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Saturday, Aug 17, 2019

Odisha’s last Maoist citadel gets a bridge of hope

A 910-metre concrete bridge across the Gurupriya river now connects 30,000 people in 151 impoverished villages to the rest of Malkangiri. These villages were once a ‘liberated’ zone for the Maoists for years.

india Updated: Jul 29, 2018 10:39 IST

Debabrata Mohanty, Malkangiri (Odisha)
The bridge over Gurupriya river will connect a remote areat to mainland Malkangiri.
The bridge over Gurupriya river will connect a remote areat to mainland Malkangiri.(Debabrata Mohanty/ HT Photo)

Daitari Nayak, the 42-year-old village headman of Jantapai in Odisha’s Malkangiri district, has spent a better part of his life walking from his home to the Gurupriya river and crossing it on rickety boats in one of the most inaccessible parts of the country where Maoist rebels have a sizeable presence.

Last month ,when a 910-metre concrete bridge opened across the Gurupriya, connecting the cut-off area to mainland Malkangiri, Nayak thought it was a dream.

“Since my childhood, I had been hearing about the bridge over Gurupriya, knowing that it was an impossible dream. When I walked over it last month I thought I was hallucinating,” said Nayak.

Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik officially inaugurated the bridge giving the 30,000-odd people in the 151 villages across the cut-off area an avenue to make plans for a future they thought was light years away.

“Next time my wife falls sick, I am sure an ambulance can take her to the Chitrakonda hospital(community health centre). I would not have to carry her on a sling,” said Daitari Galori, a Kutia tribesman.

Nayak, meanwhile, is hoping that the government would open a hostel for tribal students near his village, where his son, now studying in a private tribal school in Bhubaneswar, can stay and study. “He stays so far away that I can’t meet him regularly,” said Nayak.

Although part of the Malkangiri mainland, 151 villages of the district were cut off from it after the state government started the Balimela hydroelectric project in association with Andhra Pradesh in 1972.

The project led to the electrification of the rest of Odisha, but it submerged hundreds of villages, pushing the area into a vortex of underdevelopment which the Maoists used to make it one of their bases in the late 1980s.

Sandwiched between the Balimela reservoir on one side and the hills on the other, the cut-off area was perhaps the loneliest place in the country. The only way to reach the mainland was by boat. In 2011, R Vineel Krishna, a young district collector of Malkangiri, reached out to the people, undertaking inspection of development projects and ensuring electrification.

He was once taken hostage by Maoists and released eight days later in an incident that cast a shadow on the pace of development; few government officials ventured to work in the area.

“We always felt as if we have fallen off the India map. We thought the gulf of water that separated us from Malkangiri and our area would always remain till the bridge happened,” said Kalachand Dewan, a 76-year-old Bangladeshi settler of Janbai,, the first village in the cut-off area.

For Dewan, the pain of living in the area gets heightened when he speaks about his son Krishna, an unlettered fisherman. “I could not send him to study in Chitrakonda town as I was scared of sending him in a boat,” said Dewan.

A bridge over the Gurupriya, one of the five rivers that passes though Malkangiri, was planned in 1982 by the then-JB Patnaik government at a cost of Rs 8 crore. Since then, the government had floated tenders for the bridge 11 times as Maoists managed to scare the contractors away.

“The area was almost a liberated zone for the Maoists and making our presence felt was a herculean task,” said Malkangiri’s superintendent of police Jagmohan Meena.

In 2008, 37 troopers of the Greyhounds, a special police squad combating Maoists, and an Odisha police driver died when Maoists sank their motor boat in the Balimela reservoir. In 2012, Maoists triggered a landmine blast in Balimela, killing a Border Security Force (BSF) commandant and three other troopers. There have been numerous such casualties among the security forces as Maoists held onto their last remaining bastion in Odisha.

Slowly expanding its control and putting up BSF camps on both sides of the reservoir, the state government in 2014 awarded the tender at a cost of R172 crore to a Kolkata-based construction company.

The entire 900 sq km cut-off area spans hills and rivers. Malkangiri district collector Manish Agarwal says the bridge would make it a little easier for the administration in reaching out to the Badapada and Papermetla gram panchayats. But accessing gram panchayats such as Jodamb, Ralegada, Sarkebandha and Jantri would be a far more difficult task, given the rivers and hills administration employees would have to navigate.

“We are hopeful that service delivery will improve in parts of the cut-off area. Earlier, my officials were scared of going inside due to the Maoist threat. Now we can push in more front-line officials and monitor their work,” said Agarwal. “Once we build more roads in the interior villages, we can send ambulances and passenger buses. But everything depends on the level of security that we get.”

To speed up service delivery, the district administration is now planning to build roads to Gondiaguda, a village situated in the extreme end of the cut-off area.

While tribals and non-tribals in the cut-off area rejoice over the bridge, perhaps no one is happier than Jagannath Padhi, a 48-year-old practitioner of Indian medicine who mans the only primary health centre in the area and has been there for the last three years.

“I work for almost 24 hours a day and hardly get any off days. This month I managed to take two days’ leave after a long time. I wish the government sends one more doctor to take some burden off my shoulders,” Padhi said.

First Published: Jul 29, 2018 07:23 IST

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