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Fast-Track development causes Tribals’ Torments

Updated: January 1, 2011 12:05 pm

Gobardhan Hantal, a villager of Panasput in the cut-off area of Southern Odisha’s Malkangiri district was the subject of a land acquisition notice served to him in 1954. A bit of his life can be reconstructed. The rest is conjecture. Like, Hantal, about 10,000 tribal people lost their land and forests due to the Balimela Dam Project in 1962. As per the Revenue Department Report way back in 1950s, most of these tribal people just disappeared. Ironically, they were among the first to have suffered twice the nation’s birth pangs. Even after 43 years of Independence, they seek freedom from forced isolation.

                Sidelined by the fast-track development into what the state officially calls a “cut-off” region hills submerged by the stilled waters of huge reservoirs; a space created by administrative fiat; a gap in the collective memory of the nation more than 21,000 tribal inhabitants like Hantal, today find themselves in an absurd situation: while they exist, they don’t know how and where. They do not exist within any administrative calculation.

                This tiny island has been turned into a safe haven for Maoists over the years. The Left-wing extremists have been operating in this region for more than a decade. That the cut-off area was a fortress of the Maoists is well known to both Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. Absence of road communication and little presence of government machinery has made it easy for the Maoist cadres operating in both the states to run their network from there with ease.

                The tribals were left with no choice but to buzz off like flies, when the Machkund Project was completed in 1948. Four years later began the rehabilitation package and the displaced people were settled at Chitrakonda.               Hantal and many others never received any piece of paper that would have allowed them at least some rights or compensation.

                The displaced Machkund tribals were first rehabilitated in Chitrakonda area to make way for the Machkund Hydro-Electric Project. Then, again they were pushed further downstream to build Balimela Dam Project in 1964 for which the foundation stone was laid by the then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

                The 67-km long reservoir pushed these villages into an unprecedented geographical spin, from being part of the mainland to inlands. But, the government did not consider the villages as displaced but cut-off and are not even mapped. Built on Machkund river, Balimela reservoir isolates the eastern side of Malkangiri from the rest of the country. In fact, there is no accessibility by road from this end and the cut-off area is thus, aptly designated. As per the official records 21,981 tribals reside in the 136 revenue villages scattered in six gram panchyats of Panasput, Jodamba, Ralegada, Paparmetla, Andrapalli and Badopada of Kudmulgumma block of Malkangiri district in Odisha. To serve the 136 marooned villages, the Chitrakonda based Balimela project authorities began a launch service in 1971. About 3-4 launches reach 10 reservoir-side villages, the last a distance of 67 kilometers from Chitrakonda on the mainland. In this region, cut-off from the rest of the world, the launches are everything. So what would happen, if they didn’t run for a day?

                The launches berth at a point 37 km from Chitrakonda. From here, it is a 4 km walk to village Orapadar. Earlier, Orapadar existed in the valley, guiding the economy of many villages. “This village had more plain lands and a few perennial streams, thus ensuring irrigation for the whole year,” says Banaja Sethi of Orapadar village. The village’s economy has turned turtle. According to residents, food from agriculture now lasts only for three months. Now nobody sells the cultivated crops. Seeds, too, are not available. Expenses are up. For one kg of salt, Orapadar residents spend Rs 30. The salt and kerosene ration available in shops run from individual houses costs 2-3 times more. “It has become a 100 per cent buyer economy,” informs says the villagers.

                Sethi rues that the streetlights lit by electricity from Balimela blinded him, he recounts. “We thought our land was yielding something new called electricity and villagers just felt proud to agree for the project,” he says: “But why we didn’t get electricity in our village, he said.”

                With their only link to the mainland being the motor launch, they do not have access to basic amenities like drinking water, electricity, healthcare and education. Panasput Gram panchayat, situated some 48 km from the Spillway Ghat near Chitrakonda, has definitely one high school managed by the SC/ST department. Despite being a boarding school, students have not been provided with beds and sufficient numbers of lanterns as a result they have to sleep huddled on the floor and are unable to study once darkness falls. In absence of any access to the mainland, the cut-off area inhabitants find it difficult to ship their daily needs. “We carry our luggage from Chitrakonda to Ghanabeda by the launch, but from there onwards we have to hire horses for Rs 100,” rues Bajana Sethi of Orapadar village.

