Editor's note: Probably one of the most delayed infrastructure projects in the country, Gurupriya bridge in the Naxal-hit Malkangiri district of Odisha, was finally inaugurated last month by Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik. The chief minister also announced a special package of Rs 100 crore for people living in the cut-off areas. The bridge links the state’s mainland to 151 villages and nine gram panchayats that were severed when the Machkund reservoir was constructed in 1960 and the Balimela Hydro Power Project later in 1972. In this three-part series, we look at the change in lives of people inhabiting over 900 sq km of cut off area, the Maoist threat and the politics that delayed the project for over 35 years since inception.
Malkangiri, Odisha: Santosh Shukla is a ground-level worker employed at an NGO named Porevarthan in Odisha’s Chitrakonda block, next to the recently inaugurated Gurupriya bridge in the state’s Malkangiri district. He often takes government boats to cross the Janbai River — over which the new bridge has now been laid — to reach the far-flung interior villages on the other side of the water body. But his journey through the waterway is painstaking, which often makes his job more arduous.
"To reach villages like Jantri and others in the cut-off area, we take the boat from Balimela common point at 10 am but have to travel the whole day on the river and reach such places only around 7 pm. With no other connectivity, we were till now left with no option but to go 50-60 km on the water,” Santosh says.
Like him, there are thousands on either side of the river who have struggled for more than five decades to get connectivity.
The 910-metre Gurupriya bridge that opened last week finally ended their woes by linking the state’s mainland to 151 villages and nine gram panchayats in the Chitrakonda block that were severed when the Machkund reservoir was constructed in 1960 and the Balimela Hydro Power Project later, in 1972.
Bridge over troubled waters
Almost 36 years in the making, the bridge was inaugurated by Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik on 26 July amid much fanfare and tight security in the face of threats by Maoists, who in the intervening years have made a safe haven for themselves in the severed tribal villages.
The Gurupriya bridge itself has an interesting tale behind it.
It has been reported that the plan for it existed since 1956 but the maiden tender was floated only in 1982 when the Congress party had its government in the state with JB Patnaik as its chief minister. Since then it took almost 36 years to turn the bridge into reality. What led to the delay in execution was the apparent Maoist threat to the project, as also the backtracking of contractors and other policy-related hurdles on part of the government.
What this tardiness and shifting deadlines resulted in was decades of suffering for the tribals, numbering around 30,000 in the cut-off area, who were almost cast away from civilisation with the nearest hospitals, administrative headquarters and emergency services across the river or several hours by road.
"We have very basic amenities compared to the land on the other side of the river. There is a lack of concrete roads, mobile phone connectivity, qualified doctors and emergency services. Our health, education and prosperity have all been affected because of our segregation," says a frustrated Madan Hantal, a resident of Jantapai village in the cut-off area that spans 900 square kilometre and which has now been renamed as ‘Swabhiman Anchal’ by the chief minister.
Vulnerable and stranded
The hardships the villagers faced often pertained to medical emergencies when they had no option but to rush to boats to cross to the mainland, and that too over long hours. They complained that the government boats were not regular and came only at a particular time.
To its credit, the government did start “boat ambulances” equipped with a doctor, nurse and pharmacist to provide basic treatment to patients in the areas, but their reach was not uniform and they couldn’t cater to the whole population.
Some NGOs operating in the cut-off zone said that small medical clinics also existed in the region but doctors were reluctant to serve in such an area, and the resulting lack of facilities exposed the villagers to preventable diseases such as diarrhoea, anaemia and others.
Ravi Rajesh, a trader who often visits villages on both sides of the bridge, says: “The area lacks plenty of basic amenities. Many of those in the cut-off region have developed strong links with Andhra Pradesh (to which the zone is connected) and started trading, marketing and travelling elsewhere than their own state of Odisha for amenities.”
Such has been the segregation over the years that even political parties did not venture into these areas for campaigning. Most villages here did not see Panchayat elections in 2017 on account of the Maoist threat and the lack of motorable roads. The Odisha State Election Commission officially stalled the local elections that year.
A journalist from a leading Odia newspaper from Malkangiri narrated how tough it was to hold polls in a cut-off zone where the Maoists openly campaigned with posters warning citizens not to take part in the elections. The voter turnout remained very low.
It was in 2014 that construction of Gurupriya bridge finally got impetus when the Border Security Force personnel set up their base near the river on both sides of the bridge to keep a vigil. Their camp has since been helping people living in the vicinity with the supply of clean water, medical aid and other facilities which are dear for many tribals.
While the villagers recalled their daily struggles, they have now pinned all hopes on the bridge changing their lives and bringing them quick development.
The state government does seem to have big plans in the pipeline too.
It is hoping that the Gurupriya bridge, which by the state’s own admission cost Rs 187.25 crore, will give a tactical advantage to the security forces to combat Naxalite influence and their bases in the cut-off area.
The chief minister has also announced Rs 100 crore worth of projects to boost infrastructure in and around the area, including two road projects that will connect Muchiput to Jamuguda and Panasput to Jodamba. Other supplementary projects and welfare schemes for the zone are also likely to be undertaken.
The author is a Bhubaneswar-based freelance writer and member of 101Reporters.com.
Updated Date: Aug 10, 2018 11:42 AM