"The state government has been largely indifferent to the cause of the farmers for the last 19 years (Patnaik's rule). The very fact that 198 blocks out of a total 314 blocks have less than a 35% irrigation coverage suggests the apathy of the state government to address fundamental issues afflicting the farmers."
Aparajita Sarangi, the BJP’s most prominent female leader in Odisha and its Lok Sabha candidate from Bhubaneswar, joined politics late last year, having spent around 25 years in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). In an interview with FE’s Banikinkar Pattanayak, Sarangi laments the failure of the Naveen Patnaik-led BJD government across socio-economic indicators and backs her claims with facts and data. The state milk federation of Odisha procures only five lakh litres of milk a day, she says, while even a district co-operative in Banaskantha (Gujrat) procures 60 lakh litres. As many as 198 of 314 blocks of Odisha have less than a 35% irrigation coverage. Three corporate groups promised an investment of Rs 96,000 crore under the Make in Odisha initiative in 2016 but there is no sign of any investment until now. Similarly, despite wide-scale existence of poverty, Odisha was able to spend just Rs 1,895 crore in FY18 under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, when neighbouring West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh could spend more than Rs 5,000 crore each. While the state is rich in minerals and human resources, most of its people remain poor; even by the BJD government’s own admission in 2016, as many as 66% households were poor. She explains why she thinks the Make in Odisha Conclave has been a “big hoax and an exercise in publicity” of the BJD leaders. Sarangi now seeks to use her extensive experience in the administrative service “on a larger canvas” to fix what is broken and create what is never thought to be possible. She also asserts that a BJP-led government in Odisha would empower women in real term and redefine their representation, instead of handing out just doles in every five years, as is being practised by the BJD.
Q: What prompted you to leave a flourishing career in the Indian Administrative Service and join politics?
I have had a very satisfying career in the Indian Administrative Service and enjoyed every moment of it. However, after completing nearly 25 years in the service, I felt that I could utilise my experience and energy on a much bigger scale and on a larger canvas. Politics for me is a very effective medium for public policy and public service.
Q: You are the most prominent female leader of the BJP in Odisha. What, in your view, is the reason behind the poor participation of women in electoral politics in Odisha? Will it change for the better if the BJP comes to power at the state level?
It would be wrong to say that participation of women in electoral politics is low in Odisha. However, what is more important is the quality of participation, the real effort in empowering women and their ability for a reasoned decision making. To that extent, I can assure that a BJP-led government in Odisha would make sincere attempts at real empowerment of women, initiating a large number of micro and small enterprises for women groups. The thrust would be on not merely giving a corpus to self- help groups every five years, but to make them socially and economically empowered wherein they attain a position in which they can contribute a corpus to the economy. This would automatically lead to a more informed participation and a better representation for women in the electoral arena.
The present women empowerment model in Odisha is based on giving doles every five years without any concrete efforts at initiating new enterprises and income augmentation. This model is aimed at electoral appeasement, is not sustainable and is unlikely to result in real empowerment.
Q: The BJD-led state government has announced the KALIA scheme (under which small and marginal farmers are promised Rs 5,000 per season) to alleviate farm distress. Do you think it will work?
The state government has been largely indifferent to the cause of the farmers for the last 19 years (Patnaik’s rule). The very fact that 198 blocks out of a total 314 blocks have less than a 35% irrigation coverage suggests the apathy of the state government to address fundamental issues afflicting the farmers. Whether it is the supply of good quality seeds, timely availability of fertilizers, facilitation for marketing of agricultural produces, etc. the state government has failed in each and every respect. After 19 years of indifference and neglect, the fact that the state government had to draw money from the Contingency Fund to roll out KALIA is a telling example of the distress situation to which farmers have been driven. Moreover, during my interaction with farmers, I have come across innumerable instances where genuine farmers have been left out and a lot of relatives of members of a particular political party seem to have got the money. The situation in Odisha calls for addressing fundamental issues afflicting farmers and the cash transfer under KALIA will only partially address the issues.
