Kalahandi district in Odisha, previously known for its backwardness, is making progress.
It is an example of how effective deployment of cooperative and competitive federalism at all levels of the government — national, state and district levels — can be mobilised to realise common developmental goals.
The lush green, pristine land of Kalahandi in South-West Odisha boasts of a rich history, with an unbroken tradition of cultural heritage, tribal arts and handicrafts.
Yet, plagued with recurrent droughts, famines, widespread hunger and malnutrition, Kalahandi remains etched in public memory as one of the most backward regions, a region of paradoxical pervasive poverty.
However, at present, it is breaking the shackles of past stereotypes and dogmas and these must be reviewed to account for the transformation of this unique district.
Etymologically, Kalahandi translates to a ‘storehouse of art’. And today, it is taking decisive steps towards becoming a storehouse of culture, of infinite potential and thriving aspirations.
The region is steadily scripting its own unique model of development, pacing itself through the government’s Transformation of Aspirational Districts programme.
Aiming to improve their socio-economic status, 112 districts across the country are consistently monitored on their relative progress across 49 key indicators in critical sectors such as health, education, agriculture and basic infrastructure.
Any comprehensive analysis of rural development must contextualise the local populace in terms of their ecology, history, culture and politics. Driven by the districts themselves, this programme that engages with the citizens, must be applauded for realizing a confluence of tradition with qualitative progress.
It seems there is great merit in the effective deployment of cooperative and competitive federalism at all levels of the government — at the national, state and district levels — to realise common goals.
The Aspirational Districts programme has encouraged multiple innovative practices across sectors, gearing Kalahandi towards ringing in transformative change.
At first glance, the roads and infrastructure at Bhawanipatna, the district headquarters, which is a ten-hour drive away from Bhubaneshwar, could surprise anyone with the proclaimed backwardness of this region.
But then, moving just a few kilometers more, the fading signal bars of one’s phone serves as a reminder of the multiple challenges the district faces, including left-wing extremism, difficult terrain and accessibility.
Where continuous water supply, irrigation and electricity pose a major challenge, the district has merged modern technology with traditional wisdom to create solutions. Today, there are 31 gravity-based water systems that harness the potential energy from spring water stored in higher ridges to provide water downhill through contours and channels.
Set up in the most hard-to-reach areas, these systems ensure 24x7 tap water supply to 35 villages and 12 schools, impacting over 5,500 beneficiaries. Tapping into futuristic energy sources, the district uses solar panels to fully power schools, residential hostels and even maintain refrigeration for vaccines and injections at health centres.
At Sai Surni, a village in Thuamul Rampur — one of the most remote blocks — one can witness an integrated, holistic health system, addressing the interconnected challenges of accessibility, far-spread settlements, maternal and infant mortality, and low institutional deliveries.
A Ma Griha clinic — a waiting-room for pregnant women — functions adjacent to a clean and well-maintained delivery unit, inclusive of a bike ambulance and a solar-powered cold point for vaccines.
Besides ensuring that pregnant women, sick children and the elderly get timely health care, these neatly designed bike-ambulances with a sidecar bed, are also used for health-awareness campaigns.
The contact numbers of the bike-riders are painted on the community walls and especially on houses with pregnant women, to ensure that they can be reached at short-notice in case of emergencies.
Each of these seven Ma Griha clinics, spread across six of the most challenging blocks, facilitates safe deliveries for at least 50 women each month and ensures timely immunization of the newborn children.
Further, these bike ambulances have even helped reduce the incidence of malaria and fatalities from road accidents.
All of these initiatives are being run without fear or fail in the backdrop of a hauntingly beautiful forested terrain with far-flung settlements cradling the hills and tribal artefacts adorning mud walls.
Odisha is also home to NITI Aayog’s Sustainable Action for Transforming Human capital (SATH) project, catalyzing systemic reform in education through initiatives such as state-wide learning enhancement programmes, optimizing school structures, and organization restructuring that includes strengthening, monitoring and maintaining accountability.
Both the Aspirational Districts programme as well as SATH, together converge towards improving learning outcomes.
Kalahandi serves as a litmus to show that these projects are functioning well even in the most remote regions. For instance, for the learning programme, spot checks confirmed consistent and satisfactory responses to surprise comprehension questions, square root problems and even linear equations.
Grouping and teaching of children according to their learning levels has resulted in a whopping 10-15 per cent improvement in learning in subjects ranging from English, Odia and Math in classes three, five, and eight across the state.
Odisha’s novel move to merge its directorates of elementary and secondary education will further result in eliminating the artificial fragmentation in school education and boost learning outcomes.
The developmental landscape of Kalahandi reveals an interesting cocktail of modern practices being blended with the intrinsic cultural context. An interaction with beneficiaries, mostly tribals, shows their receptivity towards development across sectors, showing increased civic participation and responsiveness of policy interventions.
It is incredible to witness expecting mothers being served hot, nutritious meals at a fully functioning Ma Griha clinic; it is wonderful to see colorfully painted schools with high attendance, their corridors ringing with the chorus of students quoting rhymes and lessons.
It is deeply gratifying to meet kids brimming with hope and a thirst to learn, articulating their vision and working for their future. From smiling young drivers of bike ambulances to a driven administration with the will to move forward, everything presents a ray of hope that the vicious cycle of underdevelopment can finally be broken.
There is no doubt that the district has a long road ahead to fully transform its development landscape, but there is evidence today of the success of policy innovations that were set within the socio-cultural context.
Described as a global pocket of poverty, Kalahandi is spearheading the transformation of its identity. Previously infamous for lending its name to the Kalahandi Syndrome (synonymous with backwardness, deprivation and starvation), the district is now charting a progressive trajectory towards development.
It serves as a stellar example of how even the most backward regions can transform with focused monitoring and fixed targets, providing an implementable template for similar regions across the country. And Kalahandi shall continue to grow, to evolve and unleash its aspirations.