Every monsoon, swelling rivers and absence of bridges force more than 8,700 tribal villagers in Jharkhand’s Latehar district to remain cut-off from all amenities

Suraj Devi walked down the sloping bank of the river Koel in Chorha in Jharkhand’s Latehar district along with her three children and two oxen, holding her five-year-old grandson’s hand in one hand and clutching the end of the plough with the other. On stepping into the muddy river, the two oxen tied to the plough broke away, dragging the plough with them. Suraj Devi and the others walked through the water gingerly till they reached the other side.

“We had gone to plough our fields on the other side of the river. There is more land left to plough but the water in the river is so high already, I am not sure if we can go there again tomorrow,” said the 50-year-old woman farmer.

Chorha and Lai are two of the 14 villages in Chorha panchayat that lie between two rivers: Koel and Chaupath. Every monsoon, as the river swells, over 950 families in these villages get cut off from all amenities for more than three months as there are no bridges nearby. Further west of the Koel river, 14 villages in Ghasitola panchayat, too, cannot access any block office for several months once the water in the river rises.

A population of more than 8,700 in these two panchayats alone get cut off from everything in the monsoon.

“Every year it is the same. Once the river rises, we can no longer reach the ration shop or the market. We try to stock up as much grain as we can but who has the money to buy in bulk. Sometimes I fear we may starve in the rains,” said Sajti Oraon. Villagers say in case of serious illnesses, the only option is to carry those in need of medical treatment on cots across the river.

All the 69 villages in Garu block are yet to be electrified though electric poles were erected years back. “In the rains, we cannot refuel diesel-run generators to pump drinking water from wells. Not all families boil water properly and there are diarrhoea deaths every monsoon,” says village head Phuldev Oraon.

Chauraha and Ghasitola panchayats are among the eight panchayats selected for focused developmental work under the over Rs. 300-crore Saryu Development Plan announced by the Union Ministry of Rural Development last year. The plan includes building three bridges over the rivers here and a road to reduce the distance of these villages to the district and block centres by 100 km.

Nevertheless, the Adivasi villagers will remain cut off this monsoon, too. Local officials say there were delays in sanctioning of funds as well as in awarding contracts; also, contractors are afraid to undertake work in the area because of the presence of Maoists here.

“We allocated Rs. 24 crore for three bridges and Rs. 44 crore for the Latehar-Saryu-Garu road. The tenders were awarded a few weeks back but work cannot begin till after the monsoon,” said District Collector Aradhana Patnaik.