It has not been all smooth sailing for the new BJD government in Odisha, but there is little stopping Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik from delivering the goods
Running a state is never easy. Biju Janata Dal supremo Naveen Patnaik might have felt so earlier this month in his latest innings, his fifth straight term, as the chief minister of Odisha.
The arrest of Saroj Kumar Meher, the newly elected BJD MLA of Patnagarh, late last month on charges of assaulting and forcing junior engineer Jaykant Sabar of the Public Works Department to do sit-ups in full public view – for allegedly lousy road construction work in the constituency – reflected poorly on the party and threatened to dent its popularity, according to some political observers.
The unfortunate incident had taken place much before, early last month, but snowballed into a raging controversy after its video footage went viral in the social media and was soon broadcasted by many news channels. This seemed to give a new lease of life to some of Naveen’s critics and political rivals who promptly began projecting the BJD as an party of bullies.
The fact that the government ordered a probe into the matter, or that the police arrested Meher not long after the JE’s wife lodged an FIR against him, or that the accused MLA got no apparent support from higher-ups within his party and spent a dozen days behind bars before receiving a conditional bail recently, seemed to be all but lost on those vociferous detractors.
This was not the only issue, though, that was bad news for the BJD.
A few cases of pregnancies of tribal girls in a government-run SC/ST residential school in Bhubaneswar led to the Odisha Assembly erupt with unruly uproar by opposition members.
Urging Speaker Surya Narayan Patro to call on the Chief Minister for a fair probe into the matter Congress Legislature Party leader Narasingha Mishra thundered: “Had the incident taken place in cities like Delhi or Mumbai, it would have shocked the whole country.”
Mishra said that the officials concerned were “trying to suppress the matter” and those girls were being sent back home. Stating that the initial medical reports, in which four girls had tested positive, were in “surprising” contrast to the subsequent reports that showed three among them testing negative, he demanded that a report on the probe into the matter be tabled within 10 days.
Deputy Leader of the BJP Legislature Party Bishnu Charan Sethi also joined in. Claiming that as many as 117 cases involving exploitation of tribal girls in state hostels had already been registered, he sought a response from the Chief Minister on the issue.
Meanwhile, Naveen was seen being busy with numerous other things.
Starting with matters concerning Odisha’s interests at large. At the beginning of this month he shot off a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, seeking his urgent intervention on the Polavaram Project issue.
“If the project is allowed to be completed before the resolution of all the pending issues, it will cause permanent injury to the interest of the state of Odisha and its people,” Patnaik said in the letter, which was written after the Union Environment, Forest and Climate Change Ministry withheld the "stop work order" for two more years – a step that was seen to be in disregard of Odisha’s concerns.
"I would like to reiterate that if the construction work on the Polavaram Project is not stopped forthwith, it will have immense adverse impact on the people living in the tribal district of Malkangiri in Odisha," the Chief Minister’s letter stated.
Alerting the PM in the letter that the large-scale submergence of tribal areas would have irreversible consequences arising from mass displacement of primitive tribals and destruction of large tracts of fertile agricultural lands and forests, the Chief Minister even suggested that the Polavaram Project issue could be resolved by means of the Godavari Water Disputes Tribunal order.
Four days later, Naveen once again pushed forward his state’s cause, as he shared his views on the NDA government’s Union Budget 2019-20, tabled by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in the Parliament earlier that day
While the Chief Minister welcomed the medium to long-term vision of the Union government, he stated that the vision needed “to be backed by commensurate budgetary allocations”.
Naveen praised the Budget for allocating more funds towards health, education, skill development, drinking water, livelihood mission, women and child development sectors, but he also pointed out that the Central government’s imposition of cess and surcharges reduced the resources available to the states.
The BJD boss also expressed concern over the reduced allocation for Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), core schemes for SC, ST and other vulnerable groups and pension under the National Social Assistance Programme.
Even as he welcomed the Modi government’s decision to spend more than before on Railway projects, Naveen added: I hope the railway projects in Odisha would be fast-tracked with adequate allocation. However, reduced allocation for national highways would adversely affect inter-state connectivity.”
