Though my title might suggest, this is not about any natural disaster- this is a disaster which has disturbed the socio-economic fabric of this state. I recently had an opportunity to travel through the interiors of Odisha to a place called Barbil in Keonjhar district taking my count of visiting the state from never to three in a space of ten months. Though on the last two occasions, I was restricted only to Bhubaneswar and outskirts, I did get a hint that the state was still more of an under-developed area with a high concentration of tribal population. This trip was an eye opener to the real world of sorts.
The first few hours for me till Jajpur were more of a drive through the countryside, much like Maharashtra’s Thane district in the monsoons. Scenic aspects of the countryside with lush green fields and wide highways running through the fields on both sides were refreshing. But as we approached the mineral rich areas where mining was the key activity, the picture changed drastically. Mining in India should be a profitable activity with low royalties and high rates offered in the Global markets.
But as I had read in ‘Patriots & Partisans’ by Ramchandra Guha, mining in India has always resulted in ecological and economic plunder. What came in next was like time travelling back into India 20 years earlier. The roads got bad and un-motor able, signs of iron ore on the sides and accidents involving dump trucks signifying reckless driving. The road was single lane in either direction with heavy traffic and pot holes that were representative of the lunar landscape. Traffic jams which ran for kilometers and involved at least 200 vehicles on both sides with 10 wheel trucks with 16 tonnes of ore to Paradip at the hands of drivers who were visibly under age. Highway 215 went across a landscape where there were just forests with little or no civilization. Shops by the road only catered to the truckers with dhabba food, tyres and lubes for the trucks and recharge vouchers for cell phones.
The infrastructure was abysmal. The one vehicle width bridges across small rivers were relics from the British era- made of bricks which were never designed to carry loads of 16 tonnes on 10 wheels. The daily traffic of heavy trucks had eroded the bridges to an extent where the bricks had formed ridges under the tracks. Like the roads, the vehicles are also badly maintained. The towns we passed through looked like the India story had never reached these places with the locals bearing the brunt of daily traffic jams. Even ambulances and local buses were stuck in the jams every day.
From what I understood from the driver and other people in the area was a picture created out of both: degenerative politics and opportunistic attitude of the locals. To paraphrase my driver- the situation you are witnessing is much better than 5 years ago. We had above 300 illegal mines in this area; now we down to just 15-17. Today a jam might be for a few kilometers and last us an hour or two to get across; back then we just used to camp in the car- no one wanted to take up a drive these roads. Today we have just a fraction of the truck which used to ply here and they too are permitted to run only between 8pm to 8 am. By night- they simply rule; by day the block the roads as there are no parking bays to support the numbers. End result is the two lane road is reduced to just one working lane by day.
But why are these people ready to face hardships and why does a local not protest against the plight? Why does no one seem bothered that a truck covers 300 kms over 7 days? Why do we have multi-axle trucks plying on narrow roads not designed for such traffic even when there is a railway line running from the mines to the port? The answers I got were mind boggling to how people are deep rooted to corruption, selfish interests and missing the bigger picture towards development.
In the hay days of illegal mining, just about everyone made money through every possible avenue. Anyone with money bought a truck to move the ore. Anyone of 16 became a driver and villages made money by facilitating their movement by collecting illegal tolls. No one needed to work in the fields to make a living, they survived on the revenue share from what village made through the trucks going through. If someone had the influence, one could even fill a truckload of ore by borrowing small quantities from others. Villagers even made money from the traffic jams by offering passage through private land for anyone who paid to get their vehicles ahead by a few kilometers.
Even truckers made big bucks. Labour contractors at Paradip port were given Rs 200 for every vehicle unloaded- they take Rs 50 against a receipt of Rs 200 and the truckers do it themselves and pocket the money. As the trucks moved slowly on the roads, an account of 1 km/ltr was the mileage given; the rest of the fuel sold.
When the government cracked its whip on illegal mining and made transportation via railway wagons a must, the locals, truck operators and the opposition partnered. Cornered, the government still rules with an iron fist on the mining; but gave in to the trucks coming back. But the damage has been done. A road widening project funded through PPP was on the basis of the 300 mines and the thousands of trucks on it each day. With activity limited to a fraction now, the private partners have pulled out. With no infrastructure to support, global giants like POSCO have moved out from the state.
So finally... who is really killing Odisha? The government, the politics or the people themselves? I feel it is the greed, corruption and selfish ends of all three of the above.