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Issues in Orissa

Chris Elliot, a Concern UK Trustee, is in India visiting Concern's operations. This week, he will be sharing his experiences of the trip as a guest blogger.

All along the road to Keonjhar, gaily painted lorries revved their engines, waiting for the evening curfew to rise. At the end of our first day in the state of Orissa we were witnessing an evening ritual that symbolised the challenges that face this state of 38 million people in North East India.

It is in one sense the richest, holding 20% of all the minerals in India. The lorries were waiting until the law says they can virtually take over the road at 8pm to ferry the mined ore and other minerals to Paradeep, the nearest port.

As the lorries trundle through the night they pass through villages whose inhabitants know little of the riches that once lay buried beneath their soil, and who see precious little of the cash such mining generates. If Orissa was a nation state it would be among the poorest in the world, well into the bottom 40. These are the people Concern’s team of 22 based at Bubaneshwar are here to help.

Their official status is as a liaison office which means that all their work is through local partners. Their main focus is on advocacy, HIV and maintaining a rapid deployment team ready for the many emergencies that sweep a country that was prone to natural disaster before global warming and climate change began to emerge. It is a country that has an area 60% of which may suffer an earthquake, 68% is prone to drought and eight per cent to flooding.

Matthew Pickard, Concern’s India Country Director, says that 70% of their budget and efforts go into advocacy. “It’s all about governance, accountability and livelihoods. There are laws and resources coming into the region. A widow might be entitled to allowances of 2,000 to 3,000 Rupees but they just don’t get through. It could be corruption, inefficiency or excessive bureaucracy but they don’t reach her. We try to monitor the process, encourage people to claim what’s rightfully theirs.”

He is deeply concerned at the speed and rapacity of many new mining ventures. “We are not anti-industrialisation, but how it is done. I would ask whether it’s right to rip 20% of the ground up heedless of whether people are suffering.”

One of the most disadvantaged groups is the untouchables; those people at the bottom of the highly complex, deeply ingrained caste system. At the village of Bahania, Concern works with partner Netaji Jubak Sangh, a local NGO, to help farmers re-establish themselves after unseasonal flooding last October and encourage their wives to form an increasingly important self help group.

In all there are 14 women who save 25 rupees a month - no small sum when annual incomes are measured in thousands - and work to build political partnerships. Matarina Sita Jena is the secretary. “The women used to be just taking care of their homes but this group has given us a platform to discuss our views.”

The role of women in saving money in groups with a bank is crucial in creating a cushion for the difficult times. The banks don’t have a high regard for the untouchables as credit risks. The men are often debt defaulters because they go for individual loans to invest in agriculture which are then often wiped out in natural disasters. Concern’s partner NJS give the banks confidence that their money will be safe with the women’s group.