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Patnaik's PEETHA trope

Deliciously named after a local sweet, Naveen Patnaik’s PEETHA scheme aims to shield his campaign prior to the state elections due this year

Patnaiks PEETHA trope

Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik announced an ambitious programme 'PEETHA' on December 3, 2018, a few months ahead of the state's Assembly elections, which are to be held simultaneously with the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

PEETHA is the acronym for 'People's Empowerment – Enabling Transparency and Accountability of Odisha Initiatives'. It is also the name of a traditional dessert made in every Odia home. "I am pleased to announce PEETHA. This is an initiative aimed at improving transparency in the distribution of individual and social benefits. It is a part of the 3-T model of Technology, Transparency and Team Work," Patnaik had said while announcing the programme, which may have several political implications.

Around 60 government welfare schemes are now operational in Odisha to attend to the poor people of the state. However, the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) government has earned a name across the country for its flagship welfare measures such as 'Mamata' (a conditional cash transfer scheme for lactating and pregnant mothers), the Re 1 rice scheme and the 'Ahar Yojana' (cooked meal for Rs 5) for the poor. Other important schemes include 'Madhubabu Pension Yojana' (for the elderly, widows and specially-abled), the 'Biju Pucca Ghar Yojana' (housing for the poor) and 'Harischandra Sahayata Yojana' (financial support to the poor and destitute for conducting last rites of the deceased).

Patnaik described PEETHA as a "sub-scheme" of 'Ama Gaon Ama Bikash' (our village, our development), which, with a budgetary provision of Rs 1,250 crore for 2018-19, aims at reaching out and involving rural areas into the development process. However, PEETHA is not exactly another scheme; it has been devised to be an umbrella for all government schemes alongside being a last-mile delivery mechanism.

Following Patnaik's announcement, PEETHA camps are being organised by the government across all districts between the 15th and the 20th of every month. According to government officials, PEETHA camps are meant to achieve two functions — spreading awareness about different government welfare schemes meant for the poor and for the immediate redressal of grievances.

Officials claim that the two monthly camps held so far in December and January have been 'great successes', receiving 'overwhelming' responses with the involvement of over 50 lakh people. According to officials, three lakh new self-help groups have been paid Rs 15,000 each, while pensions were disbursed to around three lakh senior citizens, widows and specially-abled persons. An amount of Rs 41.66 crore was given as incentive to 32,259 poor people, who had completed the construction of their houses under the state housing scheme within four and six months; while 6,155 new beneficiaries were identified and disbursed work for the construction of new homes. Besides, the officials said, over 1.22 lakh beneficiaries were provided with electricity supply.

The opposition Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have accused the BJD government of making tall claims and termed PEETHA as nothing more than a mere election gimmick. Congress spokesperson Satya Prakash Nayak alleged that the Naveen Patnaik government was spending government money on BJD's work. "If the government is transparent, what is the need for a separate PEETHA? It is a product of the ruling party's insecurity and desperation because they know there is an undercurrent against the state government at the grassroots," Nayak said.

BJP spokesperson Sajjan Sharma said that by introducing PEETHA, the government has indirectly admitted that the monitoring system in the implementation of welfare schemes was not perfect. "For the first time, the chief minister is feeling the political heat because of the tremendous growth of BJP in the state and, thus, introducing new schemes to fool the people," he said.

According to BJD Rajya Sabha member and party spokesperson Pratap Deb, opposition parties are missing the mark. "PEETHA is an innovative integrated government delivery mechanism to improve upon the existing infrastructure. With PEETHA, the government is taking administration to the people's doorstep," he said.

Whatever be the perspectives of the different political parties on PEETHA, most camps in the state were filled to the brim with enthusiastic citizens. People who are not in the list of beneficiaries for pension, PDS or houses came with their grievances, while many others came looking for what more benefits the government had to offer. "I regularly get the Re 1 rice and my house has got electrification. But I went to the camp to get the LED bulb that will reduce my electricity bill," said Sujata Panda of Adalpur village in Jajpur district.

However, there were reports of some camps being poorly attended, especially in the interior districts of Malkangiri and Mayurbhanj. BJD workers blamed it on disinterested officials at the lower levels. Top officials in Bhubaneswar also admit to having received complaints, from a few camps in districts near the capital city, about a lack of enthusiasm on the part of officials at the lower levels to make people aware of government schemes.

According to political observers, PEETHA is close to Patnaik's heart and, though it is a government programme, BJD leaders have been entrusted to get direct feedback from the camps. If the crowd is thin at a camp, officials at the top are informed about it, so that they can take the required remedial measures in the future. "Besides, we are also scanning whether officials or sarpanches are taking an interest in creating awareness or are just turning the camps to feast venues," said a BJD worker on the condition of anonymity.

Therein fall the political implications of a programme like PEETHA. Political observers believe that government initiatives like PEETHA provide many avenues that offer incentives to the poor before the elections – but the failure of such timed schemes could be disastrous for the ruling party. Patnaik, who has been in power for the past 19 years, probably knows it very well and, thus, the whole initiative is being monitored by the chief minister's office.

By coining the name of the initiative after a traditional Odia sweetmeat, he has tried to strike a chord with the millions of women in the state, a majority of whom have been his steadfast supporters. In fact, large chunks of the crowd at the two camps were women. Their presence, in fact, triggered a spin-off effect: It revived the age-old tradition of making peetha.

Most camps were full of different types of traditional sweets like 'manda peetha', 'kakara peetha' and 'aarisha peetha' made by individual women and self-help groups (SHGs). For many such women and SHGs, the camps turned to be an occasion for celebration while many with entrepreneurial skills received an opportunity to earn some income from the sale of their sweets.

The true political outcome of Patnaik's well-thought, timely PEETHA may be clearer after some months when more monthly PEETHA camps are concluded.

(The views expressed are strictly personal)

Priya Ranjan Sahu

Priya Ranjan Sahu

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