POVERTY AND deprivation are not new to Orissa. More than half the State's population lives below the poverty line and the number is increasing. Years of neglect by the administration have made poverty and hunger part of life in the interior areas.
Even before the storm over the alleged starvation deaths in Kashipur could settle, another row has been kicked up by the reported ``sale'' of two children in Badagumuda village of Bolangir district to the visiting reporter of an English daily.
The State Government has termed the ``sale'' of the two children for a sum of Rs. 1,100 and 15 kg of rice ``stage-managed''. The newspaper making the claim of the ``sale'', however, is holding its ground, saying the family had sold the two children since they were starving.
For a change, the State Government's arguments appear the stronger. It has now been discovered that the family which ``sold'' the two orphans - Paree(4) and Jemati(2) - has a bank deposit of Rs. 16,000, apart from three goats, each of which will cost around Rs. 800. The family had also purchased 16 kg of rice at the BPL rate on September 6, the authorities say.
The children, who have since been handed over to a voluntary organisation in Faridabad (Haryana) by the newspaper management, belonged to Premishila Bhoi, a widow who died, allegedly of starvation, last December.
Premishila had left behind her three children - her eldest son, 17-year-old Hrudananda, Paree, and Jemati - with her brother-in- law, Dambaru Bhoi, who has his own family of four. Hrudananda works in a tea stall in a nearby village.
The amount of Rs. 16,000 - Rs. 10,000 received from the Government as ex-gratia after Premishila's death, and Rs. 6,000 given by a voluntary agency - is deposited with the Bolangir Anchalik Gramya Bank at Bangamunda block headquarters in two separate accounts in Hrudananda's name. The voluntary agency, which had given the goats, had also paid some money to the family to retrieve a piece of land that had been mortgaged with a moneylender.
The bank manager, Mr. D. D. Sarangi, says Hrudananda collects the interest amount from the bank every month. The last time was on August 19. Though the accounts were term deposits, the bank manager said Hrudananda could withdraw the entire money anytime he wanted. The newspaper's claim that Paree and Jemati were bought is contested by Hrudananda, Dambaru and other residents of Badagumuda. The visitor had taken the children saying that he would provide them food and education and it was not a case of sale, they all say. In fact, if Dambaru, Hrudananda and Ms. Madanwati Chhura, an Anganwadi worker of the village, are to be believed, Dambaru had refused to hand over the children when the visitor first approached him on September 10. However, he agreed to give away the children only after Haripal Chhura, resident of a neighbouring village who came along with the visitor, told him that it would be in the children's interest. Chhura is missing from his village since the matter came to light.
Further, in a statement recorded by the Sub-Collector, Mr. Munish Mudgil, Dambaru has said the question of the ``sale'' of the two children was never broached. The visitor had offered him money, and had also taken photographs while making the offer but he had not accepted any amount, Dambaru has said.
``The whole thing was pre-planned and stage-managed to malign the administration,'' says the District Collector, Mr. S. K. Sarangi. The district officials say no family with a bank balance would sell children without making an attempt to first withdraw the money. Then, they would have sold the goats. At the very end, perhaps, they would have sold their children. But in this case, this logical sequence was not followed.
Whatever the truth, it is clear that Dambaru's family is poor and he and his wife work as daily wage labourers to feed their own family and Premishila's children. It is also true that several cases of alleged sale of children have been reported from Bolangir and other areas in the past. Only a few months ago, a girl child named Hema Tandi was sold for Rs. 5,000 in Bolangir to a well-off family in a neighbouring village. This sale was documented in the presence of independent witnesses. However, the child was subsequently restored to her parents.
But despite the region's notorious track record, the sale of Paree and Jemati has failed to convince everyone. But, even if the sale was ``stage-managed'', the authorities cannot deny that poverty is backbreaking in Bolangir and many other parts of Orissa; that the benefit of various pro-poor programmes has not reached a large number of people in the backward pockets of the State. They should act now to ensure food security and prevent hunger and trading in human lives.