Sam Pedapur empties a pouch of gutkha into his mouth as the engine of his rickety jeep comes to life at Pattagudam village, 1,400 km east of Mumbai.
Pintya, his eight-year-old assistant, shouts for passengers: “Asarali, Asarali, Asarali.”
Passengers clamber in — 30 jammed into seats meant for 12, five more on the bonnet and five dangling from the doors.
Nonchalant, Sam sets out for Asarali, the last town along the border with Chhattisgarh.
The jeep makes its way across a treacherous, narrow mountain track, skirting rocks under a thick canopy of trees.
Occasionally, the jeep trundles across a roaring rivulet as the passengers grab each other to keep from being tossed over the side.
The 25-km journey takes over two hours. But for Sam — a 19-year-old Class 10 dropout — and over 10,000 tribals in villages around Asarali, this is routine. They have little choice.
Because less than half the stretch of National Highway 16 has been completed over the last nine years.
For 30 kilometres, National Highway 16 runs smooth. For the remaining 25 kilometres till the Maharashtra border — the rest of the 485-kilometre NH16 connects Jagdalpur in Chhattisgarh with Nizamabad in Andhra Pradesh — it’s a rough hilly track road.
Tourists and truckers often land up in the jungle while trying to get to Chhattisgarh. Even if they manage to negotiate the track, the journey ends at Pattagudam, on the banks of the Indravati, which separates Maharashtra from Chhattisgarh.
There is no bridge across the water.
At Sironcha, 30 km to the west, the scene is no different.
NH16 leads to the banks of the Pranahita river, overlooking Nizamabad.
There’s no bridge there either.
Work on the bridge began three years ago, largely due to the Andhra government’s initiative, but the contractor vanished after six months and the project stalled.
For a decade, Maharashtra has been denied immediate access to two of its neighbours because of its failure to bridge the two rivers. This has retarded development in the region and caused a revenue loss of several crores every year.
In the absence of the two bridges — each needs to be only a kilometre long — you have to travel an additional 350 or 500 km to get to Andhra Pradesh or Chhattisgarh.
Road work on the Andhra and Chhattisgarh sides is virtually complete, but the 25 kilometres of highway in Maharashtra have been caught in a tussle between the Forest Department and the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), which has been contracted to build the road.
The Forest Department does not allow the BRO to fell trees to construct the road.
“If the BRO deposits an amount equivalent to the project value [to make up for the cost of replanting trees], we will allow them to build the highway and the bridge,” says L.G. Panchal, deputy conservator of forests (Sironcha).
The Forest Department has submitted a Rs. 20-crore estimate as the project value, Panchal claims. No BRO official was available for comment.
Back in Asarali, Sam curses the government and the BRO. “I earn barely Rs. 1,500 per month and support a family of 10,” he says. “If the bridge were built, thousands of trucks would ply through my village and I would open a dhaba (roadside eatery). Then, I’d easily earn Rs. 5,000 per month.”
Sam says the bridge would also help villagers get jobs in the steel plants and mines near Jagdalpur.
Says Krupakar Rao, a village sarpanch: “Though we are prosperous compared to the rest of Vidarbha — we are the only producers of Virginia tobacco [used in premium cigarettes] in India and have bumper cotton crops every year — the bridges are needed to reduce transport costs and give employment to the landless.”
Sam and other villagers hope their votes will make the bridges a reality.
Says Sam’s friend Kartik, his tone a mixture of resignation and hope: “Once again we will vote with our old demand on our minds.”