Orissa is one of the most ill-known states of India. For starters, it is located in the south-east corner of India, measures around 150,000 sq km in size, and has a population of 35 million. It is among India's top 2 states in mineral wealth with plentiful deposits of iron ore, bauxite, chromite, and coal. It has a lower population density , higher rainfall (per sq cm) and a lower population growth than the Indian average. Despite, all this, it is one of the poorest states of the country, with the highest infant mortality rates, second highest rate of poverty and second lowest per capita income.
Orissa, or more accurately Odissa, should be on paper one of India's richest states. It is India's first language-based state with 85% of people speaking Odiya as the mother tongue. Blessed with abundant mineral resources, a coastline and sufficient forest and water resources, it also boasts of a cultural history thousands of years old. Orissa has existed as a political entity for the best part of 1,000 years (a large number of years in paper) as the Gajapati of Puri was the acknowledged overlord of all feudatory kings of Orissa. In terms of religion, most Oriyas are followers of Jagannatha and Jagannatha Dharma , a syncretic combination of Shaiva, Shakta and Vaishnava traits. The numbers of Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists in Orissa are quite less. The state does have a high percentage of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and, in several tribal dominated areas, 'Hindu'-Christian clashes have occurred. Nevertheless, the state has been more or less communally stable. Alcoholism and female foeticide have very low prevalence. Orissa has some of the best architectural wonders of India (Konark, Lingaraja, Huma, etc) alonng with some of the natural ones (Chillika, Simlipal, Bhitarakanika, etc).
The state of Orissa does not seem to lag in human potential. Despite the low level of urbanisation, Odiyas have bagged top posts in Indian Administrative Services, reputedly India's toughest public examination, no less than 4 times in 62 years, that is, around 6% of the times while it contributes only 3.5% to India's population. From 1960 to 1980, Oriyas routinely captured 10% of IAS posts.
If Orissa is still a backward state, its universal backwardness can be attributed to three reasons. The first is the lack of a strong economic base. During the Mughal rule and afterwards during the British rule, a greater part of the surplus in Orissa went to Bengal. During the Maratha rule, the surplus went to Nagpur. Hence, there were no indigenous super-rich families in Orissa. The rajahs of Orissa ruled over small territories and could not be compared with the Nizams or the Maharajahs of Baroda, Gwalior and Mysore. The absence of wealth led to the non-development of industrial enterprises or plantation farming.
A bigger problem is the lack of cultural solidarity and ambitious thinking on the part of the Oriya population. A feeling of cultural inferiority inhibits cultural solidarity. It is natural to see that the first generation of Oriyas living outside Orissa have lost their language. The history of Orissa is given no space in Indian textbooks and there is no protest for the glaring omission. No one gives a damn if great Oriya leaders like Madhusudan Das and Gopabandhu Das are not considered among the top 100 people in India (I don't think their contributions were in any way inferior to, say, that of Tilak, Gokhale, Surendranath Bannerjee, or Lala Lajpat Rai). As a result, unlike, say, the Gujaratis, Oriyas are not able to build trade links throughout the world or even throughout the country. The people in general have no big dreams - either personally or collectively. Among India's top 100 business houses, there is not a single business house based in Orissa. Orissa has not produced a single Bharat Ratna and has only one Padma Vibhushana - that given to Odissi exponent Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra. 12 members are appointed by the President of India to Rajya sabha for contributions to art, science and society. Till date, not even a single Oriya has been nominated for the same.
The cultural inferiority feeling asserts itself as an inordinate superiority feeling towards non-standard dialects of Orissa. Most Odiya dictionaries do not have even a single word from Sambalpuri (Katakiya and Sambalpuri are the two main dialects of Odissa based in coastal Orissa and western Orissa respectively). This has led to justified demands for a separate state. Corruption in Orissa is endemic but the worst thing is that people don't do things once the money is paid. They accept ଖୋସାମତି/khosammati, an Oriya word which means begging them for favour. In Bhubaneswar, no service centre of any company provides even the elementary level of service required by them.
An equally important (and a corollary to the above mentioned) reason is the lack of political power. The Congress has always under-represented the state. Under successive Congress governments in the state, it was not uncommon to see that Orissa does not have even a single Cabinet-level minister in the Union Government. The same situation is seen now. Giridhar Gamang, a 9-time MP and former Chief Minister of Orissa, well-known for his loyalty towards the Nehru-Gandhi family — despite being a CM, he went to the Lok Sabha to vote against the BJP-led NDA Government in 1998 and his vote was the crucial one which led to the fall of the government — non-corrupt nature, and administrative ability, has not been made a minister although he could be said to be deserving of a Cabinet Minister rank by any reckoning.
When the tariff equalisation proposal was passed, it hurt Orissa the most as Orissa lacked both an enterpreneurial class and the requisite capital. If minerals cost the same in Orissa as they cost in Gujarat, why would a Gujarati investor build his plant in Orissa and not in Gujarat? However, the Congress hardly ever protested against this decision.
Orissa has been a rice-surplus state for ages. Nevertheless, when the Hirakud dam was built, the Centre in its wisdom decided that Odiyas were not competent enough to farm in irrigated lands and invited tens of thousands of Telugus to teach us farming. Today, Telugus occupy the best portions of the land in Bargarh, which was the prime beneficiary of the Hirakud project.
The Congress Government did not build a single IIT or IIM or Central University in Orissa. The Centre assumed and the state acquiesced in the theory that Orissa was not fit for a Green Revolution based on false arguments that the land was too rocky, for example. Orissa produced 260 kg/person of food-grain in 1980 compared to the national average of 200 kg/person. I don't know, the current state. But Orissa has among the lowest amount of irrigated land (as percentage of the total land within its boundaries) and lowest fertilizer usage per hectare. Orissa is under-served by railways. Even in terms of steel plants, the capacity installed by the state is far less than the capacity served by the state's iron and core mines.
Orissa has one of the lowest ratios of doctors per 100,000 people. Yet a CM of Orissa, in his infinite wisdom, decided to reduce the number of medical seats in Orissa by 20% (from 150 to 120 in each of the 3 state-run colleges). The current health indicators are no surprise. Lakhs of Bangladeshis have come and occupied thousands of acres of fertile land. It is the illegal Bangladeshis who have ensured that the POSCO project remains unstuck. Naxalism imported from Andhra, Jharkhand and Chhatisgarh is more dangerous in Orissa today than its parent states.
Orissa is and, to all appearances, will remain one of India's most backward states. Lack of cultural solidarity, which stems from ignorance about and lack of pride in one's culture, lack of enterpreneurship, a Union Government perennially against Orissa's interests and a State governemnt which has given up its mandate to work for Orissa's prosperity ensure that no order course of action is possible.
The writer is a Hyderabad-based analyst currently working with a multinational company