K. Srinivas Reddy
Villagers in a remote tribal area benefit from a joint effort.
TWO WINTERS ago, on January 18, 2004, the first bus reached village Gangapur in Andhra Pradesh's Adilabad district, opening up a whole new world for its people and those in nine surrounding hamlets.
It used to be a day's travel by bullock cart in the summer to reach the town of Pembi, 40 km away. During the rains, it took double the time: the villagers had to cross the backwaters of the Kadam reservoir in country boats and then wade through waist-deep water to cross rivulets.
All that changed with a 12 km road connecting Gangapur to the main road and the nearest town of Kadam. About 1,800 villagers and the district police, braving the threat of Maoists, worked together to lay the `kutcha' road that cuts through two hillocks and many small rivulets. Work began on November 20, 2003, and was completed on December 15, 2003.
Despite having extremely fertile lands and abundant groundwater, Gangapur and the surrounding hamlets had remained poor. The villagers practised primitive methods of cultivation. Traders and middlemen got fat on the yield while the farmers starved.
Education and healthcare facilities were almost non-existent. Officialdom stayed away.
"Several pregnant women died for lack of timely medical attention and so did some people bitten by snakes. We were helpless," recalls Aravinda Kumar, a villager.
Then came the road. Now people can drive down to the village in jeeps or use the twice-daily bus service. The road is an example of development ushered in by a proactive government agency, in this case the district police.
Gangapur and the nine hamlets, mostly inhabited by Gonds, Kolams, and Lambadas, were once strongholds of the Maoists. Not anymore.
In May 2003, the villagers turned against the Maoists.In a bloody clash that ensued, naxals had to beat a hasty retreat, but not before the villagers seized a pistol from a dalam commander. The next day, they trekked over 60 km to a police station to hand over the pistol and reiterate their resolve not to entertain Maoists anymore.
For the police, it was a godsend a chance to implement the WHAM (winning hearts and minds) strategy to wean away the villagers from the naxalites. Pooling donations and funds from different schemes, they began laying the road. For more than two months, more than 30 policemen stood guard as 100 villagers a day toiled on the road. Two hillocks were cut through and 37 culverts constructed across the rivulets to connect the village to the main road running between Kadam and Utnoor towns. The bus service started on January 18, 2004. Just days before that, on January 13, the villagers repulsed another attack by the naxalites.
The road has saved the villagers from the middlemen, who had till then dictated the price of paddy, turmeric, cotton, and maize. "We used to trek our way to Pembi to borrow money from traders for buying seeds, pesticides, and fertilizer. We had to sell the farm yield to the same trader, who used to offer low prices and then deduct the loan amount with three per cent interest rate," says Madhu, a tenth class dropout and a former member of the Mandal Parishad Territorial Constituency.
The tribals were never paid cash immediately, but only after a fortnight. If money was to be paid immediately, the trader would deduct another two per cent. And so innocent were the tribals that none questioned the practices.
The villagers are a transformed lot today. Some of them go to Kadam town just to know the prevailing market prices. "The other day we sold 2,000 bags of paddy in our village to a trader. We got some Rs.300 extra per quintal. If we had to sell that in Pembi we would have to bear the transport expenses, spend two days for transport. Life is comfortable now," says Ch. Rajeshwar Reddy. Vedama Laxman is more adventurous. He hired a lorry and took sunflower seeds to Bokhar in Maharashtra to sell. "I got a price of Rs.1,600 per quintal, whereas the prevailing rate here is Rs.1,200."
Frequent visits to Kadam, where they interact with others, have taught the villagers new farming techniques. Some have begun hiring tractors to till the lands and the area under cultivation has increased. They now sell mahua flowers and beedi leaves collected from the forest at a Girijan Cooperative Corporation outlet in Kadam.
An attitudinal change among the villagers, thanks to the police's proactive approach, is also evident. They feel an armed struggle is irrelevant when government agencies are ready to solve the problems. "The ITDA [Integrated Tribal Development Agency] sends mechanics to repair the hand operated borewells. The ITDA officials helped us start Self-Help Groups," says Dosanla Laxmi. At present there are 29 active SHGs, which have borrowed Rs 3.55 lakh for buying agricultural inputs.
Other "goodies" too have come in. Along with development activity, the road has ushered in the habits of modern world. There is a great demand for tiklis (plastic bindis), soft drinks, beer, and gutkha at the three kirana stores that have sprung up in Gangapur. An enterprising tribal installed a dish antenna and wired up the entire village bringing it the soap operas. Three others followed suit.
There are now more than 100 colour TVs in the village. The residents mostly watch Telugu soap operas and movies on pirated VCDs bought in Kadam. "We have about 70 VCD players in the village," the tribals say.
The Maoists, however, have not taken kindly to the joint road-laying effort. Months after it was thrown open, an action team shot dead a resident, Damodar Rao, accusing him of playing a pivotal role in laying the road. But the villagers have not lost their nerve. They now want the Government to convert the kutcha road into a pucca road, since during the rains the bus cannot be run.
"If there is a pucca road, we need not depend on the RTC bus. We will buy some autorickshaws so that we can go to Kadam anytime we want," say the villagers.