Politics Rages Despite Corona Pandemic

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Nothing can stop politicians from sparring. Right now they are fighting in Odisha over issues ranging from the sale of Bagala dharmshala in Puri to the alleged mismanagement of the flood situation in the state. Opposition parties appear less than satisfied with the government while ruling BJD has staunchly defended its actions.

 

Corona pandemic has in no way affected the blood lust of politicians who continue to spar over a slew of issues. In Odisha the latest round of slugfest is over the alleged sale of the historic Bagala dharmshala in Puri. Both BJP and Congress have trained their guns at the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) with Puri collector also in their cross-hairs. The dharmshala, a hospice built in 1905 by a devotee who handed it over to then Puri collector to provide cheap accommodation to poor pilgrims, is a prime property located along the Grand Road in the temple town.

Opposition party leaders are demanding cancellation of the sale deeds made in favour of six lodge owners of the down. Protests erupted soon after the matter became public and a social activist also moved court over the issue. Though Puri administration has clarified that it was not a case of sale but land for land rehabilitation of people who had given their land for the ambitious

“Only a piece of vacant land (12.23%) has been utilized for the purpose of rehabilitation and resettlement for those who have given their land for temple development,” the administration had said in its clarification on the issue but the contention of the Puri administration has been rejected by the Opposition parties who insist that it is a case of plotting out the land and selling it as sale deeds have been made.

Puri administration has said in its clarification on the issue that out of 27 lodge owners displaced by the heritage project six have so far opted for land as settlement assistance. The state revenue department granted permission for execution of sale deeds for transfer of land to them on the payment of benchmark value.

Named after Babu Kanheyalal Bagala, the man who constructed it in 1905, the dharmshala, located on the Grand Road close to the  12th century Jagannath temple, is a property spread over 2.738 acres. Kanheyalal later donated the building and the attached land to the Lodging House Fund Committee, a government body headed by the Puri collector which was constituted under the Bihar and Orissa Places of Pilgrimage Act, 1920.

In 2018 Odisha government repealed the Bihar and Orissa Places of Pilgrimage Act, 1920 and Puri municipality was entrusted with the management of Bagala Dharmasala which originally had 56 rooms and nine huge dormitories to provide shelter to poor pilgrims. In 2016-17 the India Tourism Development Corporation had demolished a portion of the Dharamshala to reconstruct it with financial support from the Centre under the Pilgrimage Rejuvenation and Spiritual Augmentation Drive (PRASAD) scheme.

However, before the project could be completed Odisha government repealed the Bihar and Orissa Places of Pilgrimage Act, 1920 and the Lodging House Fund Committee along with Bagala Dharmashala and its land was merged with Puri Municipality. Sources said that last year the land was transferred to the state Revenue and Disaster Management Department.

Meanwhile the state government has been aggressively pursuing the Puri heritage corridor project for the beautification of temple town under the Rs 3,208 crore “Augmentation of Basic Amenities and Development of Heritage and Architecture” (ABADHA) scheme. As part of this several structures within 75 metre radius of the Jagannath temple were demolished amidst protest from the local residents.

The people who lost land and their dwellings were promised suitable compensation. And now this allegation of sale of Bagala dharmshala land has come which has sparked protests with major opposition parties and activists targeting the government and the Puri collector.

Opposition maintains that relinquishing of dharmshala land in favour of Revenue and Disaster Management department was  unacceptable and even more objectionable is the sale of a portion of this land. BJP national spokesperson, Sambit Patra, who contested the last Lok Sabha polls unsuccessfully from Puri, has also jumped into the fray and he had taken it up at the central level also.

Another leader described the step as unfortunate saying that the dharmshala meant for the accommodation of poor pilgrims from different parts of the country had been turned into a commercial proposition.  His argument was that if the administration wanted to compensate land losers with land it could have chosen any other place for allotment of land.

On the other hand, ruling Biju Janata Dal leaders have staunchly defended the government and the Puri administration describing opposition’s stir as an attempt to block the work under the ambitious Puri heritage corridor project. “They are trying to politicize the issue without any reason. They don’t want development of Puri,” said a BJD leader.

This certainly is not the only issue being politicized. There is now politics also over the floods which have played havoc in several parts of the state with major rivers in the spate. Opposition leaders have accused the government of mishandling the situation.

“Normal life has been thrown out of gear with major rivers in spate. People are also dying but the government has not been able to organize relief and rescue operation in the required manner. Its handling of the flood situation is just as bad as its handling of corona pandemic,” said an opposition leader.

It is true that hundreds of villages are lying marooned with road communication has been disrupted in several areas with flood waters either damaging roads or over-topping them. There have also been instances of houses being swept away and people dying in wall collapse incidents.

Thousands of trucks were lying stranded recently at Mayurbhanj-Keonjhar border on national highway connecting Mumbai and Calcutta following floods in Baitarani river system. Though the river is now beginning to recede it has already caused widespread damage in Mayurbhanj, Keonjhar and Jajpur districts.  In some areas road communication has come to a complete halt with stranded buses towed to safer places.

Major pockets of northern Odisha, particularly parts of Balasore district have been badly hit due to floods in the Subarnarekha river system. The bigger threat is now in the Mahanadi river system as there has been huge discharge from Hirakud dam which has received copious amount of water from Mahanadi’s upper catchment area in Chhatisgarh where it has rained heavily.

“The government, however, has not been able to manage the situation in the expected manner,” said an opposition leader whose contention was countered by BJP politician who asserted that the government was doing its best and people were happy with its performance. “Let them stop playing politics,” he quipped. But will politics over such issues actually ever stop?

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