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Kalahandi & the Construction of ‘backward’ Region in India: Some critical reflections

Updated: Oct 15, 2020

On 24 September 2020, Mr. Sujeet Kumar, the Member of Parliament in Rajya Sabha from Odisha made a post on his Facebook account with some photographs about his meeting with Prof Hrushikesh Senapathy, the Director of National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) which is responsible for making of Textbooks for the school education in India. On his post he writes, ‘Met NCERT Director Prof. Hrushikesh Senapaty; held discussions on wrong portrayal of Kalahandi in NCERT text books. He admitted the errors & assured to correct those in the next printing’(emphasis added). Along with the photograph of their meeting, he has posted a screenshot of his tweet dated 16 July 2020 from his account ‘SujeetOfficial’. The post states, ‘Portraying #Kalahandi in a bad light, is unacceptable. Over the last years, Kalahandi District has witnessed huge development & received appreciation. Requesting #NCERT to amend the error with immediate effect and withdraw the erroneous textbooks from the Class 5 EVS Syllabus’.

The above-mentioned event can be read and interpreted in many ways as we have seen the controversy regarding the textbooks writing for the school children in India in the past as well as in the present. Very recently some chapters were deleted from the NCERT and other states textbooks citing lessening of the burden to the students due to pandemic. The political interference has always been there with much contestation. These issues have been discussed in length on many platforms, but my concern here is a bit different as I will be deviating largely from the politics of textbook writing at this moment. Rather my focus would be on the specific issue raised by the leader as mentioned above.

The said event is an outcome of the protests by some political organizations and individuals against the negative portrayal of the Kalahandi region, thereby tarnishing the image, in the NCERT books. The backdrop of the incident is based on some observations by political organizations discovering the third chapter titled ‘From Tasting to Digesting’ page no 34 from Class V Environment Studies book depicting the prejudiced picture of Kalahandi. The texts of the book are quoted below:

‘Gomti is thirty years old. Gomti works in the fields of a rich farmer. For all her hard work, she gets paid very little. So little that she cannot even buy enough rice to feed her family. Some months she does not get any work at all. Then she has to eat leaves and roots from the jungle. Gomti’s children are weak with hunger and always sick. Few years ago her husband died of hunger. Most rice grows in Kalahandi district. Rice is even sent to other states from here. Many times the rice that keeps lying in the godowns gets spoiled. In the same Kalahandi there are many, many poor people like Gomti. Why do people die of hunger in such a place?’

The text has also used one of the photographs of a malnourished mother and kid barely dressed from the celebrated journalist P Sainath’s famous book, ‘Everybody loves a good drought’.

Various groups and individuals alleged that there is a conspiracy and biased picture being propagated by the media and numerous civil society organizations. Although they acknowledge that there is poverty in the region, Kalahandi did change over a period of time and the region has been appreciated for its developmental programs and activities. The supporters vehemently argue that Kalahandi is among the largest producers of paddy in India along with cotton, cereals, and other food grains. The Indravati dam has brought a green revolution to some parts of the area whereas Vedanta like industries have created jobs for the people. They further argue that the stereotypical images of Kalahandi as a place of starvation deaths, where children are being sold, famine-ridden, rampant malnutrition etc. are the things of the past and exaggerated. But time to time the flashing of sensational images on the television sets and newspapers about the suffering of poor due to failure of the public delivery mechanism, collapsing healthcare and educational system, ill-treatment of migrants in other parts of India by keeping hostages in the brick-kiln factories and many more demolish the big claims being made by the State and its supporting groups and individuals. The painful images of Dana Majhi carrying the dead body of his wife on his shoulder are one of such recent events that moved the ‘collective conscience of the nation’.

My concern here is not to verify and evaluate the truth value of these conflicting and contradictory claims which the claimants vehemently argue, speak, and defend. I am also not much interested in highly celebrated data and numbers to which the creators have so much faith and treat them as sacrosanct by reducing the social realities into figures in the neat and clean official files as well as in the dusted files, field notes of the researchers and activists and reporters. I believe all of them do play important roles, but we must examine and interrogate how do all of them are involved in producing this kind of situation.

Then the question comes to our mind is, how to make sense of these issues. How do we academicians conceptualize this kind of realities which are very often conflicting and contradictory in nature? How are we supposed to intervene? One way to begin is by examining the situation and contextualizing the larger social and political formation of Kalahandi region. The undivided Kalahandi region came into the national and international limelight in the late 1980s for the infamous starvation deaths, hunger, malnutrition, prolonged drought, and even child trade by mothers terming it as ‘starvation capital of India’ (Banik, 2015). Series of newspaper reports covered different aspects of poverty, distress migrations and failure of government institutions. Political parties and various civil society organizations actively mobilized around these issues. It forced Rajiv Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India to visit Kalahandi and announce the establishment of the Koraput-Balangir-Kalahandi (KBK) Project by the government of India being by ‘pumping’ a huge amount of money and other resources to ‘develop’ the ‘backward’ region. Along with the government authorities, various non-governmental organizations entered into the field. Thus, the Indian State was very clear that the issues can only be addressed through the development and the model was designed with the help of renowned economists and experts. Till date, some programs in one way or the other are continued specifically catering to the region.

Is it only about backwardness and poverty? How do we read the above-mentioned situation? There have been enough deliberations on the idea of ‘backwardness’ and the politics of its construction in the social sciences literature in general and anthropology in particular. In fact, the whole project of European colonialism was based and justified on the ideology and the construction of ‘backwardness’ as one of the main aspects in relation to the non-European societies through the process of ‘civilizing mission’. It is interesting to note here that these kinds of models are being adopted by the dominant neoliberal economic forces.

