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Hunger haunts Odisha’s poster woman for poverty

Jul 11, 2014

Dressed in a torn sari, an impoverished Banita Podh, 44, sits outside her hut in Khatimunda village of Odisha’s Bolangir district, with a vacant expression on her face. Bitterly disappointed with the way her life has turned out she has given up all hope of ever living a life of dignity. With five children and a disabled husband to provide for, Banita has spent every waking hour in the last 30 years cooking meals, looking for work or paying off debts.

women in poverty1

Banita is a forgotten woman today but way back in 1985, when her sister-in-law, Phanus Punji, had sold her as a 14-year-old to Bidyadhar Podh, a visually-impaired, elderly man for a mere Rs 40 and a sari, her heart rending story had made national headlines. The then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had rushed to her native village Amlapalli in undivided Kalahandi district – it now falls in Nuapada district. After meeting with the family and touring the region he declared that Banita’s case would become an example of amelioration of poverty in the rural hamlets.

In 1988, a special programme, Area Development Approach for Poverty Termination (ADAPT) was formulated for eight blocks in Kalahandi and seven blocks in Koraput district. In due course, it was felt that short-term strategies were not appropriate to address the deep rooted problems that existed in these backward reaches. Therefore, a Long Term Action Plan (LTAP) for the three undivided districts of Koraput, Bolangir and Kalahandi (KBK) was prepared in 1993. Then when P.V. Narasimha Rao became Prime Minister of India he announced a special KBK Yojana in 1995.

Meanwhile, Banita’s life became no better or easier. She faced social boycott as she was not the legal wife of Bidyadhar - they simply had had no money to arrange for a wedding. “It was not a socially accepted union. Yet, I had no choice but to continue with the way things were,” she says. Very quickly she also ended up having five children. “I couldn’t even go in for the family planning operation because Bidyadhar threatened to abandon me if I did so. At that tender age, I could not understand what was happening with me,” she adds. The middle-aged woman was formally married on October 21, 2000. The ceremony and feast were funded by former Union Minister of State for Railways, Bhakta Charan Das.

Currently, Banita is engaged as a cook at the village anganwadi centre at a monthly salary of Rs 500, which, incidentally, she is not paid regularly. “Every day I walk five kilometres to be able to earn Rs 500 at the end of 30 days. Every month I am not even sure whether I will get this meagre sum. Some days we eat and some days we have to sleep on an empty stomach,” she rues.

Her life has been terrible thus far and, unfortunately, her children have fared no better. While none of them have been able to go to school, Banita informs that she has already married off her three daughters in Raipur, Chhattisgarh. Of her two sons, Naresh, 16, has taken to working as a migrant labourer to fend for himself and the youngest works in a crusher unit six kilometers away.

Her husband squanders his disability pension of Rs 200 on liquor leaving Banita with no option but to take small loans from local people at five to 10 per cent interest every month to keep the household running. Two decades back, her name had figured on the list of beneficiaries for the Indira Awas Yojna, a scheme that provides financial assistance to those below poverty line to build a home. But as yet she does not have a proper roof over her head. “Only Rs 5,000 is given for construction. I have approached officials for this money but they tell me that they can only release the funds after completion of work. When I am scrounging for two square meals – we mostly eat kanki (coarse rice) and saga (wild leaves) to survive – how can I gather enough money to build a home?” she questions.

If Banita is struggling to make ends met, what has been the fate of the sister-in-law who sold her off all those years ago? In her early 60s now, Phanus Punji has aged beyond her years and is still living with the shame of having taken the decision to give Banita away. Teary eyed she says, “I did not sell Banita because I wanted to but out sheer compulsion. She was as dear to me as my two children. But when my husband, Chahvi Punji, the sole earning member of our household, fell seriously ill, I had to find some way of getting money for his treatment. That’s when I took this hard decision. Everyone, including Prime Minsiter Rajiv Gandhi had asked me if I would have sold my daughter instead of Banita, and I told him that no one was willing to take my small child. People still blame me for bringing a bad name to our village. I have gone through all this but for what - I have no money and nothing to even eat.”

Phanus has one acre of farmland but it is at an incline and virtually barren. “The soil does not hold much water and it is impossible to cultivate anything on it. Though I am working in an anganwadi centre but payment is not regular. My son, Jagabandhu, who is a daily wage labourer, is somehow managing to feed our entire family. This time when Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi visited Nuapada district for campaigning during elections, I had wanted to meet them and bring this to their notice – that after three decade I am still poor and deprived. But I had no money for the bus fare,” she states.

In this region that is referred to as the ‘Ethiopia of India’ frequent droughts and floods have affected the local population and contributed to their extremely poverty-ridden existence. The situation of the marginalised and landless tribals, lower castes and women is the worst. Remarks Kapil Tiwari, a social activist and former MLA of Khariar, “We had wanted to make Banita’s case an example because she and Phanus Punji symbolised the abject poverty and misery that afflicted the entire KBK region. It presented the most ugly and unfortunate facet of destitution and reflected the sheer negligence of the government machinery. Though this case was extensively reported, neither has it resulted in bringing about any change in the lives of these women nor has there been any significant transformation in these districts.”

Distress and deprivation is commonplace in KBK. With no real means of livelihood available people migrate seasonally to Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh in search of employment. When every thing fails, they are forced to sell their belongings, including their children, making this the hotbed for ‘pila bikri’, or selling of children. In 1984, Rama Gahir had sold her three-month-old daughter for Rs 80. In 1992, Kumari Bhoi had given away seven-year-old Bhumisuta for Rs 500. Six-year-old Sanju was sold by her mother, Nura Gahir, in 1996 at Rs 600, and in 2001, Shyamlal Tandi had received Rs 5,000 for his three-year-old Hema. He needed the money for treatment.

Three decades and several development initiatives later, grinding poverty continues to haunt women like Banita, who sees no light at the end of the tunnel. “Over the years, hundreds have come to take my picture. What do they want to see? How my famished family and I are faring? Let me tell you that there has been no change here and I don’t think I will ever have a decent life.” Is the new government going to come to her rescue?

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