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Home > 2023 > With Naveen, Odisha Plays Snakes and Ladders | Radhakanta Barik

Mainstream, VOL 61 No 34, August 19, 2023

With Naveen, Odisha Plays Snakes and Ladders | Radhakanta Barik

Friday 18 August 2023, by Radhakanta Barik


Odisha’s chief minister Naveen Patnaik is 77 years old, just two months away from a birthday. On 22 July, Patnaik achieved a significant career milestone by becoming the second longest-serving chief minister in India, surpassing Bengal’s Jyoti Basu. He became chief minister of this eastern State in March 2000, after the death of his father Biju Patnaik.

When we look at Naveen, one needs to also keep in mind who he is. Biju was a charismatic leader, a Royal Indian Airforce pilot, Jawaharlal Nehru’s trusted friend, an important cog in Indonesia’s freedom struggle; so important that the embassy has a room named after him in memory. He was a Congress CM from 1961 to 1963. He always planned well and was far-sighted. After a twelve-year stint as a Congress member of parliament, he served as a union minister with strategic portfolios — steel, coal, and mines, first under Morarji Desai and then under Charan Singh. Biju Patnaik had already severed his ties with the Congress and was a Janata Party member of parliament in the late 80s. He played a key role behind-the-scenes in steering V P Singh to the Prime Minister’s post in 1989, and was a now-Janata Dal MP, who became chief minister of Odisha in 1990. He died in 1997. Before that, he had successfully placed his son Naveen on a political podium. In December 1997, Naveen Patnaik broke away from the united Janata Dal (a fusion of Lok Dal, INC-Jagjivan Ram and the Jana Morcha) and formed his own regional party, the Biju Janata Dal, making sure that every Odisha voter remembers, he is Biju’s inheritor. He followed in his father’s footsteps and was a member of the Lok Sabha from Aska from 1997 to 2000 and served as the Union Minister of Steel and Mines from 1998 to 2000.

NAVEEN PATNAIK’S ENTRY into the politics of Odisha came at a critical juncture in the political history of the State. For twenty-three years Patnaik junior has been playing Snakes and Ladders with the State, beginning right at the bottom of the snake’s tail — the 1999 super cyclone and returning to it two decades later. So far, it has been a Zero-sum game for 21st century Odisha. Navin’s politics has been ambivalent, not Progressive enough, nor Saffron enough. The right dominates due to the very fact that the State government is not progressive enough to be radically different from what has been. Often the past has been more glorious than the present.

The Cyclones: Biju Patnaik was chief minister of Odisha for three years, till 1963 but could not maintain his political position as the opposition leader in 1971. He contested seven constituencies and lost all. His close lieutenant Prahalad Mallick saved him. Mallick had won two seats, one of Pattamundai, a reserved constituency and Rajnagar, a general constituency. He resigned from Rajnagar where Biju then contested, winning his MLA seat as an opposition leader. However, it was the 1971 supercyclone that created a hero out of his defeated political self. Biju Patnaik distributed a lot of relief materials for the affected people in helicopters and reached the affected before the government of Odisha (Biju was by this time leading the Utkal Congress, opposed to Nandini Satpathy’s INC) could. That made him a hero of Rajnagar and Kendrapara, which later turned into his political fort forever. It turned into a sanctuary seat for family and Naveen invariably wins in this political space created by his father. Kendrapara, Cuttack, Ganjam and he has added some more districts to his political empire.

Another super cyclone pushed Naveen’s political career. The 1999 super cyclone devastated coastal Odisha and the then-ruling Congress Party under then CM, Giridhar Gamang (now in the BJP), mismanaged it. This benefited the nascent BJD which won the 2000 assembly election. The Union government (A B Vajpayee) was generous to people of Odisha and provided generous relief. Many State governments also came forward to help the affected people. Real implementation of the central relief package got worked out during Naveen Patnaik’s rule that began in 2000. For instance, the infrastructural development and houses for the poor got worked out by his government. Level of corruption remained reasonably low in comparison to international standards. This benefited people and the party workers of the BJD simultaneously. Implementation of each welfare policies — be it PDS or crop procurement price — all benefited the people and BJD workers.

