Ground Reports

Independent India’s First Planned City Is Slowly Turning Into An Urban Quagmire — Ground Report From Bhubaneswar

Jaideep Mazumdar

May 24, 2024, 02:46 PM | Updated 02:46 PM IST

Bhubaneswar skyline from Khandagiri hill. (Sailesh Patnaik/Wikipedia)
Bhubaneswar skyline from Khandagiri hill. (Sailesh Patnaik/Wikipedia)
  • A vengeful BJD government moved tonnes of garbage from the landfill right next to the dwellings of the protesters.
  • Bhubaneshwar’s innards have started rotting. And the stink is overpowering in a few of its pockets. 

    Beyond the verdant boulevards lined by glitzy showrooms, sprawling bungalows and architectural showpieces, Independent India’s first planned city is slowly turning into an urban quagmire.

    Its vast slums sitting on mountains of garbage, open sewer lines, filth and squalor, mafia-controlled crime and trafficking dens, and water and power shortages are the manifestations of corruption, misgovernance and misplaced priorities of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) government. 

    Visitors to Bhubaneshwar are always taken in by the tree-lined smooth and wide roads flanked by clean and paved pedestrian walks, its many well-maintained parks and public facilities, and its pleasant structures that speak of the state’s genteel culture. 

    But there is a Bhubaneshwar beyond all this, and that Bhubaneshwar is an eyesore for visitors as well as a living hell for the toiling masses who dwell there. 

    It is this Bhubaneshwar — the sleazy and stinky one — that I decided to visit. Because of the real danger that this side of the city is likely to creep up on and overwhelm the rest of Bhubaneshwar. 

    Bisheshwar Basti on Sarveshwar Mandir Road is a slum that gives a whole new meaning to the term ‘squalor’. An overpowering stench assaults and numbs the olfactories; the air is foul and its thousand-odd residents are little more than living corpses. 

    Bhubaneshwar is perhaps the only city in India with a huge, open garbage dump right in its heart. The BJD government in the state, and the civic mandarins of Bhubaneshwar, have earned for themselves the dubious distinction of converting an open space in the capital city into a vast garbage dump with little concern for the citizens living in its vicinity and beyond. 

    Bishweshar Basti.
    Bishweshar Basti.
    Bishweshar Basti.
    Bishweshar Basti.

    It is difficult to take a deep breath at Bisheshwar Basti. Its residents suffer from a host of ailments ranging from asthma and skin disease to lung infections, diarrhoea and even cancer. Not surprising, since they live in such foetid conditions. 

    Girija Behera, 34, runs a small shop selling cigarettes, wafers and other items on the Sarveshwar Mandir Road. His shop, and the one-roomed house attached to it, are next to the mountain of garbage that forms a sordid backdrop to their lives. 

    Girija, and his wife Swapna, suffer from skin diseases. Their children — a college-going son and a school-going daughter — suffer from asthma. Stomach disorders are common and they live in perpetual fear of contracting some dreaded disease. 

    “The garbage dump was further away. But about four months ago, the civic authorities extended it and now it towers over our houses,” Girija told Swarajya

    The residents of Bisheshwar Basti had, over the past couple of years, been demanding that the garbage dump be shifted to any place far away from the city. But the authorities had been simply ignoring them. 

    Girija Behere in his small shop at Bisheshwar Basti.
    Girija Behere in his small shop at Bisheshwar Basti.

    About five months ago, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took up their cause and organised protests. Angered by that, a vengeful BJD government moved tonnes of garbage from the landfill right next to the dwellings of the protesters. Thus, in effect, extending the toxic waste dump right till the houses of those who had dared protest against the BJD government and the BJD-run Bhubaneshwar Municipal Corporation. 

    “During the monsoons, our lives become unbearable. Toxic water from the landfill flows into our houses, and we get skin infections, dysentery and many other ailments,” complained Swapna  Behera. 

    “The stench becomes worse when the trucks (dumpsters and backhoe excavators) move the garbage from one place to another. During the dry season, the landfill catches fire at times and it burns slowly for weeks, emitting foul smoke that makes our lives more miserable,” said Gauri Malik, 58, another resident of the slum. 

    Gauri Malik in her house at Bisheshwar Basti. The landfill can be seen behind her.
    Gauri Malik in her house at Bisheshwar Basti. The landfill can be seen behind her.

    Vector-borne diseases like malaria, dengue and chikungunya are common because the landfill is a fertile breeding ground for mosquitoes, flies and ticks. 

    “I have suffered from typhoid a few times and my children (a college going daughter and two school-going sons) suffer from many other ailments,” said Gauri. 

    The residents of Bisheshwar Basti are not covered by any welfare scheme of the state government. They have been denied even the health insurance scheme — ’Biju Swasthya Kalyan’ — and other schemes like doles for widowed women and elderly. 

    There are over 300 registered slums in Bhubaneshwar, but the actual figure is at least four times that number. Saliasahi is the biggest of them with over 7,000 households — one room dwellings cramped into a small space with narrow lanes, overflowing drains and loads of despair criss-crossing the slum. 