The Chief Minister also said the Modi government should have “enhanced the quantum of assistance to farmers under the PM KISAN scheme on par with our KALIA scheme” as well as brought landless labourers and sharecroppers “in its fold”.
His criticism of the Union Budget seemed all the more genuine in view of his government’s annual state budget, released a few days earlier, which placed emphasis on agriculture, women empowerment and cyclone Fani restoration efforts.
Naveen’s prime focus on agriculture and farmer welfare was evident when Odisha Finance Minister Niranjan Pujari presented a separate budget for the agriculture sector. With an outlay of Rs 20,714 crore, the agriculture budget made for almost 15 percent of the Rs 1.39 lakh crore state budget.
In the past couple of months itself, Naveen has had plenty to show in terms of his administration’s achievements and his vision for Odisha.
On the sports front, the Naveen Patnaik government signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) early this month for hosting the upcoming 21st Commonwealth Table Tennis (TT) Championships. Scheduled to be held at Jawaharlal Nehru Indoor Stadium in Cuttack from July 17 to 22, the championship will be a welcome addition to the already impressive list of international sporting events that have taken place in Odisha.
"Today's MoU signing … is an important step for us in promoting sports and especially table tennis in the state," the Chief Minister said. Given that some of the world’s best players will be taking part in the championship, Naveen expressed hope that the event will go a long way in promoting table tennis across the country.
On the occasion, TTFI advisor Dhanraj Choudhary acknowledged that Odisha has earned a global recognition for hosting top international sporting events. "We are thankful to the state government for organizing the six-day Commonwealth Table Tennis Championships. We are confident participants and spectators will leave with a positive experience."
A positive experience is exactly what Naveen advised his party’s debutant MLAs to ensure for the people of Odisha. During a breakfast meeting organised at his residence early this month, not long after the Patnagarh incident, the BJD chief told the new legislators that they needed to “work hard for the welfare of the people without any discrimination” in order to justify the public’s trust in them and the ruling party.
As part of his “guru mantra”, Naveen asked his MLAs to serve people with honesty, simplicity and humility. He also advised them to avoid flaunting their personal wealth and luxurious lifestyles, as the average Odia would not be able to relate to them, which would in turn have negative implications on their popularity and political career.
Many political observers have noted that Naveen is only preaching what he has been practising for decades. It is no secret that his Spartan lifestyle, dignified demeanour, uncompromising work ethic, and squeaky-clean reputation for honesty have been the veritable building blocks of his phenomenal political success.
A few days later, he reiterated a similar message for his Council of Ministers. While chairing a council meeting in the state capital, he gave five mantras to his ministers to improve the performance of their respective departments.
First, he suggested that they tour the state extensively to remain updated about the ground-level performance of their departments. “Make surprise visits to the different offices and institutions under your department. This will expedite the delivery of government services meant for the people," the Chief Minister said, adding that it is important for the ministers to meet the people, learn about their problems and gather direct feedback from beneficiaries of various government services.
Stressing once again on 5Ts – transparency, technology, teamwork, transformation and time – for improving the existing system and governance, Naveen also directed them to place emphasis on computerisation in their respective departments for enhanced transparency and efficiency.
Displaying the quintessential qualities of a great leader, Naveen has also always publicly acknowledged – and often rewarded – high performance within his administrative machinery.
This was seen most recently on July 9 when Naveen released a short documentary film on the work done by Odisha police during Cyclone Fani.
He did it for two apparent purposes: One was to applaud the state police personnel for all that they did before, during and after the cyclone devastated many parts of the state on May 3 this year. Two, and perhaps more importantly, to put in place something of an official reference guide on disaster mitigation for police officers and others.
The Chief Minister himself shared how the police carried out a massive awareness exercise among people in at-risk areas through the use of loudspeakers, megaphones and other means a day before the cyclone hit the state. He talked about how the police had helped evacuate almost 1.5 million people from such areas to multipurpose shelter homes set up by his government.
In the aftermath of the cyclone, Naveen continued, the police played a key role in everything – from clearing up the blocked roads, managing law and order, relief and restoration efforts to facilitating the provision of drinking water and medical services.
