Every morning, Geeta Baria reaches the banks of the Hiran at 7 am sharp, carrying her school books in a plastic bag. The Class IX girl from Sajanpura village in the tribal-dominated Chhota Udepur district of Gujarat also carries a Gohri, a 20-litre brass pot. The pot is precious as without it she and her five friends — all girls — can’t reach their school. They hold on to the pot to stay afloat and cross the 600 metre-wide river.
Every day, the father of one of the girls volunteers to swim with them across the river. It takes them 30 minutes to cross the river — and reach Sewada village. They then have to walk 5 km to their school, the Utavadi Prathmik and Uchh Prathmik Shala in Utavadi village.
Drenched, the girls wring their churidaar-kurta uniforms before reaching out for their slippers, safely brought inside the pot.
About 125 children from 16 tribal villages of Sankheda taluka — Sajanpura, Chamarwada, Vasan, Angadi, Kashipura, Kukreli, Doodhpur, Nandpur, Sitaphali, Devla, Surajgola, Hatgol and Dharmapura among others — cross the raging Hiran every day to get to the school. The students then sit through classes, in their drenched uniform, and make the journey back home in Sankheda at 5 pm, taking the same water route.
This ritual of swimming to school is not out of choice, but the lack of it. For the past seven years, the villagers have been petitioning authorities to construct a bridge to connect the villages of Narmada district with Chhota Udepur across the Hiran.
According to Ramsinh Kanti Vasava, the sarpanch of Sewada, locals had given a petition to current Chief Minister Anandi Patel, who visited Narmada three years ago as the state revenue and urban development Minister.
“The authorities are telling us that the bridge has been approved and it will be constructed to connect Kareli village in Tilakwada taluka in Narmada district with Chamarwada in Sankheda taluka of Chhota Udepur so that the children can cross safely. However, nothing has taken off despite our pleas nor have we received any communication in reply to our petitions,” says Vasava says.
“We are worried that the currents will take away some child one day. A group of villagers stand on both sides to watch them cross and we immediately scream to alert the children if the river swells or something is spotted in the waters,” he says.
Chhota Udepur Collector Jenu Devan says, “We are looking into the progress of the proposed bridge now that it has come to our notice.”
Narpatsinh Chauhan of Sewada village says sometimes crocodiles are spotted in the river, but none has harmed the children so far. “The Gohri is critical because there have been cases of children being washed away by the strong currents. However, since we have always escorted them, we have managed to save them. Thankfully, we haven’t been attacked by crocodiles yet,” says Nagin Baria, Geeta’s father.
The boys carry dry clothes inside the brass vessel and change on reaching the other side. Geeta says, “We girls cannot swim without uniforms. So we get wet. During the summers, the clothes dry by the time we reach school but in winters and monsoon, our clothes remain wet through the day.”
However, the boys do not think it is easy to swim without clothes on either. “It is embarrassing to take off clothes every day near the banks and wear them again at the other end while we are still wet. Ultimately, the clothes do get wet. Plus, many of the younger boys do not know swimming and the older ones must take care of them,” says Dipak Baria of Sajanpura village.
According to locals, the river never runs dry but during summers the water level is low enough to slowly walk in groups. Chauhan says he had drawn the attention of then Chief Minister Narendra Modi to expedite the construction of the bridge in 2009, during a ceremony in Rajpipla to felicitate Chauhan’s freedom fighter father Punjabhai Kabhai Chauhan.
“Modiji had promised that bridge would be ready soon. But in spite of numerous promises, the elusive bridge is stuck in red tape,” he says.