In Bengaluru on Friday, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik had a matter-of-fact reply when asked by reporters to react to the shocking visual of a husband, Dana Majhi, carrying the body of his wife for a distance of 10 km on Wednesday, because the Kalahandi district hospital did not give him a hearse van or an ambulance to transport the body to his village, 60 km away.
"We are looking into this matter. We will take action. Fresh ambulances will be ordered," Patnaik said.
As far as the Odisha government is concerned, that is the end of the story. Patnaik was effectively telling the national media to switch off its outrage machine and continue with its 'Odisha does not exist in the Delhi view of India's national media map' policy.
Which is not off the mark. For the better part of the last decade, most national TV channels have not had a representative in Odisha, and the ones that have, are making do with a marginal presence with few resources. In the TRP-driven market that TV channel owners swear by, Odisha is not a hefty contributor.
Which is why only when a story from Odisha conforms to the stereotype of poverty and malnutrition with powerful visuals that it makes it to the national news rundown.
"On most occasions, when a story like this happens, parachute journalists come down," says Purusottam Singh Thakur, Fellow at People's Archive of Rural India. "But unfortunately, the kind of rural distress stories that you get to report in Odisha, find no space in mainstream media."
Odisha journalists would tell you that the Dana Majhi episode is probably the 12th incident of this kind in the last year. If it was not for the crew of OTV, an Odia news channel, which filmed it quickly before calling up the District Medical officer for help, even Dana Majhi's story would have gone unreported. Those looking to shoot the messenger do not realise that it was the channel crew that ensured Majhi and his daughter got a vehicle to take the body back home.
Thakur points out that another incident took place in Balasore district on the same day, when the bones of an 80-year-old dead widow were broken because the stiff body could not wrapped due to rigor mortis. The body was then wrapped in a sheet, tied with a rope and then slung on a bamboo pole, like they would carry a dead animal. The woman, Salamani Behera had died when she was run over by a train near Soro railway station.
The CM, who has been Odisha's most powerful man since 2000, talks of ordering more ambulances now. But one visit to this part of Odisha, and Patnaik would have known the ground conditions. The Indian Express reports that with no ambulance available to shift Behera's body to the hospital, the Railway police asked an autorickshaw to carry it. He asked for Rs 3500, whereas the budget with the Railway police for such incidents is Rs 1,000.
Behera, in effect, died twice. First killed by the speeding train, then by the system.
Odisha clearly is not a state for the dead. The apathy of the system has reduced its sensitivity to a dead state.
Senior journalist Sampad Mahapatra points to the speed at which the administration has given itself a clean chit. "It says Dana Majhi, the husband never asked for help. How is it possible for him to wrap up his wife's body and walk out of the hospital without any permission," asks Mahapatra.
Editorial Director of OTV, Sandeep Sahu points out that the absence of the national media makes it easier for the political establishment to control the narrative. "Sections of the Odia media are compromised through their owners. The CM has utter disdain for the regional media. In 16 years as chief minister, he is yet to give an interview to the Odia media," says Sahu.
Human rights activists point out incidents of this kind demonstrate that the people do not really matter. "Look at the irony. This belt of Odisha is extremely rich in mineral resources like bauxite, but the people are extremely poor. Travelling through the area gives you a sense of acute government neglect. From a human rights perspective, bodies being taken like this is stripping a human being of his or her dignity," says VS Krishna of Human Rights Forum.
Odisha has also been home to a Maoist movement for over a decade, and observers feel deprivation of this sort only provides the ground for far-left movements to take off. Pushed to a place constantly at the bottom of the pyramid, people feel they have a legitimate reason to get attracted to an ideology that argues from their perspective that the gun is the only solution for victims of social oppression and monumental neglect.
But it is not as if the other sarkaar — the Maoist establishment — is any less corrupt, any less compromised. Most of the Naxal leadership in Odisha is from Andhra Pradesh, leaving the Odia foot soldiers frustrated that they cannot climb upwards in the Maoist hierarchy beyond a particular designation.
"The Maoist leadership also indulges in political deal-making with the politicians especially at the time of elections, apart from extortion money and protection money," says Sahu.
Aware that Odisha's faultlines are not well-documented or broadcast beyond the state's borders, Patnaik is in Bengaluru for Odisha Investors Meet to paint a rosy picture, to tell industry that they are among the best in the 'ease of doing business' parameters. With stiff competition between states to woo the same capital, for Patnaik attracting big-ticket investment into Odisha is a matter of life and death.
Irony just died.