Congress’s lone MP from Odisha on food security, Aadhaar and the condition of his party

15 June, 2019

In this year’s general election, out of the 21 Lok Sabha constituencies in Odisha, the Biju Janata Dal won 12 and the Bharatiya Janata Party won eight, while the Congress bagged just one seat. Saptagiri Ulaka, a 40-year-old computer engineer by training, is the Congress’s sole member of parliament and represents the state’s Koraput constituency. The Adivasi-dominated constituency falls in the state’s KBK region—Koraput-Bolangir-Kalahandi—which is considered one of the most backward in the country. The constituency is spread across the Koraput and Rayagada districts, where over 70 percent of the population is below the poverty line. This is a result, as well as a cause, of the various development and policy issues that plague the constituency, such as food insecurity, lack of education and development.

In his election campaign, Ulaka, an Adivasi, raised these issues and focused on the controversies surrounding the BJP during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first term. He hails from a family of Congress leaders—his father, Ramachandra Ulaka, was elected to the legislative assembly from Rayagada seven times and as an MP from Koraput twice; his mother, Ratnamani Ulaka, is the vice president of the women’s wing of the party in the state.

In an interview with the activists Abinash Dash Choudhury and Sweta Dash, Ulaka discussed deaths because of starvation in Odisha and the problems faced by Adivasis in his constituency. The imposition of Aadhaar to avail benefits and subsidies, he said, “is nothing but the state’s arrogance towards the poor.”

Abinash Dash Choudhury and Sweta Dash: Although Koraput was a Congress bastion since Independence, the last 10 years saw the BJD’s reign. To win Koraput, you defeated Kausalya Hikaka from the BJD, the wife of the outgoing MP, and Jayaram Pangi from the BJP, a former member of parliament of the constituency. What was your campaign centred on to win the constituency?
Saptagiri Ulaka: Koraput has been a Congress bastion mainly because of multiple grass-roots stalwarts—Ramachandra Ulaka, my father; Habibullah Khan [a nine-time member of legislative assembly of the Nabarangpur constituency]; Raghunath Patnaik [a six-time MLA from the Jeypore constituency] and Dr Giridhar Gamang [a former chief minister]—who stood as pillars and groomed the undivided Koraput district.

In 2009 and 2014, we lost because of wrong distribution of tickets. After Dr Gamang left for BJP [in 2015], there was a vacuum for a leader. I had been moving around the constituency, trying to motivate the workers, consoling them. I had resigned from Infosys in western coast of the US and came down to Koraput. My mother helped me connect with the party. During 2019 elections, the process for ticket distribution was through grass roots demand of the people. I emerged as the choice of the workers, and they gave me the ticket. Hence, our message went to the voters and they voted for me. They trusted me, of course, because I am the son of Ramachandra Ulaka, but also because I am an educated software professional who has come down to serve the people.

We did not spend too much of money—the campaign was mostly word-of-mouth and a bit of social media. We tried to explain how national issues, such as the Rafale corruption by the BJP government, directly affects them by highlighting that if the contract was given fairly to the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited [a state-owned aviation company] there would have been more job opportunities in such public-sector undertakings. The NYAY programme [the minimum-income guarantee scheme, which was the party’s flagship poll promise] was also received very well by people. There [is] a Telugu-speaking business community, so we highlighted the GST, as they have problems with it. Demonetisation was forgotten, [but] we reminded people about it, and all sectors voted for us.

ADC and SD: You won the constituency with a margin of 3,613 votes, while the party lost every other seat in the state. What will be your priorities after this mandate?
SU: I am getting a lot of sympathy that I am the lone MP, but I don’t agree with that. We are 52 [the total number of Congress MPs], and this strength is much more than what Biju Janata Dal will have with 12 MPs. This is a very good opportunity to be a strong opposition—especially, when the government is leaving no scope to hear the voice of the other side. I will try and raise important issues, such as the chit-fund scam and the Gumudumaha firing [in 2016, in Odisha’s Kandhamal district] where five Adivasis were gunned down by the police, and force the government to respond.

ADC and SD: There seems to be a fund crunch in the KBK region. From 1995 onwards, the central government allotted funds for poverty-alleviation programmes in the KBK region annually. In 2015, the Modi government stopped the funds entirely. Further, the present dispensation has also stopped the Backward Region Grant Fund.
SU: The Modi government is not doing justice to the KBK regions, specifically. The central government has discontinued most of the schemes that were running previously to aid KBK. The state government has come in to fill the gap, with additional funding through the Biju KBK scheme. The state government is not always capable of funding such massive economic projects. In the manner with which [the central government] has decimated the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, also shows its arrogance towards the large rural population of this country.

The MPLAD funds [in Koraput] were not being utilised. [Under the Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme, each MP can suggest works worth Rs five crore to be taken up in their constituency.] In limited ways, when the funds were being utilised by the ex-MPs, they used to do it in such a way that it was focused on particular areas, leaving off the backward blocks which never made progress. The BJD MPs in our area did not have an idea about where they can best utilise the funds. The more useful aspects such as public health and sanitation, and opportunities such as tourism, sports academy, et cetera, have been sidelined.