    But it is Malisahi, another slum in central Bhubaneshwar, that is a real cause for concern. Because it is the nerve-centre of Bhubaneshwar’s drug and human trafficking trade, and a safe haven for criminals who are sheltered by a powerful mafia. 

    Most of the 7,000-odd residents of Malisahi are Muslims, and many of them are suspected to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. 

    The crime-lords of Bhubaneshwar, mostly Muslims of Bangladeshi origin, dwell at Malisahi, which is a no-go zone for the law enforcement authorities.

    A new mosque in a locality of recent immigrants from Bangladesh in Jatni.
    A new mosque in a locality of recent immigrants from Bangladesh in Jatni.

    The crime-lords enjoy complete immunity and are alleged to be patronised by the BJD. They supply muscle-power to the BJD; young Muslim men from this slum can often be seen in BJD rallies in and around Bhubaneshwar. 

    “The BJD patronises them (the Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh) and has provided them ration cards and other documents. No one, not even the police commissioner of Bhubaneshwar, dares to mess with them. All crimes that happen in Bhubaneswar are masterminded and controlled from Malisahi,” said a senior professor of Utkal University who spoke on condition of anonymity for obvious reasons. 

    I venture into Malisahi with a lot of trepidation. It is not a slum like any other in India. What sets it apart are the groups of menacing-looking men who keep a close watch on everyone going in or coming out of the area. A sense of fear and foreboding strikes any ‘outsider’ who visits this den of crime and sleaze.

    The small concrete dwellings that line the streets are interspersed by small shops selling a variety of items, including what appears to be stolen goods like electrical and electronic devices. 

    Youngsters — many of them are clearly drug addicts with sunken cheeks and glassy eyes — while away their time and a few sex workers solicit customers even during daytime. Many of Malisahi’s lanes turn into red-light areas after dusk. The sex trade is controlled by the mafia that enjoys the patronage of the state’s rulers. 

    The patronage of the crime-lords and illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in Malisahi is a very sore point for many residents of Bhubaneshwar. 

    “The BJD’s patronage of the crime-lords of Malisahi is dangerous and will have very grave long-term consequences. These crime-lords are facilitating the influx of more and more illegal immigrants and the BJD government is giving them ration cards and other citizenship documents. They are a big vote bank for the BJD,” said Ashutosh (he gave only his first name), a resident of an apartment complex on Shriya Talkies Street that overlooks Malisahi. 

    BJP leaders attest to that. “The BJD uses these illegal Muslim immigrants as vote banks and patronises them. And they (the BJD) want this vote bank to grow so that it can hold on to power,” said a BJP functionary of Bhubaneshwar. 

    The issue of patronage of Muslims, especially Bangladesh-origin Muslims, by the BJD finds articulation even in the semi-urban parts of the Bhubaneshwar Lok Sabha seat.

    Priyabrata Das, 24, a small contractor who supplies stone chips to construction sites at Jatni (a small town about 24 kilometres southwest of Bhubaneshwar), is bitter about the benefits given to illegal Bangladesh-origin immigrants by local BJD leaders. 

    Priyabrata Das.
    Priyabrata Das.

    “They (the illegal immigrants) are into all sorts of crimes and the police don’t take any action against them because they are patronised by BJD leaders,” he told Swarajya. Jatni is an assembly segment that falls under the Bhubaneshwar Lok Sabha seat. 

    Local residents of Jatani and its surrounding areas take the name of BJD leader Rajendra Kumar Sahoo (the MLA of neighbouring Begunia, which also falls under the Bhubaneshwar parliamentary constituency) as the prime patron of the Muslims. 

    “He (Sahoo) uses them as his musclemen and as foot soldiers to commit various sorts of crimes, and also intimidate voters during elections. There are about 30,000 Muslims in Jatni (Assembly segment) and while some are Odiya Muslims, most are illegal immigrants. It is these immigrants from Bangladesh who cause all the trouble and indulge in crimes,” said Prasanta Samal, a garment trader who owns a small store on the Angul-Jatni road. 

    Das alleged that Sahoo has been encouraging the Muslim crime-lords of the area to get in more and more illegal Bangladeshi immigrants from neighbouring Bengal in order to build his vote bank and carry out illegal activities. 

    “They (Muslim youth) have been committing ‘love jihad’ which has assumed very serious proportions. Many Hindu girls have been enticed by Muslim youth and forcibly converted to Islam after marriage. And then many of these girls have disappeared,” said Das. 

    Mukundaprasad village in the outskirts of Jatni town has a sizable number of Bangladesh-origin immigrants. “Young men from the village entice Hindu girls of a college there, go out for dates with them and then blackmail them. Gullible Hindu girls are then forced into marriage and converted to Islam. Many Hindu girls have fallen victim to this ‘love jihad’ and have also disappeared,” said Das. 

    The Hindu Jagaran Manch, he added, has now launched an awareness campaign amongst Hindu girls and their families about ‘love jihad’. 

