03 June 2012

The Odisha Chief Minister does not visit IDS: A Tale of Politics, Rights and Nutrition

One of the more interesting aspects of my job is having to deal with situations like the visit of Naveen Patnaik, the Chief Minister (CM) of Odisha, the eleventh most populous state in India.

A recent case study that one of our researchers at IDS had undertaken concluded that Patnaik’s government was instrumental in accelerating malnutrition reduction in the state, in part due to the CM’s own leadership.  

So when we were told by DFID that he wanted to visit us at IDS on his UK trip, I thought that would be an interesting opportunity to find out why and how nutrition had risen up the state’s political agenda.

Well that was not the only uprising I was to find out about. Some of our staff and students quickly told me about their concerns at the Odisha government’s actions with respect to the displacement of ethnic minorities from business mining activities and the attention given to incidents involving the persecution of religious minorities.

I checked with two of the leading UK based human rights groups, one said that the CM had done several good things in the past few years, the other said they had concerns.  I then received a long letter from Survival International stating their concerns.  Then came the enquiries from the Indian media.  

The CM’s office were informed that despite all of this they were still welcome to come to IDS.  They would receive tough but respectful questions from our staff and students and I pointed out that there might be protesters outside IDS from groups like Survival.   I was informed a few days later that the schedule had changed and that the trip was off.  I don’t know what the reason was, but the prospect of having to wade through potential protesters cannot have been too appealing. 

I think it is a shame the seminar at IDS did not take place.  The CM is an elected head of state who won an overwhelming majority of constituencies (109 out of 147) in the latest elections in 2009.  He has overseen a rapid decline in poverty and malnutrition rates and has spent a lot of state resources on interventions designed to support those declines.  On the other hand, university campuses are places where free speech is sacrosanct and politicians in democracies have an obligation to defend their government’s actions and they are usually very adept at doing so. 

So, a public opportunity to hear about the politics of nutrition and the politics of development was missed.  I was invited to meet with the CM, some of his cabinet and some of his leading civil service administrators at the Indian High Commission.  I did this, joined by two of my colleagues who work on nutrition governance.  We spent an hour with the CM and his team, talking about the experiences of getting nutrition higher up the agenda.  I asked the CM for his response to the accusations levelled at him. He confidently defended his state’s actions. (He had a busy week--a day later he had to deal with an attempted coup.)

Lessons for me?  Don’t leave due diligence to a third party.  I gave too much weight to DFID’s implicit endorsement of the CM’s visit (he met with Andrew Mitchell the day after he met me). 

Frustration for me?  Not knowing what to believe and how to weigh it. 

The Human Rights Watch chapter on India in their 2011 World Report only mentions Orissa once, and with a positive development:

“a legislator from the ultra-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party was convicted in June 2010 for his role in violence against Christians in Orissa in 2008 that left at least 40 people dead and thousands displaced when a Hindu mob attacked Christians. In August, 16 others were sentenced to three years in prison for their role in the violence.”

The most recent entry from Amnesty International on Odisha on their website was from July 2011 and was also a positive response to a negative development:

“The High Court of Orissa on Tuesday upheld the Indian government's decision made in August 2010, to reject Vedanta Aluminium's plans for the six-fold expansion of the Lanjigarh refinery, finding that the project violated the country’s environmental laws.”

Freedoms, rights and material improvements—they are all vital to development, and as experiences from Ethiopia, China and Vietnam show, they don’t all necessarily move in the same direction and at the same pace. Development is complex and multifaceted.  

The nutrition story in Odisha sounds like a good case for further in depth IDS study.  So too do the allegations into rights violations and what the government says it has done in response. 


Anonymous said...

From my UNICEF as well as IDS experience, I think Lawrence has laid out the issues very well, and for three further reasons.
First, the long-run importance of reductions of malnutrition in young children should not be underestimated. These will strengthen the minds and capacities of children over the whole of their lives, long beyond any period during which the present Chief Minister is in power and almost certainly most of his successors.
Secondly, human rights do matter, but these include, let us remember, the combating of ‘disease and malnutrition’, as set out in article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Thirdly, as I learnt in UNICEF, it is hardly ever effective politics or logical ethics to rule out any relationship with someone in power, on the grounds that the person is violating some important human right. But engagement should not be passive acceptance but serious debate and persuasion, publicly, privately or both, depending on what is judged to be the most effective.
Lawrence shows how this can be done and it is a pity and a shame that the Chief Minister decided not to come to IDS and to join in just such discussion and debate.

Richard Jolly said...

My comment is the one above, which was not intended to be anonymous.

Roberto Castellanos said...

Although it was not explicitly intended as such, I find Lawrence's post a good example of an exercise of transparency and accountability: an effort to reflect on a highly political event even though it was going to take place in an academic setting.

I found interesting the way Lawrence managed the situation within IDS (receiving and acknowledging information about the CM from DfID and IDS) outside IDS (broadening the information with HR groups) and with the CM (clearly informing what the situation would be if they were going to IDS, and at the same time, insisting on willingness of the IDS community to meet the CM and the important of the key issue-nutrition in Orisha-for IDS).

All this might be regarded as normal and expected behavior, not necessarily to be acknowledged, in democratic societies, but this is not always the case-even in democracies.

Thanks for sharing.

Roberto Castellanos (MP22).

Lawrence Haddad said...

Richard, thank you for your reflections. I fully agree with your three points which are testimony to your long experience in dealing with such issues.

And Roberto, thanks for your reflections too. I must say I was impressed by how the IDS students handled the episode--they made their views known but in a way that was not damaging to IDS.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Lawrence, for the exemplary way in which ou dealt with this difficult issue, and for the transparency. Carlos Fortin

Anonymous said...

Yeah by the logic talked about here, IDS would have collaborated with Hitler too to tackle 'poverty' in Germany!