Twenty-eight-year old Devi Podiam, a resident of Potali village in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh, is used to allocating two full days at the beginning of each month just to walk over 10 km to a ration shop in Tirkapara in order to get monthly supplies of rice and other necessities for her family. So it is a great relief and a considerable change of routine for her that a ration shop was opened in her own village on January 15.
“I won’t have to walk so much anymore. Now I can even send my children to the shop to fetch me the supplies,” she said. Her ordeal of walking to the shop in Tirkpara started 16 years ago when the ration shop in Potali village was forced to be closed by Naxals. The new shop, which has been set up with the help of the local police, will not just serve Potali but also stock up enough to cater to the demand from 5 other villages situated nearby.
“We set up a camp in November 2019 in Potali, amidst heavy resistance (from the people),” Dantewada SP Abhishek Pallav said. Deep inside what the police call extreme Naxal conflict zone, the village had risen against the police forces and their camp. “We have had to work constantly to win the trust of people. Right from providing first aid help to understanding their issues and ideating with them for the solutions, it has taken time. But now, we have plans to set up electricity and ashrams for girls and boys here,” Pallav said.
For activists, however, the shop is a case of help arriving too little too late. “The villagers needed facilities like food, health care and electricity even before. The villagers wrote letters after letters, and no heed was paid to them. Now suddenly the government wants to paint a rosy picture once the camp is set up,” tribal rights activist Soni Sori said.
In Dantewada, facilities have not reached everywhere. While several villages are still waiting for electricity, reaching the closest ration shop is not easy. “We have 152 ration shops, out of which 124 are in rural areas. Each gram panchayat has one. There are villages we have recently managed to set up camps in, reducing the distance from 15 to 3 km to the closest shop. Yet during the rainy season, accessibility is less,” Dantewada collector Topeshwar Verma said.
For Potali, however, things have picked up pace since the protest in 2019. “The protests were mostly under Naxal pressure. We are working with the people now,” Verma added. The village that has had no medical centre and was mostly inaccessible, now has weekly markets on Wednesday where medical centres are set up too.
Like most of the villagers, the thirty-year-old Kamal Mandavi, the shopkeeper of the new shed-like shop painted in tricolour at the outskirts of the village, barely remembers the old shop. “There was a shop here, long back,” he said before adding, “yaad nahi kab tha (I don’t remember when that was)”.
Mandavi who ran the shop earlier at Tirkapara said, “I had to travel over 7 km every day to get to that shop. Now it’s in my own village. It definitely makes things easier, more accessible”.
The Chhattisgarh government provides rice, salt, sugar, lentils and in Bastar region, jaggery to all ration card owners in the state through its ration fair price shops. “We have already helped the shop stock up and people have already begun using the shop,” Pallav said.
Devi’s husband, thirty-year-old Baldev Podiam had to earlier take the day off to accompany his wife to the ration shop.
“Now, we can go back to obtaining ration every month,” he said. He added with pride, “The shop is in our village, near my house in Patelpada. We are the closest to it now”.
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