    Mukundaprasad’s Muslims — they constitute about 30 per cent of the population there but punch far above their strength — have also succeeded in stopping Hindu religious processions from passing through the village. 

    “Ram Navami processions have been passing through Mukundaprasad without any trouble for a number of years. But last month, Muslims of Mukundaprasad objected to the Ram Navami procession passing by the village and the administration, on instructions from local strongman Sahoo (the Begunia MLA) who patronises the Muslims, banned the procession from passing by the village. When some youngsters of the village congregated to defy the unjustified ban, the police threatened them and didn’t even allow them to travel in a group to Jatni town to participate in the procession from the town. The Muslims of Mukundaprasad have, since then, been mocking Hindus and telling us that we are powerless,” Avinash Routray, 35, who runs a medical store outside the National Institute of Science Education & Research (NISER) in Jatni told Swarajya

    Jatni, part of the Bhubaneshwar Lok Sabha seat, faces other issues as well that agitate the locals. Primary among the issues is lack of employment opportunities at the three industrial estates in the area — the Mukundaprasad, Sarua and Jankia Industrial Estates. 

    “Qualified locals don’t get employment in the companies at these estates. The companies prefer to employ outsiders and take in locals only as labourers. I’m a software engineer and was refused employment at the software hub there, so I had to migrate to Bengaluru to work there. I've been working from home here since the pandemic,” Ashish Bidurendra Chhotaray, 30, told Swarajya

    Ashish Bidurendra Chhotaray.
    Ashish Bidurendra Chhotaray.

    Subhankar Baral, 30, also holds a BTech degree, but couldn’t get a job at NISER or any of the many institutes in and around Bhubaneshwar. On an extended leave right now, Baral told Swarajya that he was forced to leave his ailing parents at home in Jatni and migrate to Bengaluru for work. 

    Like many other parts of Odisha, Jatni also faces a huge drinking water and sanitation crisis. The area also lacks a proper market and other civic amenities. Roads inside the town are in a sorry state. 

    But one doesn’t need to travel to Jatni from Bhubaneshwar to see the poor condition of roads. There are many areas within Bhubaneshwar city where the roads are little more than dirt tracks. In fact, one needs to take any of the roads leading off showpiece boulevards like Raj Path, Janpath Road, Bidyut Marg or the Ekamra Kanan Road to experience the ‘real’ Bhubaneshwar. 

    A showpiece boulevard in Bhubaneswar.
    A showpiece boulevard in Bhubaneswar.

    I get off NH 16, which passes through the heart of the city, and take the road to Nayapalli, an upscale locality with bungalows and apartment blocks. None of the roads and lanes in Nayapalli have been repaired for years, and many lie unpaved. 

    “The municipal authorities have been digging up the roads here to construct drains for the past two years. The work was supposed to be completed within six months, we are now being told that it will take another eight months to complete. I have stopped taking out my car except for emergencies. I prefer to walk to the main road and catch a cab from there. Cabs refuse to come to my house due to the terrible condition of the road and even ambulances find it difficult to negotiate the craters in the roads,” Biswanath Dash, a retired bureaucrat who built a bungalow at Nayapalli after he retired from service a few years ago, told Swarajya

    Many areas of Bhubaneshwar face power cuts up to six hours a day. And piped water is yet to reach quite a number of wards under the Bhubaneshwar Municipal Corporation. 

    Poor civic amenities, coupled with rising crime due to patronage allegedly extended to crime-lords by ruling party politicians, had made life in Bhubaneshwar, which is named after Shiva, very difficult. 

    “Bhubaneshwar was once the city of 700 temples. Bhubaneshwar is actually derived from Tribhubaneshwar (Lord of all three universes), or Shiva. This holy city named after Shiva has been defiled by the BJD for its petty political gains,” said Dash. 

    And this has made the fight for the Bhubaneshwar Lok Sabha seat easier for the incumbent MP — the BJP’s Aparajita Sarangi. 

    Sarangi has been promising the electorate here that she will change the face of the city. A crackdown on crime and crime-lords, redevelopment of slums, accelerated improvement of civic infrastructure and a reversal of the BJD’s policy of Muslim appeasement has been her primary poll promises. 

    But for all that to happen, she adds, it is also necessary to unseat the BJD from power in the state. Hence, she has been telling the electorate, it is necessary to vote for the BJP candidates in seven assembly segments under the Bhubaneshwar Lok Sabha seat. 

    In 2019, though she won the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP could not win any of the seven assembly seats in the state elections that were held simultaneously. 

    “There is huge anti-incumbency against the BJD government that has failed the people of Bhubaneshwar. That anti-incumbency, coupled with public anger over the BJD blocking implementation of the many welfare schemes and projects initiated by the Modi government that would have immensely benefited the people here, will propel us to a win in the assembly seats as well this time,” said BJP leader Avinash Mohanty.

    This report is part of Swarajya's 50 Ground Stories Project - an attempt to throw light on themes and topics that are often overlooked or looked down. You can support this initiative by sponsoring as little as Rs 2,999/-. Click here for more details.

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