Certain amount of corruption was allowed which benefited the party workers.
Naveen Patnaik rules and does not govern, as governance demands negotiation with various interest groups where as the leader, he has to build consensus. Here no such things happen but he rules over the State of Odisha.

One in every three persons in Odisha is poor. Despite a battery of schemes, welfare programmes and doles by the Patnaik government, 29.35 per cent (pc) of the State’s population is multi-dimensionally poor. As per the NITI Aayog’s National Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) 2021 report, Odisha is among the top-10 States with a significant share of the population living under poverty; it is the country’s second poorest State.

The absence of capitalists and the continued presence of feudal lords creates problems in completely understanding the politics of this coastal State. A powerful bureaucracy functions here as the ‘ruling class’. And the best example of how powerful they are is from a few years ago when 12 IAS officers got caught in a corruption scandal but no one got dismissed. This reflects their power and Naveen Patnaik has compromised with the powerful bureaucracy rather than alienate them. There is a saying among IAS probationers here, ‘this is a State that allows you to rule and not serve’.

Patnaik’s rule gets reinforced in a voting pattern which is more than fifty per cent of voters. This explains the popularity of Naveen Patnaik and the logic of the three classes meeting over whisky.

Three groups of power elite, mentored by Naveen, confer over imported scotch in five-star hotels here — the political elite led by Naveen Patnaik meet the ruling bureaucracy and the mining rights owners, led by Vedanta group. They allow the common people to have rum on a cremation ground. The State government earns the highest amount from the Excise duty by opening liquor shops in the distant villages where school and hospital are absent. The villagers drink in the cremation ground of the village (Barik 2021).

As the 2019 general election saw the party did not select candidates on the merit but allowed the rich and moneyed people to get ticket through political contractors in each region.

The way to stay in power for the BJD MPS and MLAs is to ‘depoliticise’. Clear instruction is given to each MP not to speak. They are scared to open their mouths. They are allowed to speak in Odiya and the summary can be prepared by them in English in brief and the party has to approve the paper to be submitted to the Secretariat of Parliament. They look to the roof of the Parliament, or faces of the MPs and other opposition party leaders. They go to their homes and take long launch naps. No discussion over the issues that the BJD is supposed to support or not support the Union government. Everything is decided by Naveen Patnaik. They have to obey him.

Depoliticisation is so deep that it has entered the youth wing of the BJD and elected MLAs and MPs who cannot challenge the attack on the society and culture from the right wing forces. They did not hold any public discussion and when some independent groups tried to hold discussion on the cultural attacks in Utkal University, they could not do it as they were attacked by the ABVP, the BJP youth wing. Cow vigilantes roam the streets of Bhubaneswar in recent months and attack Muslim traders. Thus, in today’s Odisha, it is the right wing that is dictating the terms of the cultural discourse without ruling the State. On how many days will the common man in Odisha get to sell and eat non-veg (which include fish and eggs in an agrarian, coastal State) is being decided by such vigilante groups and not by the Patnaik government in Odisha.

For the last eight years, the BJD has stood with the BJP government. Their claim of equidistance has turned into loyal support for the Modi regime. The BJD is losing its autonomy in Indian politics — it is like, the bureaucracy in Odisha is ready to be under the control of the Central government tomorrow, says The Indian Express ( 4-8 -23) newspaper.

Closing Schools: Naveen Patnaik is sitting over disaster by deciding to close the 8,000 primary schools which will make more people illiterate. During the colonial period, there were a large number of primary schools in Odisha and the then government was shocked by the number of school-going children in the State.

At earlier times, villagers used to demand a school in their village from the British government. In the story Revati by Fakir Mohan Senapati, there was a reference to villagers’ demand for a school which was conceded by the colonial government. Most of the schools got built by the village communities who appointed the teachers. What moral right does the Patnaik government have to close these village schools, when it does not build schools? In the village Sadansa, Niali block there was a school in the year 1914 and after completing 110 years, this school has been closed by the Patnaik government. It looks like, the government’s educational budget has been diverted, as a result of which, Odisha’s human capital is going to disintegrate and the darkness of ignorance is likely to descend on the State in the near future.

