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MDGs: The view from Orissa

Forestry officer Ajit Bharthuar is midway through outlining his clean energy proposals to a plenary meeting on ‘Ensuring Environmental Sustainability’, the seventh Millennium Development Goal (MDG), when his microphone falls silent.

The lights simultaneously cut out; for a moment the only sound is the monsoon rain lashing against the tarpaulin above our heads. Ajit Bharthuar is undaunted. Clearly accustomed to this sort of hindrance, he raises his voice and forges on through the darkness until the light returns.

We’re a long way from New York City. The forestry officer is addressing the MDGs summit in Bhubaneswar, the state capital of Orissa, one of India’s poorest regions.

The UN Human Development Report recently identified it as 1 of the 8 Indian states where more people live in poverty than in the 26 sub-Saharan African countries combined, a startling fact which places it very much on the front line of the struggle to achieve the MDGs by 2015.

The prognosis is not good. Take the fourth Goal, which seeks to reduce the under-five mortality rate by two thirds between 1990 and 2015. Since 1991, infant mortality in Orissa has fallen just 33 per cent, from 124 deaths per thousand live births to 83.

This is some way short of the progress made in India as a whole, where the rate fell from 116 to 69. More pertinently, both figures are a long way from the rate of 39 deaths per thousand live births that India would need to reach its target.

The figures for education are similarly depressing. At present, the literacy rate in Orissa stands at 54 per cent, well below India’s national rate of 65 per cent. But even this statistic disguises geographical and gender disparities. In a rural village in Orissa’s Koraput district, only one in ten girls will learn to read and write.

Education in Orissa made some progress, but there is still a long way to go. Photo credit: EKTA.

Clearly there is no way that the ambitious targets set in 2000 can be met at the current rate of progress. Shairose Mawji, chief of UNICEF’s field office in Orissa, argues for a renewed emphasis on the targeting of support.

She said: ‘An equity-based approach is needed. We know that even though we support many of the government’s programmes, the gap between the rich and the poor is actually widening. The only way we can address that is to refocus and ensure that targeted interventions really reach those who are most marginalized.’

There are some small rays of hope. Nobody I spoke to at the summit placed too much blame on Orissa’s state government, and indeed Dr Ambika Prasad Nanda, the UNDP’s programme officer in the region, praised them for providing stability against a backdrop of Maoist violence.

‘In the last one and a half decades we have seen a lot of progressive policies, in India and in the state of Orissa,’ he said. ‘The government in Orissa has delivered political stability, and for any development initiative, political stability is the cornerstone from which the community gets organized and gains confidence.’

Orissa’s chief minister Naveen Patnaik accepted that progress had been slow. However, he argued that poverty levels are at least heading in the right direction, with the proportion of the population living below the poverty line falling from 47.15 per cent in 1997 to 39.90 per cent in 2005.

‘Orissa has been striving to achieve a sustainable and inclusive economic growth, to accelerate the overall development of its people and a faster reduction of poverty,’ he said. ‘My government is committed to sustained efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.’

The state governor, Murlidhar Chandrakant Bhandare, was more circumspect: ‘We will not achieve the goals, let us not deceive ourselves. But we must try to get close.’

At 81, the former Supreme Court advocate has seen many politicians’ promises come and go. He has lost none of his passion or eloquence though, and he left me in no doubt of his message to the world leaders gathered in New York: ‘If you can achieve the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger in Orissa, you can achieve it anywhere in the world.’

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