Forgotten Country: The Cut-Off Area Of Malkangiri

Villagers attempting to board the only functioning motor-launch into the cut-off area of Malkangiri. This was the same motor-launch that was attacked by the Maoists on the 29th of June, 2008 when 38 Greyhounds and a driver were killed.

They have no access to a road – they live water-locked across hilly terrain – Over 20,000 people of six gram panchayats were cut-off by the reservoir waters created first by the Machkund hydroelectric dam in the 1940s, and then by the Balimela hydro-electric dam in the 1960s. The cruelest irony is that they are yet to receive electricity themselves.

This article appeared in The New Indian Express on the 14th of March,2010.

Samsundar Anjal (65), with his younger brother Podu Anjal (50).

65 year-old, Samsundar Anjal clearly remembers working on the Balimela dam as a labourer when he was young. He even remembers that his village of Jolaput was submerged in the waters of the Kolab dam, rendering him landless. The government paid him Rs.6,000 as compensation and he was one of the lucky ones.

‘They paid us one rupee for labour when I worked on the dam, and it was enough.’ He says, now in the village of Badapada in the Cut-Off area of Malkangiri, as one of the 20,000 erased human beings in the people’s history of India’s development.

The Balimela reservoir waters now cover over 41, 782 acres, it has a catchment area of 4,910 sq kilometers and it drowned 69 villages and cut-off 151 villages. Travelling to the cut-off area is an act indicative of many of its problems. There are irregular, infrequent ‘launches’ or boats that take the whole day to travel the 67 kilometre stretch from the Balimela Spillway to the villages on the banks of the reservoir. These boats with a capacity of 60 often carry a hundred or more people. They break down frequently, and people spend days on the mainland, waiting to get home.

Between 1974 and 2007, six motor-launches were introduced by the Water Resources department. Only two work now, and for the last few months, there was only one. The rusted 1978 boat lies at the spillway, engineers working to get it running again. The others are mostly scrap metal in various stages of decay. A contractor claims it would take him months to repair some of them. Others require imported parts and will never be repaired.

In the far-off distance, the Cut-off is a vast stranded landscape of misty hills.

There is another route though. Villagers sometimes take an over-packed Commander jeep from Chitrakonda town towards Janbai where one finds smaller boats capable of crossing into the area, and then they’d walk for a day or two, depending on how far inside their villages are.

A forty-foot high Maoist memorial stands at the hill across Janbai, looking down the reservoir and the cut-off area. From the memorial, one of the largest in Malkangiri, one can see the OSAP (Orissa State Armed Police) security camp at Janbai, that has solar power and generators. The memorial is dedicated to Maoist Central Committee member Patel Sudhakar Reddy and State Committee member Venkatiah who were killed in an alleged fake encounter on the 24th of May, 2009 in Warangal District.

A view of the cut-off area from a Maoist memorial commemorating Central Committee leader Patel Sudharkar Reddy and Comrade Venkatiah.

Into the Cut-off, in the village of Podapadar, the police roam unarmed and freely, and the Collector of Malkangiri R Vineel Krishna claimed to have made three trips without any security into the area. He says he had not encountered a single Maoist but could conjecture that they come and go.

The Alampakka incident of June 29th, 2008 when 38 Greyhounds were killed also took place in the Cut-off area. After a three-day combing operation from Andhra to the Cut-off, the Greyhounds were attacked as they made their way back on one of the infamous Balimela launches to the mainland. The attack also killed the driver Iswar Rao.

Then on January 20th, 2009, in the village of Kotipalli, it was alleged that Greyhounds killed Golluri Sambu (40), Golluri Budra (45) and Paangi Sadayi, a 20 year old woman who was three months pregnant. The bodies were taken to their jurisdiction in Andhra Pradesh where then claimed that they had killed three Maoists in the forested area of Pedabayalu in Visakhapatnam district.

The same was confirmed by Tehsildar of Chitrakonda D. Gopalakrishna, who was on revenue work in the neighbouring village of Paparmetla on the 25th of January, and was asked to visit Kotipalli. He had walked approximately 8 kms to Kotipalli where he was told that three villagers were beaten, tortured and taken away by the Greyhounds. He also confirmed that Paangi Sadayi was three months pregnant.

‘None of them were Maoists,’ he added, ‘I collected testimonies from 18 families of the village and they all said that they had no links with the Maoists. They were innocent tribals.’

The Strikes

One of the four damaged motor-launches at Balimela Spillway. One of the first demands of the Cut-Off Area Tribal Union was the resumption of all six launches from Balimela to the Cut-off area.

On the 15th of February, 2010, the Cut-Off Area Tribal Union along with approximately 5,000 people held a dharana at the Balimela Spillway. They demanded 1) that six motor launches resume service, 2) that BPL cards must be issued, 3) that all the residents of the Cut-off receive houses as per the Indira Awaas Yojana, 4) that Public Health Centres be opened in every Gram Panchayat, 5) that high schools be opened in the Gram Panchayats, 6) that a block Office be set up in Chitrakonda and lastly, 7) that the abduction of tribals by the Greyhounds in the name of fighting Maoists must cease, and nobody will be arrested without the knowledge of the local police.

On the 19th of February, to intensify their agitation, Sarpanches of the six gram panchayats resigned. The collector R Vineel Krishna convinced the agitators via phone that their demands would be met, and that they should call off their bandh. At the same time, FIRs were lodged against the leaders of the agitation by the Chitrakonda police.

