"Ganesh Puja” to be celebrated by Lucknow Oriya Samaj on 13th September 2018

Untitled Document

Living at the Edge – Living in Kalahandi

I have worked and lived in undivided Kalahandi for a period of six years. First three years as District Project Officer (DPO) under the World Bank assisted Pilot Project for Strengthening Credit Delivery Systems when I operated from Bhubaneswar (but spending almost one to two weeks every month in Kalahandi) and the balance three years as DDM when I moved in to Bhwanipatna, the district headquarters, with my family. Kalahandi is not as far away and not so dreadful as the Kalahari Desert in Africa but repeated onslaughts on nature by men, machines and money have devastated the district and robbed it of its splendour greenery and wealth. Human degradation through unwise and inopportune interventions coupled with negligence and apathy have made Kalahandi what it is today – a never never land.

Much against common expectations, (including my own) stay in the district was pleasant, challenging and extremely emotional to say the least. When the transfer order was served to me to move to Kalahandi from the comfortable confines of Bhubaneswar, I was a little confused and worried. But my father, who has himself served and lived in remote places, prophesied “You will go there crying and also come out of the place with tears in your eyes”. Well, I didn't exactly cry when I left for Kalahandi but it is a fact that I could not hold my tears when I boarded the bus for the last time on 18 May 1993 when I left Kalahandi.

Kalahandi is a contradiction of sorts. Out of 18 blocks in the undivided district, two blocks, viz. Thuamul Rampur and Lanjigarh are generally evergreen throughout the year. Thuamul Rampur is also a hill station as it is situated on an elevation of around 1500 ft. or so above the sea level. In winter, the water freezes at several places at times. The place is infested with mosquitoes and wild animals like elephants and leopards. Whenever I used to visit this place, I had to carry my mosquito net and also sufficient doses of quinine! After sunset, the place used to become pitch dark and the absence of electricity most of the times made things even more adventurous. Tucked under my blanket and safely under the net on a ramshackle cot provided by my rural host, I used to tremble with excitement and fear when the growls of the leopards and the crackle of the Hyena broke the stillness of the chilly wintry night. It was in a place a little away from Thuamul Rampur that I had the first and unique opportunity to see the origin of a river viz. Indravati. The river trickles out from under the roots of a giant tree and then begins its long journey ultimately emptying itself in the waters of Bay of Bengal.

The honesty and simplicity of the Kalahandi people is simply unbelievable! I was staying in a double storied house with only one grill door at the entrance in the ground floor. One fine evening when I returned from a field visit, I found the ground floor door wide open with not a soul inside the house! All the rooms upstairs were open, my family was out and so was my “man Friday”! He returned after a few hours and despite my frantic questioning as to why he left the house open and unguarded, very proudly argued that the place is absolutely safe – no thefts and that it is not significant that the house was left unguarded! I found to my surprise that indeed it was true. My outside door used to remain open right from 6.00 a.m. to midnight and never a thing was found missing or anybody ever trespassed!

Even though Kalahandi is one of the poorest districts in the world, it is perhaps the only place in the world where a person who does not own anything is called a “sukhbasi” that is one who experiences utter bliss! The people of the district are extremely simple and honest to a fault.

During my frequent trips crisscrossing the district, I generally tried to visit the very remote places, where tucked away from civilization, were the outposts of our interventions viz. the PACS and the RRB branch. During one such visit to a remote branch of Kalahandi Anchalika Gramya Bank in M. Rampur block, I had the thrilling experience of rescuing a goat virtually from the jaws of a hyena! As our jeep was slowly negotiating the dirt track (there being no road worth mentioning), I noticed a dog-like creature dragging a full grown goat. I got down from the jeep and to my horror, saw that it was a huge hyena which was dragging the goat (which was bleating pitifully) with the help of its powerful jaws. The driver and I chased the hyena and after some hot pursuit it dropped the goat. The goat was still alive, we carried it to a nullah, gave it water which it drank and finally, we handed it over to some tribal folk hoping against hope that it will not find its way to the butcher's shop!

I will never forget the evenings in Bhawanipatna. The town is ringed by bare and rocky hills. As the sun sets over the western horizon and as suddenly as the darkness descends, the atmosphere becomes alive with the faint and faraway sound of drum beats. During summer, the shrubs dotting the hills start blazing and the glow of the inferno in the night looks as if the hills are adorned with giant garlands! These sights, scenes and sounds are forever etched in my memory.

I can write pages and pages on the simple and unassuming people of this district, of its plundered wealth, missed opportunities and unheard beauties but space being a constraint I conclude with a tribute to the district and to its people by penning below the lines composed by an unknown poet which I happened to stumble upon:

A mere speck on the surface of the earth
Yet dreadful as Siberia
Forty-two years ago
We opened our eyes to a shower of promises –
Gandhi, Nehru, Gandhi and Gandhi
But no promises came to rest at Kalahandi
We are a forgotten people – dark little burnt-out stick men
Who want nothing more than rice and water – not milk and honey –
To lend us dignity.
Our people run for the children of Africa
While the children of Kalahandi cry and die in vain –
And nobody hears
Live on the brave people of Kalahandi!

S K Chatterjee
-Director, BIRD, Lucknow