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Odisha Villagers Tell President How World Bank Projects Have Improved Their Lives

March 29, 2012

March 2012: On his last trip to India as the World Bank Group President, Robert B. Zoellick visits Odisha, a fast growing but still poor state with extraordinary biodiversity.


BHITARKANIKA NATIONAL PARK, March 29, 2012 - Sashikala Rout describes her old life as being like 'a frog stuck in a well' with no way out. But a self help group, supported by the World Bank, has helped poor women in her village, like her, not only gain skills and financing but also given them a voice in their communities.

Puspalata Nayak agrees. "It's given me the strength to speak out. Standing here speaking to you - before I would have been too afraid," the 29-year-old mother of two explains. "The poor have been given a chance to raise their voices."

World Bank Group President Robert B. Zoellick visited the area to see how the Bank's Odisha Rural Livelihoods Project is improving the lives of rural women. He also saw how the Bank's Integrated Coastal Zone Management Project is working to safeguard Asia's second largest eco-system of mangroves, known to be the most diverse in the world.

"The most important asset of Odisha are the people of Odisha," Zoellick later told a press conference. "For these people, they're small amounts, but it made a difference for them. These are people who have enormous potential. They're hardworking people. They just want a chance to be able to do more for their families, their state, and for India."

Odisha, one of India's coastal states, is rich in a variety of natural resources including minerals, forests, lakes and rivers. But while Odisha has seen unprecedented economic growth over the past decade, it remains one of India's poorest states.

During the visit, Zoellick admired the arts and crafts, from ornate basket weaving to delicate hand-embroidered linens, being created by self-help-groups of women from extremely poor and vulnerable households. The Bank's $82.4 million Odisha Rural Livelihoods Project currently reaches 990 villages and over 300,000 households in the state.

The project has given the women the confidence to take on the deeply entrenched gender biases of an age-old patriarchal society. With the power of the group behind them, the women are now fighting the evils of dowry and child marriage, as well as of indiscriminate alcohol consumption by their men, which frequently squanders a family's meager earnings, leaving little for buying food or to pay for the education of the children.

President visits mangrove tributaries

On Wednesday, Zoellick also had a chance to visit by boat the mangrove ecosystem on which the villagers are dependent. The old wooden barge putt-putted through the channel sided by mangroves dipping their branches into the choppy waves. Women in brightly colored saris of pink, orange and purple pumped water and did their daily chores outside thatched huts lined along the banks.

The mangroves historically have sustained an array of aquatic life, while their roots provide safe nursery and spawning grounds for a variety of fish and shell fish. They also protect the coast from erosion, act as a bulwark against storms and cyclones, and help in storing carbon, a critical service in an era of climate change. Their rich eco-systems attract hundreds of thousands of endangered Olive Ridley sea turtles that come to nest on Odisha's beaches each year. And, the tidal channels are home to the threatened estuarine crocodiles and the rare Irrawaddy dolphin.

But half the region's mangroves have been felled to clear the land for agriculture and shrimp farming. The magnificent turtles, crocodiles and dolphins are falling prey to indiscriminate fishing, pollution and invasive tourism. And, sea water is eating away at the coastline - devouring 10 to 40 meters a year in some areas.

Communities given a strong stake in the conservation of flora and fauna

Fishermen who have seen their incomes fall due to dwindling fish stocks are now being helped by the Bank's Integrated Coastal Zone Management Project (ICZM) to form eco-development committees that enable them earn good incomes while restoring the area's fragile habitats.

"This is a good example where we're trying to work with the communities to move beyond being users of natural resources to becoming managers of natural resources, so they help preserve and protect them at the same time they expand their overall livelihoods," Zoellick said.

Across India, the project is working in three coastal states - Gujarat, Odisha and West Bengal - to build knowledge and institutional capacities for the management of coasts. The project seeks to benefit 1.1 million people directly and an even larger number living in low-lying coastal areas indirectly. It also seeks to understand, for the first time, the reasons for rapid coastal erosion and to devise plans for long-term conservation. The $221 million project is the Bank's largest in the Blue Agenda and is based on the ICZM concept mooted at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

"Without nature and the environment, we cannot exist," villager Omprakash Barik told Zoellick during his visit to Odisha. "With a healthy environment, we can prosper."