Privatisation of Healthcare: Preference for the private schools and private hospitals by the present government has alienated the masses.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, private hospitals got unusual support from the State and the Centre; they made huge profits without serving the people. It resulted in large number of deaths due to the Corona virus; every village and every mohalla saw deaths due to Covid. Mismanagement of health by not supporting the public hospitals has pushed the poor to spend more money from their meagre incomes on private healthcare.

Mining: In 2005, POSCO, a Korean giant in the steelmaking industry, had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Odisha government to mine iron ore deposits in Khandadhar. POSCO wanted to mine the hills to supply steel for its proposed plant in Jagatsinghpur, and also to use it as an export base. After protests by the local people, the State-run miner, Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC), in 2013 signed pacts with steel makers Adhunik Metaliks and Rexon Strips to supply iron ore for next five years from its Kurmitar Pahar mines in Khandadhar area in Koira mining circle of Sundergarh district. The mining was supposed to increase four-folds by 2020. The tribal Pauri Bhuyans have opposed mining for the ecological damage that disrupts their livelihood. They have earlier argued, mining in Khandadhar would violate provisions of the Forest Rights Act, which makes it mandatory to consider the habitation of indigenous tribes before converting their land to revenue villages.

The issue of illegal mining came to light in 2009 and was loudly debated in the Odisha assembly. The mining-based industries are highly extractive and it destroys the ecology of the State. It caused the displacement of tribals and made inroads into forest areas (Sthitaprangyan Ray 2011). Tribal protests against the mining policy of the Naveen Patnaik government resulted in firing at the tribals which turned into a massacre (Kundan Kumar 2014, Banikanta 2014).

The massive people’s movement against mining companies like Posco in Jagatasinghpur and Vedanta in Kalahandi over Niyamgiri, had pushed the Naveen Patnaik government in Odisha and the Manmohan Singh government at the Centre to a corner. As this CBI report says, Naveen Patnaik’s BJD had a cordial working relationship with the Singh government [1] but it was never committed enough.

Passing of the Forest Conservation Amendment Bill, 2023 in Parliament under the Modi regime is a sure sign of the victory of the mining lobby in India and Odisha. In the old act, there was provision for the community to be consulted for mining operation in the tribal areas. By abolition of the provision, Niyamgiri is going to be taken over by the Vedanta group. This group plays a critical role in the politics of Odisha. This may be the reason why Naveen’s BJD supported the Modi government in the context of legislation related to Delhi government. It is now a happy marriage between Whisky and Rum in Odisha (an editorial in The Indian Express has recently been critical of the BJD’s support to the  Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi Amendment Bill, 2023, saying this was against the spirit of federalism).

Food: Naveen Patnaik’s popularity is the functions of four Fs — food programmes. It is depended on the implementation of PDS, the Mid-Day Meal Scheme in schools, Anganwadi work for children below six and a cheap meal in the cities for workers.

In Odisha, the implementation of the Integrated Child Development Services is a reasonable success. It came into effect in the year 2011. Under this programme, pregnant mothers get additional food and medical help and children below six are able to get a cooked meal, with an egg to make them healthy and happy. ‘The gains in the implementation of ICDS are largely on account of creative policy-making in the field of child nutrition in Odisha’, says researcher Reetika Khera in 2015. Employing women Anganwadi workers for making the programme a success depends on the multi-caste base recruitment policy and no discrimination at the level of implementation.

The Mid-Day Meal Scheme has been functioning from 1995. The Odisha government has employed a large number of cooks and helping hands for this. Cooked meal has played a positive role in the growth of the child and his/her intellectual level. However, now the government has changed from ‘cooked meal’ to ‘dry ration’ which do not help the children, a study conducted by two scholars show (Anima Rani and Naresh Sharma, 2008).

The streamlining of the administration in delivering food under the Public Distribution System is a reasonable success. In fighting hunger and poverty, this single step has played a decisive role. The study conducted by Ankita Agarwal (2011) shows that 97 per cent households with a ration card in Koraput district were getting full monthly quota of rice from PDS. This shows that the performance of the public distribution system in fighting hunger is a reasonable success (Dreze and Khera 2013).

The provision of lunch in certain centres of the district headquarters of Odisha has benefitted the self-employed, like rickshaw-pullers, scooter driver and other unemployed youths of the cities. As food is getting expensive in the urban areas, one finds that those working as self-employed people below the income of Rs 500 per day are eating from the city centres, two meals daily.

