Driving down to the Kashipur village block is almost an idyllic fantasy. But the picturesque landscape hides a dark truth - cholera is stalking the region, pushing it towards doom, reports Grassroots Features.
At least 52 people in this block in Rayagada district have died of cholera. It was in 1987 that Kashipur made headlines following reports of starvation deaths. Leaders including the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi rushed to the area.
Again in 2001, the death of 20 people due to consumption of poisonous food made headlines in all national and international newspapers, forcing the chief minister and a central team to visit Kashipur several times.
The story of Singari Majhi of Bilamala village whose grandson is suffering from diarrhoea and has been admitted in a PHC (primary health centre) speaks the true story of their condition.
"My grandson had severe vomiting and loose motions since last two days. We took him to the Rayagada hospital, 70 km from here. I can't afford to take any chance with my grandson's health; I had already lost my husband, two sons and one daughter in 2001. He is the only hope for my old age," she said.
Devjani Majhi of Kucheipadar village was not as fortunate as Singri. She lost her husband due to the cholera outbreak. "There was no transportation facility. If he had been treated on time, we could have saved him. He has left me helpless with my three small children," she cried.
In Panasguda, seven people had died within two days in 2001, after consuming mango kernels. Ram Majhi's brother was among them. "We don't always have sufficient food to eat and we have to eat mango kernel paste, roots, mushrooms, etc. I got Rs. 10,000 compensation, 20 kg rice and a BPL (Below Poverty Line) card when he died. But with no work how long will that last," he said.
"In our village nobody has job cards. So how can we survive? Every year during rains people suffer diarrhoea. When we tribals, die, it makes news for you people. We have lost faith in everybody, including the government," he added.
In Panasguda and Gotiguda in the Kashipur block, villagers have not received any job cards, whereas in Bilamala, those who have been issued cards got work for only two or three days.
Although a number of tube wells were put up in the area to ensure the availability of safe drinking water, the tribals continued to fetch water from the open sources, which are now contaminated.
While diarrhoea and malaria have been regularly claiming lives, the large-scale deaths reported during the rains indicated a sharp fall in their resistance power.
In Kashipur only seven out of the 10 doctor's posts have been filled. Mandibisi, Sunger, Dongasil and Kucheipadar health centres are operating without doctors.
After the visit of Rajiv Gandhi here in 1987, a special grant of Rs. 600 million had been released under IFARD (Integrated Fund for Rural Development) for the development of the Koraput district and the Kashipur block in particular.
Since then, millions of rupees have been released for the area but the condition of the tribal is yet to change for reasons best known to the administration.
Reports of a fact-finding team drawn from various voluntary organisations as well as a survey by the New Delhi-based Centre for Environment and Food Security (CEFS) have reinforced the belief that food insecurity, despite the implementation of National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), has emerged as the main villain.
The CEFS report, which links cholera to the misappropriation of NREGS funds reported that out of Rs. 7 billion spent on the programme during 2006-07, about Rs. 5 billion was siphoned off.
With cholera taking a heavy toll, questions are being raised on the manner in which such a huge sum of money was utilised. During the last nine years, Rs.1.51 billion was spent for improvement of health services in the area while another Rs.27 billion was spent for generation of employment.