Symbolic political or bureaucratic representation of dalits and tribals has not benefitted the representative sections except for the purpose that it serves the people in apex decision-making levels to believe that the Indian Constitution and its mandate is being respected. As per the 2011 Census, Odisha, with 40 per cent of population belonging to the marginalised communities, of which scheduled tribes (STs) constitute 22.85 while scheduled castes (SCs) comprise of 17.13 per cent, has never been able to have a strong representation to put forward the developmental aspirations of their communities. Leadership from bottom up has never been strong and this resulted in these communities languishing in abject poverty, neglect and deprivation of all sorts.
The paradigm shift exemplified in enacting the 73rd Amendment ‘to rebuild from below’ and restructure the polity has been challenged by the existence of caste pyramids that epitomise political inequality, if not social inequality. This paradigm shift from the core to the periphery, as also the dynamic interplay of power dispersal and authority to local leaders, has brought in internal and external changes in the social system. Established social relationships are not just discriminatory but also exploitative and in conflict with the rule of democracy, which aims to represent weaker sections. Dalits and tribals continue to be deprived of leadership positions in public space.
The MANTRA model
In the last 67 years of independence, Odisha has not seen any exemplary leadership from dalits and tribals. It has not seen the emergence of an emphatic and nurturing leadership of a transformative nature from the disadvantaged sections of the society. Development programmes and their implementation have only widened the gap between tribals and the general population, with no development programme targeted to bring rural communities together. Understanding the ground reality, Gram Vikas, an NGO working in Odisha from 1979 onwards, initiated a new programme named Movement and Action Network for Transformation in Rural Areas (MANTRA) to strengthen grassroots democracy where leadership is the prerequisite for substantial and tangible impact on the poor and marginalised communities. Understanding the inherent potential of a development programme that calls for 100 per cent participation by all sections of society irrespective of caste, class and economic affiliations, Gram Vikas proposed an inclusive, gender-sensitive, sustainable development model.
Kandho Tirigucha village in Ganjam district of Odisha was transformed by Gram Vikas’ development model under the leadership of Kabiraj Jani, hailing from the Kondha tribe. One of the most severe problem faced by the people of K Tirigucha was access to drinking water. In summer, the villagers faced acute scarcity of water and during monsoon they had to drink from a muddy stream. This caused a variety of ailments among the villagers. There was lack of privacy, with no bathing rooms and unrelenting indignity and risk accompanied something as fundamental as relieving one self. Today, every household has a toilet and bathing rooms in this village with 24×7 potable water supply. Women were particularly benefited by the sanitation initiatives. The local community readily accepted Kabiraj; and the water and sanitation programme initiated by him was extended to the neighbouring villages of Khandisara, Talataila, and K Banta. The transformation encompassed infrastructure, health care, and livelihood creation. His efforts were awarded by the Governor of Odisha during the 30th anniversary celebrations of Gram Vikas. Nearer home, he was chosen as the president and volunteer of Odiya Tirigucha—a neighbouring village with 64 households.
Forceful assertion of the rights of the dispossessed and their manifestation in terms of leadership in a democratic space needs sincere efforts at every level. An appropriate strategy to implement developmental programmes in an inclusive manner can largely transform rural India.