The FIR lodged by the police states, in exact words, “they congregated with their traditional weapons like arrow, bow, axe.” Thus they were ‘traditionally’ booked for Section 25 of the Arms Act, amongst other acts pertaining to Unlawful Assembly. Considering Section 25 of the Arms Act is a non-bailable offence, the FIR functions like an arrest warrant.

Komalu Luchan Anakum, whose grandfather worked as a labourer on the Balimela Dam, is the president of the Cut-Off Area Tribal Union. He and two other leaders of the agitation have now gone into hiding. ‘The state thinks we’re doing this in support of the Maoists,’ He adds, ‘But after 62 years of independence we don’t have any basic facilities in these villages.’

Chakru Khilol is/was the Sarpanch of Bodapadar. He resigned en masse with a majority of Sarpanches of the Cut-off to protest the neglect of the administration. He recalls that during the last monsoon season, from the 15th to the 25th of July, a similar agitation led to similar promises being made by the then-collector who had even given it in writing.

‘Now the new collector said that by the end of march, we’d have electricity and thus it wasn’t a part of our demands.’ Says Chakru Khilol,  ‘But how will they put electricity in 151 villages by the end of march, when they haven’t even entered the cut-off area?’

In Chakru Khilol’s village of Bodapadar, Sohita Golel (50) says that in her lifetime there must’ve been six or seven agitations. She goes on to say how that they are entirely dependant on the rain for the harvest. Since there is no electricity in the cut-off, there is no way to pump the reservoir waters into the fields.

‘No contractors are ever willing to go into the area to work,’ Says Collector R Vineel Krishna, ‘There are big logistic problems.’ At the same time, Maoist tax or extortion rumours are also widespread. There are allegations that the plans for building a bridge to the Cut-off were cancelled as no agreements could be made between contractors and the Maoists.

Outside, in the mainland, an overcrowded jeep passes a small team working to put-up electrical poles a few kilometres away from the Cut-off area. The new poles stand upright in contrast to the limp remnants of older electrical poles that never fulfilled their promises. A boy cracks a joke at the team, the whole jeep shares a cackle, it’s about time.

It’s the story of their lives. They wait. They wait for the boats that sometimes take a week to come. They wait hours for jeeps where over fifty people try to squeeze into, get onto, clamber for a foothold. They wait for the buses that don’t even run. They wait to meet the collector, they wait for his promises to come to something. They wait for the electrical poles to come to their villages. They wait for the Public Health Centres to open closer to their villages so their children don’t have to die of preventable diseases. They wait.

‘Two infants died due to diarrhea in February. One the 12th, another one the 13th.’ Said, aanganbaadi instructor Surmila Mohanty of Panasput village. At Mutaam village, Domoru Jaala (25) died of tuberculosis on the 7th of March, 2010, as a repeated defaulter in an area where there are no Dot-providers. Guruwari Sahi died of ‘fever’ on the 18th of February, as did young Lalitha Jaala of malaria a few months earlier.

Dr.Suresh Chandra Mishra is the only doctor for 80 villages at the PHC at Janbai. ‘For serious cases, it is very difficult.’ He also admits, ‘There are no facilities here.’

They, the tribals of the Cut-off area of Malkangiri, have been waiting sixty-two years for development. Within the Cut-off areas, there are other cut-off villages, again inaccessible by land. One can only access them by small wooden boats or ‘dongaas.’ The further inland one travels, the less development has ‘trickled down’. For instance, the village of Karlamal lacks all the basic amenities like clean water, electricity, healthcare and roads, but interestingly, they were issued voter cards in 2004. All of them voted for the first time in their lives in 2004, even though they didn’t know who they voted for, and no one told them that they couldn’t vote.

According to the villagers of Karlamal, the only thing that works, is the primary school. At one such school, the Educational Complex for ST Girls, Badapada, there are more than 250 girls who study in the light of one solar-battery powered lamp and two kerosene lamps at night. Seven teachers and one clerk haven’t been paid for more than 3 months and have been taking ration on credit from Chitrakonda. ‘The collector visited on the 25th of February and said that the funds hadn’t been allotted yet’, they said.

All of the teachers were born in the Cut-off area, and now a whole new generation is growing up, unaware of the history of their grandparents.

Ichibuti Matem (70) of the village of Karlamal.

Ichibuti Matem (70) of the village of Karlamal holds her grandson in her arms. Her grandson suffers from mild fever and she recounts how her village of Majiput in Jolaput was submerged in the 1960s. She says she didn’t receive any compensation from the government. There are many children around her as she talks, many young men and women.

‘The new generation doesn’t know where it has come from.’

(13) Comments Write a comment

  1. Touching work. And all the photographs are conveying their emotional content. May be considered one of India’s best stories about creating under-development through development!!

  2. Dear Javed,

    Silencing words and speaking photographs! These are the words which depict your article. This is the Rang, Basant was expected to colour the youth.

    This is the slice of most people of our country. Women, rural and tribals.

    Jai ho!Javed…!!

  3. These people and their stories have fallen through the gap in public psyche, it is brilliant that you are bringing them out. Wish we had more journalists like you in the field.

  4. Pingback: The Surrealism of Surrender | moonchasing

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