This article has been sponsored by Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation
He was just 17 when he decided to dedicate his entire life for the betterment of others. A legendary Gandhian and one of the most notable social workers from Odisha, Biswanath Pattnaik, has changed thousands of lives, leading many through the iconic 1951 Bhoodan Movement (land gift movement) under the guidance of his mentor, Acharya Vinoba Bhave.
In the words of Raghunath Rath, an ardent follower, who has spent his life researching on tribal issues: “He was the last true Gandhian of Orissa. They do not make people like him. He never ran after awards unlike many social activists of today.”
Born among poor tribals in Odisha on November 11, 1916, in a village called Kumarada, in Ganjam district, Biswanath, like many around him, has faced the darkest struggles for survival. Yet unlike many, he wanted to make an effort to change it.
After losing his father, Upendra, at a very young age, he grew up with his grandfather, Ghanashyam, and studied in a village school. However, aspiring for better education, he moved to Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh, but only sustained his studies till Class 8 and dropped out.
In search of meaning, he moved back to his village, this time as an informal teacher, at his old village school, on a monthly salary of seven rupees. It was then that he met a Gandhian, Gopabandhu Choudhury and began to work as his assistant. Under his guidance, Biswanath travelled to Koraput to help expand the khadi movement there. His extensive work became so popular in Koraput that it earned him a pseudonym, the Koraputia Gandhi.
In 1940, he arrived in Kujendri, and began focusing on the tribal communities of the area, especially those who are differently-abled. His productive work to empower the communities further spread to Baliguda as well.
From putting up a strong stand against various social evils like dowry system, superstitions, untouchability, and illiteracy among others, to helping children, women and senior citizens get education, livelihood and shelter, Biswanath has been a force in reforming Odisha’s social fabric.
It was this fearless sense-of-purpose to battle against all forms of injustice perpetrated against marginalised communities and a promise of a dignified life for them, that gave him the strength to start Banabasi Seva Samiti along with Gopabandhu in 1972, in Balliguda, Kandhamal district. Since its inception, the organisation has been selflessly taking up issues of education and the upliftment of poor tribesmen, and run several residential schools for tribal students, vocational educational institutions, old age homes and orphanages.
The vocational educational institutes for self-reliance set up by Biswanath has now spread to four different centres benefitting more than 300 children.
Under the organisation, as many as 14 crèches were opened for children up to 3 years. Furthermore, one of his prominent projects, A Nutritious Food Project continues to help hundreds in Balliguda, catering to the needs of malnourished children, pregnant and nursing mothers.
Years ago when skill development was still a new concept, the Samiti, under Biswanath’s leadership was able to set up a printing press to help children learn to print while opening up employment opportunities in the long run.
With an agriculture and kitchen garden, a dairy farm and a carpenter unit, the Samiti has been trying to change lives for the better holistically.
His constant efforts to better the socio-economic situation in these areas has inspired many youths to take the baton of change. Owing to this, in several villages, youth-driven campaigns have pushed them to zero alcoholism.
Additionally, to help the villages be self-sufficient economically, he introduced many income generating schemes like mulberry plantation, silk production unit, nutrition food production packet unit, dairy farm, agriculture project, printing press, and carpentry work among others.
He was a social worker, a close associate of Gopabandhu and Vinoba Bhave, a freedom fighter who joined the Quit India Movement and a ray of hope for all the marginalised communities of rural Odisha, who for decades, have been reeling under the injustices of the landowners, intermediaries, officials and many others.
His relentless work eventually earned him the prestigious Best Social Worker Award from the Bharatiya Adimjati Sevak Sangh, New Delhi, in addition to the Justice Rajkishore Das Award in 1996-97, and the 23rd Sarala Award 2002 for outstanding contribution in the field of social work.
The next year, he received the Rajiv Gandhi Sadbhavana Award for dedicated social service, followed by the Jamnalal Bajaj Award in 2008 for his selfless constructive work in tribal-dominated areas of Kujendri and Baliguda, Odisha.
Despite his illustrious life, his simplicity is what earned him ever-increasing respect among people of Odisha, as well as India. Though his life came to an end on May 29, 2010, his spirit and unwavering pulse to help common people, has truly immortalised him forever!
Find more details about the Jamnalal Bajaj Awards here.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)