Q: How has been the performance of Odisha in the agriculture and allied sectors during Naveen Patnaik’s long rule?
A: I think the BJD-led government in Odisha has been persistent in its neglect of the farm sector and the compounded annual growth rate of the agriculture and allied sector has been only 2.8% for the last few years while some other states have been witnessing a double-digit expansion. In terms of productivity, Odisha compares very poorly with neighbouring states like West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh; it has been poor in augmenting milk production, has little to show in diversification into horticultural crops and has a lacklusture performance in the livestock sector. While a district cooperative in Banaskantha, Gujrat, procures 60 lakh litres of milk per day, the state milk federation of Odisha procures only five lakh litres per day! There are numerous other examples of the state government’s abject failure in bringing about a double-digit growth rate in agriculture and allied activities. Instead of ensuring that farmers augment their income substantially, the state government is abdicating its responsibility by ensuring cash transfers.
Q: The state government claims to have signed MoUs with many companies in recent years to attract billions of dollars in investment and create massive jobs under the Make in Odisha initiative. How much of it is visible on the ground?
A: I think the Make in Odisha Conclave has been a big hoax and an exercise in publicity of the ruling party leaders. Crores of tax payers money was spent in eliciting tall promises of investment in 2016 and further exaggerated promises in 2018. However, in terms of real investment flows as well as job creation, the state government has drawn a big blank. To cite a few examples, in 2016, three industrial groups promised an investment of Rs 96,000 crore but till date, there is no sign of an investment. In 2018, companies that are struggling with huge NPA have committed investments upward of Rs 60,000 crore. The industrial parks, which were announced with a lot of fanfare, are yet to see the light of the day. The Biotech Park (announced in 2008), the Aluminium Park, (announced in 2009), the Stainless Steel Park (announced in 2010), are yet to see the light of the day. The state has miserably failed in creating (labour-intensive) industrial clusters; textile parks, apparel manufacturing industries, forging and casting industries, leather and footwear clusters, pharmaceutical clusters, etc are more or less absent in odisha. This has resulted in the youth of Odisha leaving the state in hordes in search of low-paying jobs around industrial and textile clusters of Bangalore, Tirupur, Surat, Mumbai, etc.
Q: You handled the MGNREGS at the Union ministry of rural development. How did you find Odisha’s performance in implementing this employment guarantee scheme?
A: Inspite of rich endowments, the 19 years of the BJD rule in Odisha has not seen any significant change in state’s rank in per capita income and it continues to be among the bottom five states in India. In 2016, the state government had submitted names and location details of 58 lakh households out of 86 lakh rural households (66%) as poor and deprived. While the state government has not taken any proactive steps for poverty reduction, the performance of Odisha in the largest anti-poverty programme of the world, MGNREGA, has been dismal. One of the major failures of Odisha government was its inability to use MGNREGA funds to create tangible assets and create additional income avenues for the poorest of the poor. While Odisha is finding it difficult to spend Rs 2,000 crore per annum (in 2017-18 it could only spend Rs 1,895 crore), neighbouring states like West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh are able to spend more than Rs 5,000 crore per year.
Q: Overall, how would you rate the BJD government’s performance across socio-economic indicators over the years?
I strongly feel that the BJD government has compromised long-term development of Odisha for short-term political gains. The pace at which development is happening, it would take years for Odisha to break into the top 10 states of the country. If one looks at the existing policies of the state government, there is not a single scheme which looks at long-term sustainable growth of the state. Majority of the schemes aim at individual or household welfare programme, which will only perpetuate poverty at subsistence levels. While some welfare measures may be required, interventions which result in sustainable development are key to ensure rapid progress for Odisha and one has not seen any attempt by the present government to even have a road map, let alone implement it for putting Odisha on a sustained growth path.