Bhubaneswar: Odisha cabinet’s approval of the state government’s decision to create a separate department of ‘Mission Shakti’ – an empowerment initiative that organises women into economically productive livelihood-supporting self-help groups (SHGs) – has triggered a debate among major opposition parties viewing the move as politically motivated. They have questioned its timing with municipal elections likely to be held in the state sometime this year and panchayat polls due early next year.
“With both urban and rural polls going to be held in the state in less than a year’s time, the chief minister is trying to consolidate his women vote-bank. Ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) has been getting almost 70% of women votes in general elections. Further consolidation of this important vote-bank will make things easy for the party in the upcoming elections,” said senior Congress leader Ganeswar Behera.
Launched in 2001 during Patnaik’s first term as the chief minister, the ‘Mission Shakti’ was accorded the status of a directorate in 2018 under the department of women and child department that was renamed as the department of women and child development and Mission Shakti. Ruling BJD leaders argue that a separate department of ‘Mission Shakti’ will not only help strengthen diverse SHG initiatives of the government by bringing them under one umbrella, but also ensure more effective communication between the community of women and the government which will be mutually beneficial.
Since the objective of the ‘Mission Shakti’ is not only formation of SHGs for women but also providing them financial assistance, establishing bank linkages and imparting training to women for capacity building and management of these groups, BJD MLA Latika Pradhan feels that an independent department would ensure better service delivery, effective monitoring and optimum utilisation of human resources to impart a fillip to the SHG movement which has transformed the lives of lakhs of women in the state.
“This is a very important decision that will touch the lives of lakhs of women. They will not only become economically self-reliant but also more conscious about their rights and role in the society. This will empower them in the true sense of the term,” said Pradhan.
Chief minister Naveen Patnaik had himself described his cabinet’s approval of the decision to turn ‘Mission Shakti’ into a full-fledged department as a “momentous occasion”. Expressing his feelings, Patnaik wrote on his Twitter handle: “A momentous occasion in the transformative journey of @mission_shakti, which started as a scheme now becomes a department to carry forward the revolution with greater focus. #MissionShakti is now synonymous with women empowerment, transforming lives of millions.”
Opposition leaders, however, disagree. State BJP spokesperson, Lekhasri Samantsinghar said that ‘Mission Shakti’ was being used as a platform to garner women votes for the BJD. “The programme is being run by bureaucrats. Women are being told that they are getting money from the Naveen Patnaik government. There is no effort either to empower them or make them politically conscious. The government now wants to further its political agenda by creating a separate department,” remarked Samantsinghar, adding that cases of atrocities against women are on the rise under the Patnaik government which only pays lip service to its slogan of “Gaan Ku Kaam” and “Maan ku Samman” (work for people in villages and respect for mothers).
Opposition leaders cite government’s own statistics to prove that women are insecure in Odisha. Statistics show that state recorded a sharp rise in rape cases in 2019 as compared to 2018. While 2,502 cases of rape had been registered in the state in 2018 the number went up to 2,950 next year, an increase of 17.9%. Significantly, the highest number of these cases (203) were reported from the tribal-dominated Mayurbhanj district where cases of superstition-related crime targeting women are also high compared to other districts of the state.
Similarly, cases of women trafficking and molestation also showed an increase in 2019. “With such a track record how can this government talk of empowerment of women. It should first try to make the state secure for women,” said BJP veteran and former MLA, Pradeep Purohit.
The BJP leader argued that chief minister Naveen Patnaik got the idea of strengthening his women vote-bank from the recent assembly elections in Bihar where women voted overwhelmingly in favour of the BJP. “Following the announcement of Bihar results, Prime Minister, Narendra Modi had acknowledged the role played by women in the victory of BJP-JD(U) combine in the state. That seems to have inspired Naveen babu who is now using every trick in his bag to attract women voters,” said Purohit, adding that the BJD was also scared of BJP’s growing popularity in Odisha where it is now the main opposition party in the state assembly. The party had also won eight Lok Sabha seats in the state in the 2019 elections, a gain of seven seats compared to 2014.
Equally importantly, the BJP had done quite well in Odisha in the last panchayat polls held in 2017, emerging as the second largest party in the state’s rural belt, pushing Congress to the third position. Of the 846 zila parishad seats for which polls were held, BJD has won 473 followed by BJP’s 297. The Congress came a poor third with just 60 seats.
“This shows that BJP is on the upswing in the state. So the chief minister is trying hard to counter our growing influence and attempts to consolidate his women vote-bank is part of this strategy,” said Purohit.
BJD MLA, Latika Pradhan, however, countered this argument asserting that chief minister had always paid special attention to women and he was the first leader to not only enhance women’s quota in the panchayati raj institutions to 50% but also campaign for 33% reservation for them in the Lok Sabha and state legislatures.
“Naveen Babu has blazed a trail for others to follow. Opposition’s criticism of the chief minister is politically motivated,” said Latika, pointing out that her party had given tickets to seven women in the last Lok Sabha elections with five of them including septuagenarian SHG leader, Pramila Bisoi emerging victorious.
Political analyst Professor Surya Mishra agreed that Patnaik’s move of turning ‘Mission Shakti’ into an independent department was aimed at attracting more women votes but said he found nothing wrong with it as long as women gained. “The chief minister knows the value of women voters who have been supporting his party for a long time. This is one more step towards consolidating this vote-bank. But if the creation of a new department helps women, what’s wrong in that,” he asked.