Written by Vibhuti Mishra for "The Tribune"
"I walk eight kilometres every day to earn Rs 260 a month. On some days we eat and on some days we don’t. We sleep on empty stomachs. I became a showpiece. They published my photographs and forgot I needed food to live." This comes from Banita (32) who was sold for Rs 40 in 1985. Her name along with that of her native place Kalahandi made it to the headlines, causing the then Prime Minister to rush to Orissa.
Driven by hunger and starvation, her sister-in-law Phanus Punji sold off 14-year-old Banita to one Pati Boda for just Rs 40 almost two decades back. The then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and his wife Sonia rushed to the remote village of Anlapali in the Khariar block of Kalahandi, where she lived. There was a beeline of politicians, officers and journalists to the place. The heart-rending story of Banita formed the staple of sensational stories in glossies and Kalahandi became synonymous with poverty, starvation and sale of children.
Eighteen years later the world has forgotten Banita who is still caught in the vortex of poverty and misery. She has become cynical. "Why do you all come? To take my pictures and print them? What do you come to see? My hunger, poverty, my blind husband, my famished children?" she cries out. Worn out and withered, Banita looks like an old woman. A mother of five and with a blind, ailing husband to look after, she is neck deep in loans and ever-increasing interest. None of her kids go to school and dreadful poverty stares her in the face. To stave off starvation, she perhaps has no other option but to sell her youngest child, a daughter who is barely three.
Pati Poda who bought her got her married to his blind, elderly son Bidyadhar Poda and she bore him five children. "My husband forbade me to have the operation. He said he would abandoned me if I got it done," she says explaining why she did not go for a family planning operation. To make matters worse she faced social boycott as she was not the legally wedded wife of Bidyadhar. The marriage did not get social sanction as they did not have the money to host a wedding feast.
"There was no marriage. I had no choice," she reveals calmly. However, 15 years later on October 21, 2000, her marriage was conducted according to Vedic rites, thanks to former union minister of state for railways Bhakta Charan Das who funded the wedding and the feast.
The villagers accepted her but life remained grim. She was engaged as a cook in an Anganwadi centre 8 km away. At first she earned Rs 3.50 a day; an amount that was hiked to Rs 7. Today she gets a monthly salary of Rs 260 which is not paid to her regularly and at times, if she buys leftover food from the center for her starving children, the supervisor deducts her salary.
She is the only earning member of her family. None of her children go to school and her blind husband cannot work. Sometimes her elder daughter tends cattle and gets some rice in as payment for the work. To ward off starvation, Banita has taken loans from local people at an interest of 5 per cent per month. She now lives in Khatimunda village. The other villagers are too poor to give any help to her. And Banita’s is perhaps the poorest family.
Banita’s case has been extensively reported but she has got little benefit. Says B. Behera, a social activist working in the Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput region, "It’s all because of the lack of political will and failure of administrative machinery. There are hundreds of such cases and poverty continues to stalk these poor souls. They are forced to sell everything, including their children, to eke out a living." But the government officials do not agree that any child has been sold. The much touted KBK (Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput) project launched by the government of India in 1996 has failed to take off and bring about the all-round progress envisaged for the poor and poverty stricken people of the region. Says an official of the Bongomunda block, "Actually the funds for KBK were released almost four years after the programme was announced and then the administrative set up was not there. So it will take time. " However there have been constant allegations of corruption and siphoning off of funds which politicians like Bishwabhushan Harichandan, revenue minister of Orissa and B. K. Deo, MP from Kalahandi, deny.
Some years back Banita had to support her parents-in-law, too. But now they have died and along with them have died her hopes. All household things have been sold off and her life is a daily struggle against poverty and privation. Life has nothing much to offer her. Much like the promises of the district administration. Poverty alleviation is a topic that figures only in government meetings.
Banita is worse off than her sister-in-law Phanus who still lives in Anlapali. She has at least got an Indira Awas Yojana house to find shelter in. Even that has not come to Banita who in her search for food has unwittingly become food for publicity.