BUILDING ON GOOD THINGS
How Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik is empowering women and weakening Maoist rebels in Odisha with increasing success
Apart from schemes such as Mo Sarkar which has helped improve the quality of governance, the Naveen Patnaik government has earned praise for its good work in two distinct areas, one being empowerment of women through Mission Shakti and the other being its success in curbing the menace of left-wing extremism.
Mission Shakti has been a huge success. It has unleashed woman power in the true sense of the term. Thanks to the women self-help group (SHG) movement, members have not only become financially independent but are also contributing significantly to the economic growth of the state. From running mid-day meal (MDM) kitchens to manufacturing traditional handicrafts, women from underprivileged backgrounds have been engaging in a slew of activities and earning their livelihood with dignity. It has given them a purpose in life.
The election of Pramila Bisoi, the elderly SHG leader from Ganjam, to the Lok Sabha, was symbolic of how the movement has empowered women. She was handpicked by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to contest from Aska, the constituency he had represented in the parliament in the past.
Patnaik, who had committed himself to allotting one-third of party tickets to women, made an emphatic statement by making her the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) candidate from Aska. It was not only a step towards the fulfilment of his commitment but also a recognition of the excellent work that women SHGs are doing in the state.
Women SHGs had been active in the state even before Mission Shakti was launched but the programme imparted a fillip to the movement which has since transformed the lives of lakhs of women. These SHGs which were once engaged in making handicrafts and items of domestic use have now diversified their work. In the past, they have earned accolades for successfully running mid-day meal kitchens in different parts of the state and were also involved in water harvesting activities.
Now they are once again going to play a crucial role in the implementation of the MDM scheme which is a reflection of the government’s trust in them. Recently there was also a proposal to involve them in the collection of water bills from consumers in cities like Bhubaneswar.
For the Chief Minister, supporting these women SHGs was an investment that has also paid handsome political dividends. Women have been voting for his party consistently in the elections as they remain thankful to him for providing them with a dignified means of livelihood through Mission Shakti.
Some time ago a section of women were upset with him for coming up with an excise policy that encouraged the consumption of liquor. There were also movements by women against liquor which gathered support from anti-liquor lobbies. However, despite occasional irritants like this, women have been voting overwhelmingly in favour of his party because they remain beholden to him for making them self-reliant.
The SHG movement is also a recognition of the fact that women contribute significantly to the economy of the country and that with the right kind of support they can make an even better contribution and help take the country forward. Such initiatives are all the more important in a state like Odisha which has for long been associated with poverty and backwardness.
Thanks to the SHG movement, things have changed drastically in districts such as Kalahandi and Bolangir which were once part of state’s hunger zone and made the news frequently for incidents of hunger deaths and child sale. Now poor women in almost all areas of these districts are leading a dignified life by engaging in economically productive activities.
The other important victory of the Patnaik government has been on the Maoist front with sustained campaign by the security forces pushing the ultras on the back-foot. The huge seizure of arms and ammunition from a Maoist hide-out in Malkangiri’s SwabhimanAnchal recently has come as a morale booster for the forces engaged in a prolonged war with the ultras. This region, which was earlier called “cut-off” area because of its difficult topography and lack of road communication with the mainland, has been a Red citadel for the last several decades.
As director general of police Abhaya pointed out during his interaction with the media, this was the biggest haul of Maoist arms and ammunitions in the state in the recent past. The success followed extensive combing of the area in the wake of January 15 encounter between police and the rebels at Goiguda village. Security forces have stepped up their operation in the area where the government has launched an intensive development drive in the shape of construction of roads, bridges and panchayat offices. Combined teams of Odisha Police, BSF, CRPF’s CoBRA and Andhra Pradesh’s Grey Hounds have been taking part in the counter-insurgency operation in this belt.
The turning point for the security forces, which had limited success against the rebels in the SwabhimanAnchal in the last few decades, was the inauguration of Gurupriya bridge by the Chief Minister in 2018. The bridge connected the area with the district’s mainland by road for the first time after a gap of four decades when the region got cut-off from the rest of Malkangiri following the construction of reservoir and a hydel power project.
With boats being the only means of communication with the mainland around 25,000 people inhabiting 151 villages in nine panchayats of the Swabhiman Anchal endured untold hardships and misery. Neither did they have access to good schools and hospitals nor did the benefits of various welfare programmes of the government reach them. They found it nearly impossible to reach the district hospital in Malkangiri town during emergencies.
The government, too, found it hard to reach out to the people of the region with officials scared of entering remote villages where Maoists ruled the roost. The reputation of the area as a Maoist bastion had grown after the rebels kidnapped the then Malkangiri collector, R. Vineel Krishna from one of its villages in 2011. He was released from their captivity following hectic negotiations with the government that stretched for a week.
But the opening of Gurupriya bridge has drastically changed the situation. Now the shoe is on the other foot with security forces having an upper hand in their war against the radicals for the first time in the last four decades.