Odisha's farmer Daitari Nayak, who is nicknamed 'Canal Man of Odisha'
Odisha's farmer Daitari Nayak, who is nicknamed 'Canal Man of Odisha' Image Credit: Twitter

Once a civilian award winner, now a jobless farmer. When 75-year-old Daitari Naik won the Padma Shri award, India’s fourth highest civilian award earlier this year, little did he know that the blessing would turn into a curse soon.

Now, the old tribal farmer who hails from the Talabaitarani village in the mineral-rich Kenojhar district in the Indian state of Odisha, wants to return the award. Naik was awarded after he single-handedly carved out a 3-km tunnel through the Gonasika mountains in Odisha, between 2010 and 2013, armed only with a hoe and a crowbar. His effort resulted in the irrigation of a 100 acres of land in his area.

Can’t find work

But the honour that followed only pushed him to penury. According to an article on the Indian news website hindustantimes.com, Naik said: “[The] Padma Shri award did not help me in any way. Earlier I used to find work as a daily labourer. People are not giving me any work as they think it is below my dignity. We are now surviving by eating ant eggs... I am now selling tendu leaves and ‘amba sadha’ (a snack made out of sun dried mango pulp) to run my house. The award has lost all value for me. I want to return the award so that I can get some work.”

Naik told the Indian news website News18.com that months after his award was announced, a few leaders assured him that they would grant him a concrete house under the state government’s Biju Pakka Ghara scheme. But nothing has happened so far. He said that there’s not even an all-weather road that connects his village to the town.

When his name was selected for the award, Naik thought that all the problems of his village would be solved. Villagers of Baitarani were also hopeful that Daitari’s recognition would change the picture of their village. However, not much changed. According to Odishatv.in, Naik said: “We are facing a lot of problems as the village even lacks a road. We don’t have an Anganwadi (child care centre) or a hospital. We have to walk for three miles for a minor medical issue. There is also no drinking water facility. We have the same problems that we had earlier ....”

Hindustan Times reported that Keonjhar district collector Ashish Thakre has promised to look into Naik’s grievances and try to convince him against returning the award.

Social media reacts

Many Twitter users shared the news articles and reacted saying it was unfair. @NG_AROH: “Very sad and shameful! #padma awardee Daitari Naik lives in dire #poverty and #hunger without any means of #livelihood? Can we not, in the least, ensure a normal life for such unsung heroes?”

And, @sanjeevvyas like many others tried to bring it to the attention of Indian lawmakers on Twitter. “@Naveen_Odisha @narendramodi @rashtrapatibhvn a heartbreaking story of #DaitariNaik, never thought a #Padmshree award could cause such a hardship to this simple man. Request immediate intervention, please.”

Tweep @SARBAJITP added: “@narendramodi ji, @PMOIndia @dpradhanbjp @PratapSarngi kindly look into the matter of Padmashree Daitari Naik of Odisha. [Does] talent have no scope?”

Farmers’ plight in India

While for Daitari Naik, the award became a major reason for poverty, the plight of other Indian farmers in the country is no different. Just yesterday, farmers in Karnataka protested with slogans lamenting the apathy of the government and officials to their plight. Mysore district president of the farmers’ association Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha, Hosuru Kumar said that farmers had borne the brunt of five consecutive droughts, which had more or less paralysed agriculture in the state. “Delay in the rain, coupled with inadequate supply of drinking water has compounded our woes. The state government must take note of our problems, and respond to this crisis immediately,” Kumar said.

As many as 12,021 farmers committed suicide in Maharashtra from 2015 to 2018 for reasons that included bank loans and crop failure, averaging eight deaths a day.

In Rajasthan, farmer Sohan Lal Meghwal committed suicide on June 24, 2019, because the government did not fulfil loan waiver promises.

According to a report by Indian broadcast channel NDTV, Meghwal was 45 years old and was from the Thakri village in Rajasthan’s Sri Ganganagar district.

In his two-page suicide note, he criticised Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and his deputy, Sachin Pilot, of not fulfilling promises.

Meghwal also took a farewell video from his mobile phone, which went viral. The video alerted his neighbours that he was planning on taking his life, however, it was too late. The farmer had consumed poison and died while being taken to a hospital.

In his note, he had written: “They had promised that the loans would be waived off within 10 days of their government coming to power. Their government is here now, but what has happened to their promise?”

Drought adding to woes

India is experiencing one of the worst droughts in its history. Soaring temperatures are threatening crops, livestock and people. Thousands of villagers have abandoned their homes in a desperate search for water as the crisis has left village pumps and wells dry.

According to a June 20 World Economic Forum report: “The drought has also depleted four reservoirs that supply the country’s sixth largest city, Chennai, with a population of more than four million. Residents are having to queue for water that’s brought into the city in trucks, while businesses are suffering.

As of June 10, around 44 per cent of the country was affected by various degrees of drought, due to a heat wave that has seen Delhi record its highest ever June temperature of 48. While south of the capital, the Rajasthan city of Churu saw highs of more than 50, making it one of the hottest places on Earth.

“Prolonged extreme heat has devastated the crops that form the backbone of local agricultural economies. Helpless farmers have little option but to leave maize, soya, sweet limes, and ground nuts withering in the fields.”

Answers being demanded

Social media users are furious and demand answers and solutions for this ongoing issue.

Tweep @t_d_h_nair posted: “Since Narendra Modi government doubled farmer’s income, from January 2015 to December 2018, 12,021 farmers committed suicide in Maharashtra....Few more expensive statues and a grand Ram temple in Ayodhya will solve agrarian distress.”

Many users took his side.

Tweep @ChidrupaB tweeted: “Commendable. You spoke a 1000 per cent truth. I endorse your views completely …. We need more people like you in India .... And I can’t tell you what Modi government has done to Gujarat in last 18 years. Gujarat has deteriorated like never before. I can see it.”

And @VineetU68832385 tweeted: “The agriculture and farming [sector] is the most neglected sector in India since Independence. After green revolution, no solid plan for agriculture has ever been made before Modi. It’s the [current government] who even thought and made\plan and started acting on doubling the farmers’ income.”

Tweep @naresh posted: “Till we have loan waiving scheme and not fulfilling it instead of arranging irrigation facilities and providing good seeds, easy selling points for farmers and warehouses to store grains, till then nothing is going to change, farmers need infrastructure, not begging.”

Tweep @srimatesh said: “Would Gehlot and Pilot have FIRs (First Investigative Report) filed against them like how Union Minister Harshvardhan has in the Bihar children’s case?”

Tweep @hi_paresh posted: “Yesterday, Maharashtra government under BJP told the assembly that over 12,000 farmers have committed suicide in just three years (2015 - 2018) under its watch. Zero outrage. [This is the] same country which debated for a week because @narendramodi told us that Rajiv Gandhi did something in 1987 on a ship.”

Many users questioned the priorities of the government.

Tweep @Pvt_Citizen posted: “On an average 4,000 farmers committed suicide every year. Just in #Maharashtra. Let that sink in, before you remember that we are building a statue, in the ocean, worth crores, that most farmers won’t even see.... Priorities.”

@KhanSaab85 posted: “There is more outrage about @RahulGandhi tweets, than about the death of farmer suicides or death of hundreds of [children in India].”