ADC and SD: The mining conglomerate Vedanta’s alumina refinery in the town of Lanjigarh in Kalahandi district has also been accused of various violations of Adivasi rights. Dani Batra’s killing by the Odisha Industrial Security Forces engaged by Vedanta is a glaring example of the oppression Adivasis face. The refinery’s red mud pond of bauxite residues has reportedly leaked into nearby water bodies as well. This could result in an ecological imbalance in Koraput. The Dongria Kondhs, your constituents, are the most gravely affected by such violations. What do you think of such cases?
SU: I am certainly not anti-industry. Being from the Adivasi community, I strongly believe that our culture and values need to be acknowledged and safeguarded, but development has to happen. Yet, it has to be an inclusive process that takes cognisance of the Adivasi way of life.

Tomorrow, if we get to know that Naveen Patnaik’s house rests on a massive mineral repository, you won’t just displace him or ask him to relocate, will you? The tribals of Niyamgiri are entitled to the same treatment as is Patnaik, as per the constitution of India. For the tribals, their lives are intricately woven with nature. This space and culture has to be respected, irrespective of all circumstances.

What is happening now is that the state and central government are joining hands with the industrial forces to override these procedures. If Vedanta wishes to expand, it has to follow the due procedures including the mining lease, the environmental impact assessments and mechanisms for rehabilitations. More importantly, it has to happen with the approval of the gram sabhas.

ADC and SD: From the anthrax poisoning deaths in the 1980s to the death of a homeless elderly woman in Semliguda block in Koraput district, there have been various instances of the failure of the state to ensure food security, especially in the KBK region. The BJD and the Congress have so far engaged in a blame game regarding this crisis, even though the Supreme Court said in an interim order that the responsibility lies on the chief secretaries and administrators of the states. What is your stance on the issue?
SU: We should be ashamed that starvation deaths still happen in this time and age. The responsibility certainly lies on the collectors and district administrators. It is [also] the duty of the politicians to acknowledge the failures and then work with the officials to prevent recurrences. I see no point in being arrogant and evading these issues. The people are legally entitled to food subsidies with the Food Security Act, but leakages still happen. I haven’t received any complaints of starvation deaths myself, but I am interested to undertake a fair assessment here. We need to take stock of the reasons here—is there a middle man who swindles the supplies? Are there accessibility issues for people?

ADC and SD: The state and central governments have repeatedly dismissed cases of starvation deaths, without addressing structural flaws. Shahnawaz Hussain, the BJP’s national spokesperson, has said that there have been no deaths because of starvation in India, despite evidence of the same. Moreover, he said those who raise this issue wish to bring a bad reputation for the country. What is your perspective on this?
SU: There is surely nothing anti-national about it. I do think that there are cases of corruption in the availing of welfare schemes. For instance, Below Poverty Line ration cards are used by people who are not on the list. It is our responsibility to see and create a bridge between the people and their entitlements. The MLAs and MPs must remain connected to the ground to be true representatives of the people. If they are accessible to the people, even grievance redressal becomes much easier.

ADC and SD: The fatal food insecurity in the country has worsened with the mandatory requirement of Aadhaar, the government’s programme for a national identification card, for availing these welfare schemes. Of the 42 hunger-related deaths reported in 2017–18, 25 are linked to Aadhaar issues. How do you assess the role of Aadhaar in ensuring food security?
SU: I cannot comment on the Congress’s stand here, but I am an engineer and I believe in technology. [While] I am not against Aadhaar entirely, it must not be mandatory for public-distribution system. I have seen that even people from a lot of backward villages are able to get their Aadhaar card and the administrators have done a good job in enabling this.

I do believe that there might have been genuine cases of people suffering due to Aadhaar related problems. There must be efficient provisions to deal with these. We will need to think through these issues, and only then people would accept the technology and not think of it as a drawback to development. But if they do have an Aadhaar, they should be able to link it to avail the facilities.

ADC and SD: Modi has said that there have been huge Aadhaar-enabled savings and that it has improved the economy. What are your views on Aadhaar?
SU: Definitely. Aadhaar is our brainchild. [The Congress member] Nandan Nilekani played a very instrumental role in its introduction. But, as a country, we need to develop the infrastructure and the understanding of the people and give some time to stabilise this concept of Aadhaar before the government jumps in to say something like “No Aadhaar, No Rice.” We have to work with the government that it does not end up creating more exclusions.[The criteria of] having an Aadhaar card to get subsidies and things like telephone lines, food, I think, is nothing but the state’s arrogance towards the poor.

