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Rourkela Steel Plant, Biju Pattnaik and Orissa Politics

"...when (late) Mr Biswanath Das became the Chief Minister of the state for the second time as a candidate of the Utkal Congress (in the late 1980s, the exact years I can not immediately recollect), Biju-babu was a power behind the government since he belonged to the Utkal Congress. But this was a short period and Biswanath Das, all said and done, was not a Biren Mitra, for Biju-babu to manipulate freely."

Prof Nilakantha Rath : August 27, 2008

I was able to recollect the steel plant location affair since I was in Odisha during the two years, 1954-56, in connection with the survey into the rural-urban areas that were to be affected by the Hirakud dam, - a study my institute (the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Poona) was carrying out at the behest of the Central Water and Power Commission. I can not remember the later doings of Biju-babu. But, it is unlikely that at the state administrative level he had much to do, since he was out of power directly since 1964 till 1991. Before that, when (late) Mr Biswanath Das became the Chief Minister of the state for the second time as a candidate of the Utkal Congress (in the late 1980s, the exact years I can not immediately recollect), Biju-babu was a power behind the government since he belonged to the Utkal Congress. But this was a short period and Biswanath Das, all said and done, was not a Biren Mitra, for Biju-babu to manipulate freely.

My recollection of Biju-babu's last 5 years in the early 1990s as a chief minister are based only on the basis of my recollections about the meetings of the state Planning Board, of which I was a non-official member. As I had mentioned in my earlier communication to you, I had a great sense of disappointment. Biju-babu had really no interest in the deliberations of the state Planning Board. In the beginning, Mr. Sivaraman was the deputy chairman. But, after six months, he quietly left, on health ground. But, one or two secretaries of the government mentioned to me that Mr. Sivaraman was greatly disappointed with the state administration at that time and thought it was futile associating himself with the Board. It is possible that as an ex-Chief-Secretary he was more interested in the implementation of policies than in the formulation of new policies.

Biju-babu, as chairman of the Board, never invited any suggestions from the non-official members. In the meetings, he would not even look in the direction of the non-official members, but talk only to the ministers and the secretaries sitting to his right.  But, the climax was the studied neglect and absence when some non-officials like me brought, in writing, any new policy proposal for consideration. I prepared a detailed policy proposal on regional imbalance in Odisha, with help of data from the state's statistical bureau, and it was sent to the CM and the Secretary, who circulated it some two months before the next meeting. In the ensuing meeting the CM was in the chair. He kept talking with his ministers and secretaries, who were present in full force, about some minor government proposals that they thought needed the Board's approval. But, the non-official members had no chance to raise a question, since the chairman would not look their way and take cognisance of their raised hands. The non-officials did not think it proper to raise their voice to ask a question or make a point. My proposal had been billed for discussion in the afternoon session of the meeting. The meeting broke for lunch. Biju babu came to lunch along with all others. But when the meeting resumed after lunch, Biju-bau, all his ministers and all his secretaries except two - the Finance Secretary and the Planning Secretary who was the secretary of the Board - were conspicuous by their absence. Only the Deputy Chairman (a retired civil servant) and the non-official members were present. It became clear to all of us that by his absence the CM has indicated to us what value he attaches to any proposals or suggestions by the non-official members.

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And, this was not a stray experience. In four and half years, I wrote, on my own initiative, and presented for the consideration of the Board five different proposals. In two of these, Biju-babu was inadvertently caught by me to take up my notes for discussion when they had been scheduled for the post-lunch sessions. In one relating to tribal primary education, I had a specific proposal, based on some data. There was an official proposal on the same subject, which was taken up in the morning session. As the discussion of the government proposal was coming to an end, I suddenly raised my voice and requested the Chief Minister to take up my note on the same subject then rather than in the afternoon. I had no alternative to raising my voice and requesting, since the CM will not look in the direction of the non-officials who were sitting to his left. He was uncomfortable but agreed. He asked me to state what my proposal was. I said it had been circulated two months ago. Nevertheless, in a couple of minutes I stated that in many tribal areas of the state, the tribal villages were very small with a population of less than 200. In such villages the number of children of primary school going age would not be even 20. No state government, certainly not Orissa, can afford to run a full-fledged primary school in every one of such villages. My proposal for consideration was that the state should group five or six such adjacent tribal villages and start in a central location a full-fledged residential primary school. There should be building for the school, hostel for the boys and girl from 1st to 4th or 5th standard, quarters for all the teachers, local female attendants for the children, besides drinking and bathing water facility and space for gardening and some vegetable cultivation. The "haat" day in the area should be the weekly off day for the school. On the day prior to it, which shall be a half day for the school, the children will be allowed to go to their homes. They should return to the hostel on the evening of the Haat-day or early next morning. And, some other specific suggestions – The state should provide meals, uniform sets and other facilities for the children in the hostel.  A tribal minister suddenly said: How can primary school level children live in hostel? I said, they go on their own to the forest for collection of roots, fruits and twigs. Why should it be difficult for them to live in the hostel where there will be local female attendants to take care of them? Suddenly, Biju-babu intervened and said: I don't care for these small schools next to their villages. I would rather have a huge campus for one lakh tribal children, from kindergarten to Ph.D. I was amazed, and blurted out: This is both impractical and inhuman. The government finds it difficult to run a university hostel and you are talking of a campus from kindergarten to Ph.D.! But having said this in the flush of the moment, I realised I was talking to the Chief Minister of a state. So, I quickly apologised for my expression. Biju-babu magnanimously said, "oh, no offence caused. Its OK". And that was the end of the proposal!

The next such incident was in the last meeting of the Board. I had a worked out proposal for management of flow irrigation schemes. It had been circulated three months in advance. In the meeting, the Irrigation secretary brought some proposal as well as information relating to the Vaidyanathan Committee recommendations to the Planning Commission on irrigation. It was being talked out, when I suddenly raised my voice and requested the CM to take up my proposal on the related subject then rather than at the post-lunch session. The CM was rather cornered. He asked the Irrigation secretary to say what he had to on my note and proposal. The Secretary said they had not considered it till then. "When will you consider it?" asked the CM. "In another two months, Sir", said the Secretary. That was the end of my note and of the Planning Board, since the election came after that.

I had not learnt of any substantive policy initiative by the government in these five years. Any one better informed can enlighten us. 

(Author is Honourary Fellow, Indian School of Political Economy, Pune)

 

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