I am currently a Prime Minister Rural Development Fellow (PMRDF), posted in the Gajapati district of Odisha. Being a fellow was quite an exciting moment for me, as I belonged to a developed part of Odisha and was going to enter an entirely different zone, where many connotations were used before talking about the people and district as a whole, such as poor people, tribal people, Naxalite district, red zone/conflict zone, deprived communities, lethargic bureaucracy, remote/cut-off areas and many more, which are debated on many forums.
During my training in Hyderabad as a PMRD fellow, I was given a lot of insight as to how basic rights and entitlements are not reaching people in Naxalite-affected districts. Many eminent people, including academicians and bureaucrats, shared their experience on working for issues related to tribal people during those two months of training.
It didn’t come as a surprise to me when I actually figured out that there are such Panchayats which remain inaccessible where I was posted, and the surprising fact was, that one such Panchayat was known as the most remote as well as Naxalite-affected Panchayat. There were many incidents of violence that had occurred between CRPFs and Naxalites in that Panchayat and due to fear, neither the block administration nor the district administration was able to actually start developmental works for the Garadama Panchayat and its people. Issues such as a road to the Panchayat, water supply, health, education etc. were not being addressed as it was perceived to be a conflicting zone.
How to put your foot in a Panchayat about which there is so much negative news in the air? The BDO of Mohana Block himself told me once, “Sir if you want to go to that Panchayat, please go at your own risk, but I cannot allow you to go to that Panchayat.”
I undertook the journey on three bikes, on one bike sat the lady sarpanch and her husband, another the Gram Rojgar Sevak and ward member, and one villager and I on my bike. That was the first journey of 110 kilometres from the block headquarters to the remotest panchayat of the block. There was so much of hope among villagers about my visit to their Panchayat. But I never told them that I was there to solve all their problems, and they were quite confused about my approach and style of working when I told them that I am part of you people, let us work together. Generally no Government babu does it in this way. I was told during my training (which was essential for me to apply), that never to give false hope or false promises to solve their issues, because being close to the collector sometimes brings that kind of expectation that perhaps PMRDF can solve everything. I decided to meet all the ward members inside the panchayat office which was a good way to start with understanding why their Panchayat had been left untouched. Many suggestions and problems came up and a few ward members became very emotional while sharing their story of struggle so far both with Naxalites and with the government system.
Priority was to have a road to the Panchayat with the shortest route possible which would cost less to the government. Under the IAP (Integrated Action Plan), Gajapati district has received around 30 crore rupees every year for the last five years which was supposed to be given for important infrastructural needs of difficult Panchayats like Garadama, but it remained in the hands of politicians who made money out of this at the block level. Block administration generally asks block level politicians to suggest important projects for the most needy villages and Panchayats, but it ended up with a lot of useless road projects in which politicians took huge cuts from contractors and were partial in sanctioning projects to only those villages which supported such politicians.
Among all these difficulties, I had to approach my collector through my report and also told villagers to meet the collector during Block level grievance redressal day. After listening to their grievances, my ex-collector Basudev Bahinipati sanctioned around 20 lakhs to start work for building a road, and further directed a concerned junior to assess how much extra funds were required to finish the work.
Ghat cutting for the proposed road to Garadama Panchayat started after this initiative. The junior engineer and Block Development Officer visited the project site once to give direction through which ghat cutting would start. It was a huge mountain through which the road was to be constructed. After the 20 lakhs finished, another 25 lakhs was sanctioned by the new collector, Manshi Nimbhal, which made it possible to construct the road on two huge mountains.
The road to this Panchayat became news both at block level and district level administration through the ITDA (Integrated Tribal Development Agency). Because of the road, health camps were organized once in every two months in the Panchayat and health checkups were done on a regular basis as there was no primary health centre in this Panchayat. Many credit-linked SHG’s also gave loans to make business activities.
An electricity proposal was also sent to the state government for approval as it needed more funding and once approved, Garadama Panchayat can finally have electricity for thousands of its villagers. Villagers have already started constructing toilets under Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, which will stop frequently happening diseases in this Panchayat like cholera and diarrhoea, etc. After the ghat-cutting road project, completed under the Integrated Action Plan, a Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) project work has started. Now Garadama panchayat will have an all-weather accessible road which itself is a big achievement of these villagers.
This Panchayat and its people have seen a lot of violence by Naxals and CRPFs, seen extreme poverty and beyond all these, a helplessness attitude of the administration. So making a road for them is not at all the end of everything but it will certainly change the mindset of the district administration to treat every Panchayat equally and give emphasis its overall development. Lastly, the construction of the road made it easy for me to go this Panchayat. Now I do not have to walk for six kilometers crossing two big mountains to reach Garadama.
Image source: Prakash Kumar Sahoo