Basant Mahakud is a 27-year-old wage laborer working in a house construction site at Bangriposi, a small town in Mayurbhanj district of Odisha. A resident of Hinjli village, crossing the Burhabalang River with his cycle on his shoulder is a daily affair for him.
“We cross the river everyday to go to work. We carry our bicycle on our shoulder and cross the river, which is around 200 m wide,” Mahakud told VillageSquare.in. “Although risky, we have little option to reach our destinations.” He admitted that villagers are often injured after slipping on the rocks while fording the river.
Not only men like Mahakud but also women, students, other villagers and their cattle, and even patients under emergency situations cross the river to save time. Often news of the sick and pregnant women being taken on a cot across the river are featured in local media. But the problem continues.
Mayurbhanj is a tribal-dominated district in Odisha, with 59% of its population belonging to the Scheduled Tribes (ST). Bangriposi administrative block of the district hosts several villages with a majority of tribal communities, and is close to Jharkhand and West Bengal.
Burhabalang River, one of the east-flowing rivers, cuts across several villages of Mayurbhanj and Balasore districts before draining into the Bay of Bengal. Villagers on the other side of the river that are far from Bangriposi town do not shy away from crossing the river by walking over rocks that form a makeshift path in the riverbed.
This path connects the villages to Bangriposi town and other urban areas that host important public offices, educational institutions and hospitals. Due to the geographical chasm, it is common for residents of several villages lacking in civic amenities and connectivity to ford the river to reach their destinations, despite the risks involved.
The reason for making this risky crossing is the lack of connectivity at important junctions, said villagers. “We have two options: either cross the river on foot and save time or take the roads in bad shape near Shyamsundarpur and take the concrete bridge over the river, for which we travel an additional 7km distance,” Manas Singh from Hinjli village told VillageSquare.in. “To save time, many of us take this route.”
Though the concrete bridge near Shyamsundarpur is a safer option to cross the river, the bad roads add to the woes of the commuters, besides the distance to the bridge from many villages. Hence, many refrain from taking the road, and prefer crossing the river. According to Satyabrata Praharaj of Nichintgaon village, the river connects villages like Shankarpur, Kusumanbandh, Sarisupal, Brahmangaon, and Chakdi to Bangriposi.
“Earlier, we used to take this route to reach schools. However now school kids do not take this route near Sasdapal side but college students, and people who need to visit the block office and hospitals do,” Praharaj told VillageSquare.in. An Industrial Training Institute (ITI) and Laxmikant College at Bangriposi attract college students from nearby villages, who prefer to reach their institutions by crossing the river.
Praharaj also said that once some attempts were done to make a temporary bridge with pipes, but Cyclone Phailin blew away everything and now people are forced to cross the river by putting their lives in danger as they cross it while the river flows eastwards always.
Balaram Munda, an auto rickshaw driver from Chuapani village near the river said that this rocky makeshift link is used only for non-monsoon period as water levels rise dangerously during rainy days, covering all the rocky areas that are visible otherwise and the people are left with no option but to take the longer route.
“Mostly motorcycles and cars take the longer route as they can’t cross the river but most villagers who use cycles or who commute on foot take this route, but during rainy season everyone has to take the longer route to cross via the Shyamsundarpur bridge,” he said.
Riverine path to school
Several high school boys cross the river, about 5km away from the Sasdapal makeshift link, to go to school. Another such rocky link in the Burhabalang River is also used by school children.
A number of students from Banakati village cross the river with water up to their chests to reach Jhinkpahadi High School. The students remove their clothes, keep them in their bags and wear the same after crossing the river. Despite the issues being discussed in media, no concrete action has been taken yet.
“Several high school children used to take this dangerous route to reach the schools on the other side of the river. Though many of them have shifted to hostels to avoid crossing the river, the practice continues,” Kumar Kapilash, a resident of Bangriposi, told VillageSquare.in.
Impact on development
Local development workers claim that no political party or administration has paid attention to this problem. “They didn’t plan properly. The remote villagers are suffering in silence and many are putting their lives in danger while crossing the river,” Rabindra Sethi, coordinator of the Management and Rural Development Council, a non-governmental organization based at Bangriposi, told VillageSquare.in. “We are yet to see a permanent solution.”
Activists claim that lack of infrastructure and connectivity, reflect on literacy and other rural development parameters. As per the Census 2011 report, Mayurbhanj district had literacy levels of 63% while the state average was 73%. About 52% of women in the district are literate, while the state literacy levels for women stand at 64%.
“We will inquire into the issue. But we have adequate ambulance services to reach even remote areas to serve the people during medical emergencies,” Vineet Bharadwaj, the district collector, told VillageSquare.in.
According to him, there are issues related to telecom connectivity due to the proximity of Similipal Forest Range. “We are holding talks with the telecom operators to remove the bottleneck. Sometimes when they are not able to connect with the ambulance helpline, villagers get panicky and cross the river for medical aid,” he said.
Manish Kumar is a journalist based in Bhubaneshwar. Views are personal.