ADC and SD: The state government and the central government have accused each other of the ineffective implementation of the Anganwadi Services. Moreover, the scheme has a range of problems—for instance, with the dismal quality and quantity of mid-day meals, and abysmal working conditions of the anganwadi workers and helpers. What would be your interventions here?
SU: There have been complaints about the mid-day meals, but despite the problems, there are some centres which have continued a very commendable job. We need to have strong review mechanism in place. The challenge here is that the state and the central government refuse to communicate with each other, and the administrators work in their own [bubble]. Hypothetically, when I approach such a situation, I would first ask how much money has come from centre and the state respectively, and then take stock of the utilisation of these funds from the administrators. This discussion would then be published so as to keep a record and ensure transparency in the process.

We strongly believe that the anganwadi workers and helpers must be considered as permanent state-government employees, and receive an increased salary. It has to begin with the stopping of contractualisation of their labor. They should also have social security provisions like pensions, of Rs 2,000 for widows and Rs 1,500 for the others.

ADC and SD: In April 2018, the former Congress minister Srikant Jena had written to the president of the party’s state unit seeking that the post of the chief minister and the two deputy chief ministers should go to candidates from the SC, ST and OBC communities. He estimated that 92 percent of the state’s population is from these communities. Later, he was ousted from the party for anti-party activities. Do you think the Congress has failed to ensure social justice by not giving leadership positions to representatives from the marginalised sections of the population?
SU: That assessment is not true of Congress party. My father was in the cabinet of JB Patnaik [a three-time chief minister of the state] multiple times. Dr Giridhari Gamang [served as] the chief minister of Odisha, the PCC [Pradesh Congress Committee] president and a union minister. Hemananda Biswal was also a chief minister. And all of them were Adivasis. If you look closely, Pradeep Majhi is a powerfully placed tribal leader in the party; he has also been working president.

There is nothing like only the Patnaiks [who are from the Kayastha caste] have remained in power. JB Patnaik, of course, was the chief minister for long, but these leaders were also very powerful in their own way. [The] Congress party has always had leaders who were from the ground and these tribal leaders had their ears with the people. But I must add that we, the Adivasis, need strong leaders. More representation in the government and the party should be our aspiration.

The larger question that Jena was raising is that two Patnaiks have ruled the state, so he wanted a non-Patnaik to be the chief minister. Our party had agreed that there will be a chief minister candidate who will emerge as the leader of the elected MLAs and not prior to the result declaration. This didn’t at all mean someone from the marginalised section could not be the chief minister, or a woman would have been denied the chance.

ADC and SD: Shortly before this year’s election, Sumitra Jena, the president of the women’s wing in Odisha, resigned after she said she was attacked by some miscreants when she was protesting the denial of tickets to women candidates.
SU: The disciplinary actions against Srikant Jena and the resignation of Sumitra Jena are isolated cases, and do not speak of the inner workings of the party. Sumitra Jena’s argument was to be allowed to contest from a constituency, but the party felt winnability was an issue there. There were disagreements relating to that. She resigned on her own volition. We also have significant women leaders—Odisha’s lone woman chief minister belonged to our party.

ADC and SD: Do you think many have held political power in Odisha because of dynastic associations? Your rise in politics can be traced back to your father as well.
SU: There are two aspects of what you are asking—dynasty and legacy. Dynasty is when you are nominated for an important post because of whose son or daughter you are, without any credentials. In my case, I won an election, how can it be dynastic? It was a democratic procedure where I stood up and people chose me. Of course, I had a better chance to get a ticket. But I had failed to secure one in the last elections.

Like a doctor’s son can be a doctor, a politician’s son can be a politician. In some ways, [we] are used to this environment—we have seen our parents working with people, and we understand the importance and value of it. It is, in some sense, a legacy that I carry—my father’s legacy. I had inherited a legacy of an inclusive politics. My father firmly believed in one party-one post, and that’s the reason I got into politics only after my father’s demise.

ADC and SD: The Congress’s decimation is palpable—both in Odisha and nationwide. In Odisha, the vote share has dropped from 26.38 percent in 2014 to 13.67 percent this year. How do you see this election’s mandate? What is in store for your party?
SU: That’s not a fair assessment. [The] Congress is not dead. Why do you think I am attracted to Congress? Because, the propaganda, the messaging of the BJP is wrong for the country. A massive narrative was created against the Congress in 2014, and we lost. In 2019, again, honestly, we really failed to match the resources of the BJP.

With only 21 seats in the parliament, there’s no reason Odisha had to go through a 4-phase election. If it could happen in a single day in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, it could have happened in Odisha too. It was only to enable Modi to campaign in Odisha, to visit each and every constituency himself. [The] BJP’s rallies were huge, especially Modi’s. It was impossible to match that financial strength. Had it been a one phase election, we could have done something. Also, in some sense, when people wanted to vote out the BJP, they decided to cast their votes in favour of BJD. In the midst of all this, Congress incurred losses, and its share of votes has come down substantially.

I won’t comment much on the national scenario, but let me speak about Odisha. We agree we made some mistakes too. We had problems with ticket distributions within the party. When the candidate is not sure of whether they are contesting, and if yes, then what would be the constituency, these factors affect the possibility of connecting to the voters and consequently building a strong campaign.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Saptagiri Ulaka is 44 years old. In fact, he is 40 years old. The Caravan regrets the error.