Yesterday, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik inaugurated the long-awaited Gurupriya bridge (Setu) in the Maoist-affected Malkangiri district, linking 30,000 people from 151 villages to the mainland after they were cut off for nearly six decades.
Construction on the bridge began in 1986, but due to repeated Maoist attempts at disruption, general government inefficiency, technical concerns and then the sheer engineering challenges standing before project executioners, it took 32 years before the project was finally concluded.
Consistent construction work on the bridge only began in 2014, and in four short years, it is complete.
And no, these communities weren’t cut off as a result of natural forces, but by poorly planned irrigation projects at Machhkund in the 1960s and particularly the Balimela Hydro Power Project in 1972. The consequent reservoir it created left thousands marooned, compelling them to depend on boat travel if they wanted to access other districts in the state.
“Sometimes people would want to trade the forest produce collected in the villages,” said Chitrakonda-based activist Nityananda Pradhan, speaking to The Indian Express. “But the ferry was the only option. People barter bamboo and tamarind they collect for millet and ragi produced on family farms. Hopefully, the bridge will catalyse actual economic activity because people will farm on a large scale only when there is a market within reach.”
More than anything, however, the bridge will offer safety while travelling.
Twice a day, state-run motorboats ferry villagers across the river. During emergencies, however, villagers from these communities are compelled to travel on small boats loaded with motorbikes, livestock and produce.
Only four years ago, five teens drowned to death after their boat capsized. In fact, locals speak of the numerous pregnancy deaths in the area because doctors couldn’t ferry pregnant mothers to the mainland for treatment in time. Hopefully, ambulances will now reach these communities.
“I have taken harrowing trips across the reservoir in bad weather,” said 20-year-old political science graduate Gopal Biswas to The Indian Express.
“A medical emergency in the family forced us to cross the water during a storm. After completing BA, I was thinking of moving out of Chitrakonda permanently, but the bridge has reversed that thought. Now, I can reach the rest of Malkangiri without dreading a watery end.”
Constructed at the cost of Rs 187 crore, this 910-metre bridge also stands as a symbol of those who sacrificed their lives in defending it from Maoists.
It doesn’t take rocket science to understand how Maoists have set up base in this isolated district. With the area completely cut off from the mainland, these extremist elements have over the decades exploited the lack of economic development in the region and used its geographic isolation to establish a base and safe haven under which they could operate.
Going by reports in the national media, however, the narrative coming out is that the Indian security forces have stepped up operations against Maoists, significantly cutting down their numbers. Moreover, the State government’s growing focus on development initiatives in the area has also reportedly turned the tide in favour of the establishment.
The cost in terms of human lives has been high. According to this New Indian Express report (TNIE) report, over the span of 10 years between 2008 and 2018, nearly 332 Maoist-related incidents have taken place killing 101 civilians and 77 Indian security personnel. Within the area cut off from the mainland, 25 civilians, 49 security forces, including 37 Grey Hounds (special police units set up to tackle Left-Wing Extremism) have recently lost their lives.
In 2011, erstwhile district collector R Vineel Krishna was abducted, while four BSF personnel were slain in 2012. Constant attacks during construction on the bridge was the Maoist response to the real threat they face with the establishment now having better, all-day access to these regions.
This bridge indeed marks the dawn of a new era for the once-marooned communities of Malkangiri district, and one hopes that with the bridge in place, the region will now have better access to health, education, rural electrification and a plethora of other basic public services.
Additionally, there is also an expectation that economic activity in the area will receive a significant boost, potentially ushering in greater progress and prosperity.
A combination of better access to services and economic prosperity will help the state to not just wipe out the Maoists, but rid the region of the governance-related ills that breeds left-wing extremism.
Going by Indian state’s past track record, there isn’t much cause for optimism, but hope remains.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)