Ace sand sculptor, Padma Shri awardee, activist Sudarsan Pattnaik made headlines recently with his dharna to get Banki Muahana, the point where the river meets Bay of Bengal, cleaned up. What started as a quiet hunger strike with a handful of supporters grew organically on social media with the news making it to the focus of mainstream media. It did not take long for district administration to swing into action to get the place cleaned up, while the celebrity sand artist fell ill and had to be moved to a private hospital. Pattnaik has said that he would continue his movement against dirty beaches and tweeted the Prime Minister to have waste treatment plant at major beaches.
This issue goes on to exert three important points.
Firstly, the power of one. When Sudarsan Pattnaik started the hunger strike, he did not do it after a press conference, with fanfare. Though there was media attention, which is always on him given the sand sculptures he makes every other day on contemporary issues, he did not take a posse of photographers or sea of supporters for his sit in. The power of one, especially at the face of mighty State, is often undermined. Yet it exists and this issue reaffirms it. A strong belief, a strong resolve, a strong message by one can move mountains.
Secondly, civil society pressure helps. While it is no denying that the stature of Sudarsan Pattnaik helped in speeding up the response from administration, any fight for a genuine cause by civil society does exert pressure on governments and it does effect action. Participation of civil society in democracies is of utmost importance and is a part of checks and balances. Totalitarian regimes are built on compliant civil societies and having seen ample examples, Odia society must be watchful of such threats. But civil societies don’t form on their own. That takes me to the third point.
The dearth of Sudarsan Pattnaiks in Odisha. The civil society is almost non-existent in Odisha. Intellectuals (do not conflate with the abusive term it has become of late on social media), artists, people in important offices rarely stand up against issues of concern. One doesn’t find a movie star (for the industry that churns crap mostly it is only expected) take a stand on social or civic issues. One doesn’t find scathing op-eds from eminent lawyers or retired judges. Perhaps the only semblance of civil society is the youth and on social media.
Politics of Pattnaik apart, one hopes he will continue raising his voice for issues that are dear to him. And so should other eminent individuals. It has been a welcome matter that the issue happened at Puri and not in the capital. Civil societies can help various cities that need to have wholesome growth for Odisha to grow and grow beyond the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar-Puri circuit. The recent use of social media for flood relief operation has been a welcome step by the government and such partnerships between civil society and governments are the way forward.
It is important to remember these lessons from this one-off incident. People who have a voice, who are widely heard, need to come out. To be subservient to the powers that be is only counter-productive. It is imperative that people hold governments accountable for issues that concern them and not just in a 5-yearly exercise. For the growth potential Odisha has and the trajectory the growth is following, there will be many more issues that will concern the citizenry and unless their voice is made heard, the growth story will not be inclusive.