Farm Prices: Naveen Patnaik’s major welfare policy is the agricultural procurement price for rice. This started in the year 2004, but procurement is not yet streamlined. No other grain is procured by the government or its minimum price fixed, only rice and there is no product diversity. Unlike other States, Odisha has no mandi system where farmers can deposit their rice.
Thus, procurement by the government is done in an ad-hoc manner. Each farmer has to collect a slip from the administration regarding the quantity of rice to be deposited. The administration fixes a place and time when the farmers can unload their grains. On each bag of 40 kg, a farmer has to give two more kilos free to buyers. It is the private players who dominate the market.

The Naveen Patnaik government has not added any new irrigation project, which is forcing the farmers to depend on rains or install pumps for providing water to their fields. Land consolidation was abandoned by the Naveen government in 2002, lift irrigation projects too have been closed, which has affected the water supply to agriculture. There is no support like Cold Storage facilities, which caused potato farmers in Odisha to stop production. Production of Potato, Onion and Tomato has declined in the State. Pulse production has suffered badly. Odisha has painfully transited from a multi-crop State to a mono-culture and the agriculture sector in odisha is today totally pauperized.

Unemployment: After getting food into one’s stomach, one does need work and today, Odisha is suffering from the worst form of unemployment it has ever seen. In its initial years NREGA, the rural employment guarantee scheme, worked well but since 2014, with the advent of the Modi government, most rural development works have been handed over to contractors, who are prohibited in the MNREGA ACT.

On 29 March 2022, the Odisha Finance Department had tabled the Economic Survey report 2021-22 in the State Assembly. The Economic Survey has quoted the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) Report 2019-20 to say that the unemployment rate in Odisha is 6.2 per cent, which is higher than the national average. The PLFS is done by the National Statistical Office (NSO) under the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation. As per CMIE, Unemployment rate in 15-19 years has been at 11.55 per cent. The joblessness rate in 20-24 years is at 7.1 per cent. The rate of unemployment in 25-29 years is at 5.28 per cent.The unemployment rate in the labour force having educational qualifications of graduate or above has been a massive 8.96 per cent.Three in every 10 people have no jobs.

One can see the march of unemployed youths in the small bazaar or in the village lane in the evening every day. It is a painful sight. But the State government does not do much in creating work and employment. This has affected both, the educated and the semi-skilled labour force in Odisha. Their wage is as low as Rs 10,000 per month which is lower than the agricultural wage in Odisha; but unavailability of higher-paid jobs forces youth to migrate south or west. Most industrial units set up by the Congress governments are closed today. The Naveen Patnaik government does not support small-scale industries, which has resulted in an increase in unemployment. Mega-mining-based industries without any links to small-scale industries and agriculture have come up, however, this is not an organic growth but artificial growth.

The implementation of the Pradhan Mantri Rural Roads scheme, which provided roads to the villages is today stuck as the whole work has been handed over to the contractors and networks of politicians. All in all, the Naveen Patnaik government in its most glorious year, is a puppet government, with no will and ambition of its own and controlled by the rightwing forces.


  • Ankita Aggarwal, 2011. The PDS in Rural Orissa , EPW, Sept 3.
  •  Fairness of Minimum Wages for MGNREGA, EPW 4, Nov, 2017.
  • Anima Rani and Naresh Sharma 2008. An Empirical Study of the Midday Meal Programme in Khurda, Orissa, EPW June 21-27.
  • Banikanta Mishra and Sagarika Mishra 2014. Mining and Industrialization: Dangerous Portents. Economic and Political weekly, 5 April.
  • Jean Dreze, Reetika Khera 2013. Rural Poverty and the Public Distribution System. EPW,16, Nov.
  • Reetika Khera 2015. Children’s Development: Baby Steps in Odisha. EPW, 3 October.
  • Kundan Kumar2014. Confronting Extractive Capital, Social and Environmental movements in Odisha. EPW, 5 April.
  • Radhakanta Barik, 2021. Capitalism from below: Blending of Rum and Rice in Odisha. Mainstream 25 Sept.
  • Sthitaprangyan Ray, Shashi Saini,2011. Development and Displacement: The case of Open cast coal mining project in Orissa. Sociological Bulletin, Jan- April
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