Mainstream political parties may find 1,000 votes in 16 villages surrounded by the waters of the Indravati reservoir in Odisha’s Kalahandi district too small a voting bloc, which is probably why the demand for a bridge connecting them to the mainland has never been taken up seriously over the last six Lok Sabha and four Assembly elections.
Contrary to this, political leaders are never short of pledges to build a bridge over the Kharinasi river, with the more sizeable number of 7,000 voters in 14 villages under the Batighar panchayat in Kendrapara district. But, a bridge eludes them too, since Independence.
“Elections come and go, but the promise of a bridge remains constant and unfulfilled,” says Supada Mistry, a young voter of the Batighar panchayat.
The construction of bridges has emerged as a key issue in the forthcoming elections for a number of Odisha villages cut off by water from all sides. In Kalahandi, residents of two villages — Talajhapi under the Thuamulrampur block and Labanasara under the Bhawanipatna block — formally informed the District Collector that they are not interested in participating in the election as their demand for bridges has not been met.
“In 1996, 16 villages were cut off from the mainland when the Indravati reservoir water submerged all landmasses around Pedapadar panchayat, leaving villagers, mostly tribals, water-locked. In the last 23 years (six general and four Assembly elections), deaths have occurred due to disease outbreaks and boat mishaps, besides routine inconveniences. A bridge connecting our villages with the mainland remains a distant dream,” says Kishore Nayak, a resident of Gopinathpur inside the reservoir.
Plea to NHRC
Dillip Das, a Bhawanipatna-based social activist who had moved the National Human Rights Commission highlighting the plight of water-locked Pedapadar pancha-yat, says: “The government has sanctioned ₹54 crore for the bridge but contractors are not participating due to faulty tendering processes. Perhaps, the voice of people, residing in the 16 villages, is not reaching across the vast water boundary as their number is much smaller.”
In Kendrapara, it is difficult to go across the Kharinasi river without a country boat and reach the Batighar panchayat comprising of 14 villages which are flanked by the Bay of Bengal on one side. Leaders have been making promises in successive elections since Independence, but people are yet to see a bridge across the river. “My father keeps telling me about the elusive bridge and I also keep hearing about it from others,” says Mr. Mistry. Residents of nearby Jamboo panchayat share similar deprivation that Batighar residents suffer. A boat ambulance was launched for both panchayats a few weeks ago. However, the boat is ineffective as it depends on high tide to sail.
Atanu Sabyasachi Nayak, a two-time MLA from Mahakalapada in Kendrapara, says the proposal for the bridge had been approved but it was deferred as the Kharinasi river was included under National Waterway-5, and now the bridge has to be planned afresh.
In Sambalpur district, boats are the only mode of transport to Kud Gunderpur gram panchayat in Dhankauda block. The gram panchayat comprising six villages and having a population of 5,000 is situated on an island in the Mahanadi river. Residents of Kud Gunderpur say they can only threaten to boycott the election if their demands are not met, but no one is listening.