With this backdrop in mind, the recent debates have helped us to revisit the idea of ‘development’ in relation to ‘backwardness’ and ‘poverty’ in Kalahandi. It has given us an opportunity to examine the idea and meaning of development at present. How do people see it at present? Has it changed over a period of time? If yes, how? How do people view it and give meaning to their everyday lives? How has the concept of development changed both at the level of ideas i.e. formulation of policies and also at the practice? And most importantly how to make sense of this issue within the wider national and global levels? What are the interconnections?

The complexities of the issue are the product of multiple versions of ‘truth’ and each of which are presented as authentic by its claimants. However, there are several contradictions in these competing truths. All of them resort to using numbers and statistics to support their respective claims. The major stakeholder is the State that strongly argues that it has been successful in bringing changes by developing the region. Along with it, there is a section of elite primarily belonging to the higher castes and class, political leaders and many of them who are residing outside the region, who are very concerned about the image of Kalahandi. On the other hand, the self-proclaimed Civil Society groups strongly argue that the real picture of Kalahandi is not being shown to the outside world because of the alleged conspiracy by vested groups. From time to time they do organize protests, discussions, file petitions to the government, highlight this issue in newspapers, television and social media. They try to construct a history of the golden past; articulate the view that Kalahandi is in true sense a place of the melting pot of ‘rich art and artistic creations’. They argue that because of the green revolution, it is counted among the largest paddy producer district in the whole of India. Along with it the Indravati Hydroelectric Project, Vedanta Aluminum factory at Niyamgiri hills, rich natural sites, archeological sites, the presiding deity of the region are being celebrated and publicized and disseminated to the public as well as for the outside world. Each year the district administration organizes a month-long grand event called ‘Ghumura’, named after the famous folk dance from the region, to celebrate and showcase the rich cultural diversity. The significance of the event is such that it is being popularized by the administration and has become a most important program in every calendar year where all the educational institutions participate. It’s being done through allocation of special budget and organized at four levels, Gram Panchayat, Panchayat Samiti, Sub-Division and District.

Challenging the above claims and dominant narrative, there are some social workers, poets, academicians, independent writers, cultural groups, NGOs and some media organizations, who argue that the image building is merely a PR exercise. The State and the dominant section are hiding the crude reality of the region. Nothing much has changed in these thirty years, rather a marginalization of the poor has increased many folds. The disparity among the rich and the poor is increasing day by day. Although the region does not witness the kind of cases of poverty, drought and hunger deaths at present; there is nothing much to be celebrated about it. The region is still lagging behind in many of the Human Development Index indicators. The public healthcare system has been collapsed, quality of education has been deteriorating day by day, out-migration has gained momentum. The infamous Dana Majhi incident is very much fresh in the public memories.

In the previous paragraphs, I have juxtaposed these contradictory discourses of the region. After describing the contradictory portrayals, how does one make sense of the questions of poverty, region, development, welfare? How do we, as sociologists and academicians are supposed to understand, analyze and intervene? Rather than answering these questions, it seems some more questions can be asked. That might be one way of addressing these complex issues in contemporary contexts. The primary concern for us is ‘where are the people’ and what is their take on these opposing and contradictory claims. Sadly, people are sandwiched between these counter projects. One can begin by locating the ‘people’ in this paradigm of development. The dominant narrative today is the ‘neoliberal’ model backed by the State that promotes massive industrialization and exploitation of the natural resources by private corporates. It is presented as the only alternative model before us for ameliorating the poverty question. On the other hand, critics of capitalist development vehemently dismiss this model by terming it as anti-people. They argue that specific contexts must be understood and accordingly policies should be designed. The people are thus being trapped in between. The need of the hour is to have an informed understanding without being polemic, sensational and driven by extreme ideological positions by giving space to the people. Hence, the central question is can we get closer to what people need, what are their problems, and finally how to bring back ‘people’s position’ into the discussion.


Banik, D. 2007. Starvation and India’s Democracy. Routledge: London and New York.

Banik, D.2015. Fieldwork Amidst Extreme Poverty and Deprivation: Ethical Dilemmas and Policy Impact. Indian Anthropologist. Volume 44, Number 1

Bag, P. 2007. Development and the Reproduction of Drought: A Sociological Study of the effects of Government Policies in Kalahandi (Orissa). Unpublished PhD Thesis submitted to the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Bagh, S.1995. Government Programmes and Hunger in Kalahandi. Unpublished MPhil Dissertation submitted to the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Currie, B. 2000. The Politics of Hunger in India: A Study of Democracy, Governance and Kalahandi’s Poverty. Macmillan Press LTD: New York.

Mishra, A.2010. Hunger and Famine in Kalahandi: An Anthropological Study. Pearson: Delhi.

National Council of Educational Research and Training. New Delhi. 2008. Environmental Studies (Looking Around). Textbook for Class V.

Patra, D. The image of poverty in Kalahandi, Odisha and India has become deep-rooted, August 21,2020, Samachar Just Click

Routray, S. Everyday State and Politics in India: Government in the Backyard in Kalahandi: Routledge: London and New York.

Sainath, P.1996. Everybody loves a good drought: stories from the India’s poorest districts. Penguin: New Delhi.

Shankar Bagh

Assistant Professor

Department of Sociology

Central University of Sikkim

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I am happy to see the way you made your analysis on the concept of poverty and backwardness. The attempt for bringing out a close relationship between Kalahandi backwardness and dramatized from of development is really a comprehensive one. Hope this write-up will bring readers attention for better research and will shed a good background for further study


Sarbeswar Padhan
Sarbeswar Padhan
Oct 15, 2020

Good analysis on the problem of backwardness of the region. The issue should be taken up by the political stand and bargaining in political power. You have aptly touched upon this. Thanks for enlightening on Kalahandi.

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