He made special mention of the way the police distributed cooked food under its “Karuna” banner to more than 100,000 people in different parts of the Puri district that had borne the brunt of Fani.
The magnitude of the natural disaster and the efficiency of Naveen Patnaik government in dealing with it was globally acknowledged. This was reflected in the US$16 million that was granted to Fani victims in Odisha from Hong Kong's Disaster Relief Fund. A spokesperson of the Special Administrative Region (SAR) government in Hong Kong revealed that the grant was aimed at benefiting over 76,000 people in the affected areas
Recently, Naveen addressed another matter needing humanitarian intervention when he approved the state culture department’s proposal to provide Rs 10,000 per month in financial support to Padma award winners.
It was actually Naveen himself who – after going through some news reports about the poor financial situation of some Padma awardees – had instructed the department to look into the matter and propose a solution.
On the health front, too, the Naveen Patnaik government has just come up with a comprehensive plan to address a major, longstanding issue affecting Odisha.
State Health Minister Naba Kishore Das recently revealed that a new health policy will be put in place to prevent the brain drain and shortage of doctors here.
"Under the new health policy, steps will be taken to retain the doctors who are moving outside the state after completing their education on state government's expense," Das stated, adding that enough incentives will be provided to such doctors to retain them in Odisha.
Within two years of the implementation of this new policy, Das assured, there will be no shortage of doctors in the state as it would produce about 1,500 of them annually from medical colleges cross Odisha. Apart from revealing that new medical colleges would come up in Talcher, Puri and Sundergarh soon, he also announced that the Odisha government has decided to create 3,000 doctors' posts in the near future so quality health care facilities may be available to all across the state.
Another historically significant part about the new health policy is that it will be developed in the most democratic manner possible, based on suggestions collected by the health department after due consultations with the people of the state.
The government on its part, of course, will do all it can to make Odisha a doctor-surplus state, Das assured.
Naveen has an equally grand vision for the Odisha’s industry sector and the overall economy. This was articulated in the recently released vision document titled 'Economic Possibilities for Odisha - towards a One Trillion Dollar Economy'.
While releasing the report, jointly prepared by the JSW Group and PwC India, the Chief Minister said resource-rich Odisha was well on its way to becoming a trillion-dollar economy through its investment-friendly policies, infra connectivity and skilled manpower.
Expressing optimism that Odisha will play a pivotal role as a national manufacturing hub in steering India’s economic growth, Naveen averred that the Odisha’s goal of becoming a trillion dollar economy will be powered by mineral-based industries and other sectors such as agriculture, food processing, creative industries, MSMEs, women entrepreneurs.
Seconding that perspective on the occasion, JSW Chairman Sajjan Jindal called Odisha as the “hidden gem” of India, what with the competitive edge it has over other states and its potential to become one of the world’s major export capitals for metal products.
Naveen has also been leaving no stone unturned to maximise the potential of what has been a traditionally overlooked sector in Odisha: tourism.
A few days after Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced in her Budget speech about the development of 17 Iconic Tourism Sites in India into world-class travel destinations that could also serve as a model for other tourism sites across the country, and soon after learning that no place in Odisha had been included in the list of places prepared by the Centre, Naveen wrote a letter to Union Tourism Minister Prahalad Singh Patel.
"Tourism sector contributes about 13% to the state's GDP and needs a strategic boost. Keeping in view the importance of the tourism sector for the state of Odisha, it is requested that the Government of India may consider inclusion of at least two tourist places of importance in the list of Iconic Tourism Sites," the Chief Minister’s letter said.
Naveen even listed a few – Konark Sun Temple, Chilika Lake, Bhitarkanika National Park, Simlipal National Park and Diamond Triangle Buddhist Circuit – from which any two could be chosen for the list. This move of his has proved that, unlike many of his predecessors in the state, Naveen is not ignoring any sector or industry.
The five-time chief minister of Odisha may yet face many a stumbling block in his latest innings, both from within his party and from outside forces, but he seems more determined than ever to have a go at making his administration as close to perfect – and as beneficial to his state and people – as possible.