When he was a high school student in Rayagada, Harish Chandra Buxipatra gathered his friends and performed shuddhi kriya (rituals observed on death of near and dear ones which includes tonsuring of head) on the death of Mahatma Gandhi. Progressive in his thoughts, he was a known organiser and social advocate. His organising capabilities were legendary.
Reaching out to the tribals of his constituency or the student leaders of colleges and universities or to the central government for the merger of Sadheikala and Kharsuan with Odisha, Harish babu was a bright star in the mass movements of the state. A firebrand student leader – as President of Ravenshaw College union he raised the merger issue of Sadheikala and Kharsuan as early as in 1956, as President of Parlakhemundi College he led the local job creation movement for Odia people and as President of M.S. Law College union he advocated for increasing role of youth and students in the governance of the state, Harish babu can be called the renaissance man for campus movement in Odisha.
As a student leader he was a household name across the state and often people from various districts of Odisha would gather around him for help from the government departments and the ministries. He gave student politics in Odisha the intellectual quotient and a place at the high table of state governance. He once famously said that, “the purpose of educational institutions is to impart knowledge and not promote ideologies of different political parties. However, the institutions should equip students in such a way that they are able to analyse and decide which political issue or party to support.”
A powerful student leader of the state, a jurist, a social advocate, a trade union leader, a writer, an ideologue, political guru to many front ranking leaders of today, an articulate policy maker inside the House, astute minister of diverse departments, Harish babu belonged to the hallowed legion of social reformers who were also politicians. As the transport minister of Odisha, he made policies which were not only business friendly for the transport entrepreneurs but were also beneficial for the unions and the people at large. Because he was also a trade union leader who understood the relevance of nationalising bus permits, or setting up an urban fund for transportation, opening of new routes for better commercial reach of goods and services.
In 1972, Harish babu was the President of STS Employees Union, Jeypore, and he also became the President of State Transport Employees Federation (STEF). The main function of the federation was to unite unregistered unions operating in various units and zones and to register them under one umbrella and fight for equal conditions as government employees. The management of OSRTC recognised STEF and declared it as the sole bargaining body from 31.12.74. The solidarity of affiliated unions of the federation continued till 1981. During the period of emergency, Harish babu was imprisoned.
Harish babu possessed the hardcore experience and the intellectual depth to take a middle path in policy formulations. A matured policy maker, he was the union president of seven mega projects in undivided Koraput district include Kolab, HAL, Indravati and at the same time he never barred business investors to invest in Odisha. When he was the industries minister of Odisha he welcomed “development-centric investment” and always communicated to the communities about the investments and their expected outcomes in clear terms. Based on hard facts and deep dive research, his dialogue was unequivocally determined and straight. Harish babu’s style of leadership has demonstrated that one of the most significant duties of a mass leader is to educate all sectors and communities and avert social strife. He belonged to the people but was never one to cosset keeping in view electoral gains. His rich and coveted experience in all walks of life and sectors made him a true and extremely effective arbitrator between community and the forces of development.
Harish babu was a colossus. He exemplified “equanimity” in politics and maintained the fine balance between opposing views, contrarian ideologues, believes and standpoints. Harish babu pioneered forest rights for the tribals but at the same time was always concerned about the slash-n-burn method of cultivation of the tribals. His knowledge to the tribal land holdings, way of life, economic issues and habitations including the names of the householders is lore for us. That was the extent of his reach and depth as a leader of the masses. At the same time, he never loathed the ‘bourgeois’ or the industry sector. All he dreamt of and worked for was “equitable growth” of the state and not only his constituency, Koraput which is one of the most resource-rich tribal districts of India. As a consequence of his matured leadership and statesmanship, there is hardly any lingering sore issues in community rehabilitation and resettlement. As the representative of his people, he ensured just rehabilitation and deserving resettlements to all the displaced and allied households. Their incomes and vocations have also been reassured and sustainable.
In contemporary Odisha, displacement of communities and industrialisation has been one of the most vexing challenges for the government. Harish babu has shown the way – leadership and people connect with dissemination of a vision enable industrialisation an achievable dream. His extraordinary boldness and upright stance in his thoughts and action for the cause of Odia people made him a leader with a distinct identity. Harish babu could blend vision, intellect and integrity with realpolitik. That is what statemen are made of. Buxipatra had straddled Odisha politics for more than four decades with a quest for moral homilies along with the practicalities of electoral politics and his intellectual formation bore the imprint of an eclectic range of influences and experiences starting from his altruistic family origin to the revolutionary student movements to governance. From inception, it also included a strong dose of anti-realpolitik. Many self-assessing contradictions to walk the middle path for the benefit of the underserved, wage earner, forest dweller communities of Odisha.
On this day we remember him as a reformer, a young turk, an activist and above all a public intellectual choosing politics to serve people from all quarters – community, industry, workers, farmers, tribals, students. He has not only worked with all the leading politicians of the state and the country but more importantly has nurtured future leaders. “Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be,” Ralph Waldo Emerson had said. Harishchandra Buxipatra has inspired us to pledge to make polity honourable and people-centric in these trying times.