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Marooned by a dam and persecuted as Maoist sympathisers, Malkangiri’s tribal people feel isolated

Villagers make their way in a country boat from their villages to Chitrakonda ghat

Villagers make their way in a country boat from their villages to Chitrakonda ghat   | Photo Credit: Biswaranjan Rout


Thousands live without subsidised food, access to schools or healthcare. Many did not even get polling booths to vote in this year’s general election

The highlands around the Balimela reservoir in Odisha’s Malkangiri district have all the elements of a tourism hotspot. The rolling hills are lush, many of them emerging ethereally from the green waters. On the hill slopes grow paddy, ragi and pulses, and quite a lot of cannabis. The mustard fields are blazingly in bloom right now.

But this idyll belies a disquieting reality: the 30,000-odd tribal people of the 151 villages in this area live with a deep sense of being cut off, forgotten and persecuted.

It started in the early 70s, when the construction of the Balimela dam picked up speed on the Sileru river at Chitrakonda. Several families who would have lost their homes to submergence were given land in resettlement colonies.

But thousands, including many who did not have land pattas, moved further up into the hills. Here they have been living for nearly five decades, isolated, with little access to the outside world, government schemes or basic rights. Not everyone gets subsidised food, access to schools or healthcare. They did not even get polling booths to vote in this year’s general election.

Caught in the crossfire

The Balimela dam was a joint project of the Odisha and Andhra Pradesh governments, and the inflow into the reservoir is shared equally by the two States to produce electricity. The water is used for irrigation.

The new bridge

The new bridge   | Photo Credit: Biswaranjan Rout

Only last year, a 910 metre bridge was constructed over the Gurupriya river, bringing some hope of connectivity to several remote villages. But it has not significantly reduced the sense of disconnection and disenfranchisement that the tribal families still feel. Worse, they now find themselves caught in the crossfire between armed Maoists hiding in the forested hills within the reservoir area and the Border Security Force (BSF) personnel camping there to counter them. Any tribal agitation in the area is seen as being Maoist-backed.

The tribals say that a few of their young men did join hands with Maoists after losing all faith that the administration would ever provide them basic services and jobs. Now, for most villagers, the new bridge and the possibility of new roads is a sign of hope that the isolated area will become free of Maoists, their sons will return, the administration will kick in with services, and they will no longer be forgotten.

Twice displaced

Mutulu Hantal, 80, lives with his family, one among 40 in Alampeka village, which perches steeply on a hill that has no roads with the world. He was displaced twice by dams. “I was young when my father came here after our village was submerged by the Jalaput dam in the 50s. Then, in the 70s, we had to move again because of the Balimela dam. We did not get land in resettlement colonies as we had no land patta. We still have no land to call our own,” he says. Hantal has not received his old age pension for the last three years now.

Mutulu Hantal, 80, says he still has no land

Mutulu Hantal, 80, says he still has no land   | Photo Credit: BiswaranjanRout

For a decade, two vital tubewells in the village haven’t worked, forcing villagers to use water from the reservoir. For more than a year, teachers have not turned up at the upper primary school in nearby Gajalmamudi village; mid-day meals can’t be organised either due to the inaccessibility. The school stays closed.

Raila Hantal, also from Alampeka, recounts the story of how her husband Benu was shot dead by security forces. In 2008, Maoists had ambushed a motorised boat carrying Greyhound jawans. At least 38 persons, including 35 jawans, had been killed in that attack. “My husband was innocent, but they killed him because Maoists used to visit our village. They stopped coming after the attack, but the government still hasn’t extended any help to my family.”

Alampeka can be reached by boat from Chitrakonda jetty 8 km away. But across the reservoir are scattered villages and some of them, such as Jantri, are 60-70 km from the jetty — the boat ride takes the good part of a day. In fact, there is even a room near the jetty for passengers to spend the night. For these villages, the government motor boat service is the only mode of commuting.

Planned since the 80s, the Gurupriya bridge took the Odisha government more than three decades to build. By the time it was completed in 2018, Maoists had succeeded in making this isolated area their bastion. They came in from Andhra Pradesh, to capitalise on the tribal people’s anger against the government for the lack of development; while Maoists from Chhattisgarh came here to hide.

A weekly haat in Chitrakonda

A weekly haat in Chitrakonda   | Photo Credit: BiswaranjanRout

Today, two BSF battalions guard the bridge at either end. The government officials who used to occasionally venture into the remote region earlier no longer do so for fear of Maoists. Many villages have memorials built by the Maoists in memory of tribals slain during encounters.

In 2011, the Maoists had created much panic when they kidnapped the then Malkangiri Collector, R. Vineel Krishna, when he crossed the Gurupriya river to attend a development camp. Krishna was released after nine days.

It’s disconnected

Electricity has now reached a majority of villages, and a power grid for uninterrupted power supply is under consideration. But there is no cellular network yet, with a BSNL connection available only at Chitrakonda. The entire area has just two health and wellness centres — one in Janbai village and another in Jodamba gram panchayat. Both are run on a PPP model, and have one Ayurvedic doctor each.

The government has built 12 km of roads through the remote gram panchayats of Badapada and Paparmetla, and more roads are planned to connect the other hamlets. Most schools, set up with much difficulty in these remote areas, are now without teachers; and even the existing Anganwadis are closed. Since many of the villagers here don’t have Aadhaar cards, or have not managed to link their Aadhaar to their ration cards, they do not get any rice from the public distribution system that arrives by boat.

The BSF camps here always

The BSF camps here always   | Photo Credit: BiswaranjanRout

So remote are these hill villages that election booths could not be set up in many panchayats in the last general elections. In the few booths that were set up, there was no voter turnout because of their inaccessibility. In 2017, these tribal communities had boycotted panchayat polls to protest the lack of development.

Paddy, ragi, mustard and pulses are the main crops, but grown for local consumption. The cannabis grown illegally on the hillsides is sold to traders from distant towns to generate cash. When I ask how they mustered the courage to grow marijuana so close to their homes, one young man replies, “The police never visit our villages. Our people would have been doing better things with their lives if our villages had been given some road connectivity.”

Zone of shame

Now, the area is seeing some action. It has been christened ‘Swabhiman Anchal’ (zone of self-respect) and a development plan has been drawn up under the ₹100 crore package that Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik announced while inaugurating the Gurupriya bridge at Janbai. It includes a fishery project, roads, electrification, drinking water supply, and healthcare.

“It is too early to call the area Swabhiman Anchal,” says Bijay Upadhyay, a rights activist who has been working in Malkangiri for nearly three decades. “It still remains a zone of shame. The government has denied welfare schemes to the people for several decades.” He also points out that the villagers have an impression that the roads are being laid to fight the Maoists. “This impression will only go when they feel fully connected to the authorities,” he says.

Officials say the Maoists have started losing support and their numbers have decreased in recent years. There has been no encounter in the area since October 2016, when around 30 Maoists were killed in a joint operation by the Andhra Pradesh and Odisha police. Three BSF battalions and one India Reserve Battalion are currently deployed here, and the district administration wants two more BSF battalions to take the development work ahead.

The government is moving with caution. But if it wants to win back the trust of the people, it will have to reach out to all the isolated hamlets, and give each of them access to the services and welfare schemes they have been denied for decades.

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2020 7:15:57 PM |

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