                Death is the ultimate relief for anyone suffering from malaria, said Hantal of Panasput village. Malnutrition cases too have come to the fore and even the minimum facilities elude the tribals of the cut-off region. Those who need to go to the nearest hospital, 30 kms away, have to cross the reservoir by boat or the lunches. Such people often die on the way. “The country boats has become a sailing death bed, many times,” said Gobardhan Hantal.

                According to sources, the Paraja and Gadaba tribals show a declining growth rate due to untimely deaths caused by high infant and maternal mortality, cerebral malaria, frequent attack of water-borne diseases and rampant malnutrition among children. Those affected by malaria frequently remain incapacitated for at least 15 days a month, leading to income loss. The so-called development in the undivided Koraput district has badly hit the tribals. Sad to say, in the past five decades, in the name of so-called development a large chunk of forest land has been cleared up during construction of different industries, dam and hydel projects like Indravati, Machkund, Kolab, Balimela, NALCO and HAL etc.

                The Government’s performance on rehabilitation front can be termed as disastrous. One can hardly find any modern signs of governance in these tiny islands within the reservoir area. Basic necessities are still a far cry and to visit other parts of the district, the inhabitants solely depend on motor boats managed by the Balimela Dam Project Authority. For the people who gave up unflinchingly for development, the project does not even bring them any benefit in terms of a share in the electricity produced. Dams bring prosperity, but for the cut-off area people, the reservoir has only brought broken dreams and inert policy has forced them to remain outside the nation’s collective memory. However, while extending its helping hand to the people of the cut-off region, the district administration has decided to hold camp office of the Chitrakonda block at Chitrakonda town every week. The tribals were demanding the block headquarters to be shifted from Kudmul Gumma to Chitrakonda.

                They are dregs of development just like Jaya Golari, say the villagers. Bhubaneswar—the Capital of Odisha got electricity from our land, pushing us into inland. What more they want from us, Golari remarks.

                While, Odisha’s undivided Koraput district has the distinction of being India’s largest electricity generating district, its numbers of the displaced are also the highest. The district itself has 4 major hydroelectricity and two minor power projects, but less than 30 per cent villages were electrified till 2008. The government began to expedite the process only after the Maoist rebels set fire in Valve House, a part of the Balimela Power House, situated some 40 km from the Malkangiri district headquarter town of South Odisha, while threatening the government to blast the same if electricity not reaches all the villages in the district. Out of all the ‘installed capacity’ in the state, about 40 per cent comes from this district.

                The need of the hour is to construct a bridge over river Gurupriya as it would connect more 151 cut-off villages in the region. “The Maoists oppose construction of the two bridges because of possible Force movement in the area, which was their safe shelter since decades.”

                “Even contractors did not respond to government’s advertisement to undertake bridge work at Motu,” said a senior engineer, adding that GIL was given the assignment with assurance that it would be provided with security. “It is high time that the state government must hand over the work to the Border Road Organisation (BRO),” said a top cop.

                Given the series of Maoist attacks in and around the cut-off area, the 29 June Maoist strike on the boat carrying AP Grey Hound commandos should serve as an eye-opener for the Odisha government to focus on development work in the region. Only deployment of more and more police personnel’s trained for anti-Naxal operations alone would not serve any purpose.

                The police may succeed in killing a few more Maoists during the combing operation and encounter, but there is every possibility of the cut-off area as well as the backward pockets of tribal-dominated Malkangiri district witnessing more Maoist attacks in the days to come. It is not the police alone, who can fight the Maoists. The local level administration and the political bosses, who continue to neglect the backward areas would have to make sincere efforts to play their respective key roles in combating the Left-wing menace.

By KISHORE DASH from Malkangiri

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