Maoist-infested Malkangiri, located on the tri-junction of Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, has always faced challenges of accessibility. There have been several major attacks on security forces in the area lately. A series of encounters between Maoists and security forces have resulted in the death of many villagers.
In April, I travelled to an area in the district which is separated from the rest by reservoir water. Caught in the tussle between the state and the Maoists, the villagers there are facing trouble from both sides. The cut-off area comprising about 150 villages and separated by the Balimela reservoir is known as the fort of the Maoists.
It is the most under-developed part of the district. Sandwiched between the dam on one side and a hill on the other, it is highly inaccessible. Three sides of the cut-off area is encircled by the reservoir, while it has land connectivity with neighbouring Andhra Pradesh through dense forest route.
Over 30,000 people from six gram panchayats reside in the area.
Motorised boats are the only way to reach there. It takes 8-9 hours to travel the 67 km stretch from the Balimela Spillway to the villages. These boats with a capacity of 40 often carry a hundred or more people; sometimes, carrying along 7-10 motorcycles.
There is no pucca roads inside the cut-off area. After reaching by boat, people walk for a day or two, depending on how far their villages are.
Most of the villagers do not support Maoists but with guns pointed at them, they are rendered helpless. They have to cook for them and provide shelter when Maoists come to their villages. The state thinks they are doing this in support of the Maoists, leading to the villagers being beaten, tortured and taken away by the Greyhound and the Cobra forces.
In last January, Maoists had threatened the locals in the area to stay away from panchayat elections in Malkangiri. As a result, five election officials and a village chief were allegedly abducted. Nobody could cast their vote.
Most villages have tribal-dominated populations, mainly Kondh, Gadwa and Dora. They collect Kendu leaves, dry and sell them. Majority of the population is employed in this business.
The summers in the cut-off area are parched with levels of many borewells dipping under 30 feet.
“There are tube wells in villages, but there is no water. We have no land to cultivate, no medicines in healthcare centres. We have schools but there is no one to teach our children,” says Budhu Bodnaik of Kujurugumma village.
Villagers have to walk 5-8 km to collect drinking water.
“We want all the residents here to receive houses as per the Indira Awaas Yojana.” says Shyam Sundar Anjal, villager of Badpada.
His village Jolaput submerged during creation of Kolab Dam, rendering him homeless and the government paid him Rs 6,000 as compensation in 1986.
At the Educational Complex for ST Girls in Badapada, there are more than 246 girls who study in the light of one solar-battery powered lamp. According to the villagers, this is the only thing that works in the area.
Villagers are waiting for the public health centres to open closer to their villages so their children don’t have to die of preventable diseases. There are several instances of child deaths due to Japanese encaphelitis, tuberculosis.
There are few NGOs trying to work there. Many development workers, a sarpanch, NGO volunteers were killed by Maoists in the recent past.
Dinesh Balam of WASSAN, an NGO, says, “We worked in the Ralegada and Papermetla panchayats in the area. During our four years of work, we came to know about many deaths due to lack of access to medical services in the last minute. We’re working on an idea of boat clinics, modelled on the ones run in Assam.”
When I visited the sole public health centre at Janbai, it was closed. According to villagers, it opens only in the morning for three hours but there are no medicines and they ask for money before administering an injection.
There’s a Border Security Force (BSF) camp inside the cut-off area at Badapada panchayat. Villagers allege they are harassed without any reason by the BSF jawans. Recently, BSF has decided to provide two bulletproof boats for patrolling in the area by June.
I went to these villages to see the ground reality. It’s not possible to get permissions to reach core areas like Paparmetla, known as the Red Corridor, because of on-going cobra operations. From the very beginning I was told by security personnel not to enter the cut-off area for security reasons but I proceeded anyway.
“We have no land, no proper documents (Patta), no water to drink. We collect and sell Kendu leaves for Rs 2 per bundle of 47 leaves.” says Domai Thangulo of Sarkubandha village.
Caught in the throes of Maoist violence, what clearly remains elusive for the locals of Malkangiri are peace, and development.