tolerance to corruption – arguably the primary hinderance to economic growth and development anywhere in the world – during a discussion on Home and General Administration departments in the Assembly.

"In 2019, the state vigilance has registered 137 criminal cases, including 26 for possession of disproportionate assets, 67 relating to demand and acceptance of bribe and 44 for misappropriation of public fund," Naveen noted, adding that the overall law and order and crime situation in the state had remained largely under control.

In response to opposition criticism of his government over its failure to check the rising incidences of rape of minors and abduction of children, the Chief Minister stated that specialised investigation units for dealing with crimes against women have been constituted in 29 districts, apart from  women and children desks and integrated anti-human trafficking units across the state.

He also assured that all rape cases involving minors were being treated on a priority basis by being earmarked for improved monitoring of investigation and increased conviction rate.

Naveen also recently announced a new name for the state secretariat – Lok Seva Bhawan – just so a message is sent loud and clear to public servants as well as the common people: He wants his government to be all about serving the interests of the people of Odisha.

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