In the heart of darkness

A village in the Naxal heartland in Orissa is low on everything,including hope

Written by Debabrata Mohanty | Tembuli,daringbadi,kandhamal | Published: May 13, 2012 2:42 am

Deep inside the Maoist stronghold of Daringbadi,where Sabyasachi Panda,secretary of Orissa State Organising Committee of Maoists,is reportedly holed up with his armed comrades,is Tembuli village. Here,a tribal woman has named her three-year-old daughter after actress Preity Zinta. Like several other kids in the village,Preity Zinta Pradhan,with her bloated stomach and ribcage pushing against her skin,is severely malnourished.

Preity has had peja (rice gruel) and mandia (finger millet paste) for lunch,and now the bare-bodied girl is going to the pond. “This is the place where we bathe as well as wash our utensils. We also drink the same water,” says her mother,Tapanti,dressed in a torn lungi and a blouse,while walking barefeet with her daughter to the dirty pond. She scoops out water from the pond with her cupped hands and Preity drinks from them.

With just 25 kg of Rs 2-a-kg rice that Preity’s father manages to buy every month from a far-off PDS store,all that she can afford daily is rice gruel and finger millet. “Sometimes,we have a curry of jackfruit and some kandula (a local variety of lentil). The rice that we get is barely enough to last the entire month. I know my daughter is not well. But what can I do?” says Tapanti,clutching her daughter’s hand.

Cut off from civilisation,Tembuli is a tiny village lost in a time warp. It has no clean drinking water,electricity,roads,anganwadi centre or hospital. Young Preity’s life is just a snapshot of the hopelessness that pervades the Maoist-affected region. Ringed by tall mountains,Tembuli village,under Gumikia grampanchayat,sits in a valley where no vehicle can enter as the approach road peters out into a mountain track. A three-hour drive from Phulbani,the district headquarter of Kandhamal,the landscape becomes more rugged and primitive as one approaches Tembuli.

Of the 1 lakh population of Daringbadi—a block spread over 769 sq km of hilly and forested terrain—about 400 live in Tembuli,all of them well below the poverty line. It was from Daringbadi that Maoists abducted two Italian tourists in March this year. There have been several instances of violence,including the one in November 2010 when the rebels blasted an ambulance,mistaking it for a police vehicle. Five people,including a three-year-old child,died in the blast.

“We live each day as it comes. Our days are tough and nights are pitch-dark,” says 61-year-old Paramananda Pradhan,crouching on his haunches under a mango tree. Pradhan has no hope. Clean drinking water is a dream as the state government is yet to install a handpump or borewell. Even the pond where they bathe as well drink water dries up in summers.

Since there are no roads,villagers have to walk several miles even to get the PDS ration or medicine. No government official visits Tembuli,barring an NREGS coordinator who too doesn’t visit more than twice a year. As people have to drink the muddy water from the pond,they often fall sick. The sick are carried on cots at least seven kilometres to the nearest primary health centre at Budaguda. “Every other day people fall sick and die. Several people die while being taken to the Budaguda health centre,” says Paramananda.

As there is little NREGS work in the village,men go to nearby villages for work. In the morning,tribal women make a trip to the nearby forest to collect siali leaves. The dried leaves are used to make plates,which women sell in the local market. “It is difficult to make more than Rs 20 a day even if we work hard. During the rains,even that’s not possible,” says Sumanti Pradhan.

In the monsoons,villagers grow paddy. During the other months,they grow turmeric,finger millets and kandula on 60-odd acres. “I can feed my children only jackfruit and leaves of barada. We just cannot afford potato,” says Sumanti,a mother of four. With no roads out of Tembuli,villagers can’t travel to big markets and are forced to sell the turmeric cheap at Rs 30 a kg,almost one-third of the market price. “In the best of times,it is tough to earn even Rs 500 a month. When we have no food,we drink salapa (a local brew),” says Reshmayi Pradhan.

The only concrete structure in the village is the primary school,but the teacher hardly comes. Students who have managed to go past primary school have to walk to the upper primary school at Alimaha village,a journey of 5 km. No wonder,there are no matriculates from the village. Baikunthanath Pradhan’s son,Andrayi,having studied up to class VIII,is the most educated person in the village. In the last panchayat elections,no candidate visited the village. No one from the nearest Budaguda police post has ever visited the village in more than a decade.

Daringbadi BDO Manoj Swain says it’s the topography coupled with the Maoist threat that deters the administration from reaching out to such villages. “This year,we will try to start roadworks under the Integrated Action Plan so that the hilly roads can be made a little smoother,” says Swain.

Once a year,the villagers pool money to hire a small generator and a DVD player to watch Oriya and Hindi movies. “When we hire the generator,we can’t afford to sleep as we have to make the most of it,” says Rajesh Pradhan,who grows paddy on his small chunk of land.

The Maoist shadow falls on the village. They are said to have reached the neighbouring village of Kakamaha. As the evening sets in,a drunk Paramananda cries out,“All my life,I never saw any roads,electricity or drinking water. Yet,I don’t have a BPL card. I bought kerosene at Rs 25 a litre from the local haat. Once it’s finished,what will I do?”

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