A few kilometres from one of Odisha’s most heavily guarded pieces of public infrastructure, 17-year-old Arjun Tangul of Badapader village has a head start. Two months ago, he opened the first mobile phone and accessories shop in an area of 630 sq km, spanning 150 villages and 30,000 residents.
Arjun’s business is only three kilometres away from the Gurupriya Setu, the 910-metre-long bridge that connects Odisha’s remotest region, the previously cut-off parts of Malkangiri’s Chitrakonda, with the mainland. Thirty-two years after work commenced on the bridge over the Sileru river, a tributary of the Godavari, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik inaugurated the completed project in 2018.
Arjun’s tiny shop, running out of a thatched hut between 10 am and 4 pm, also provides printing and scanning services for passport-size photos and caste certificates for his village and the many others. It sells between one and three phones a month because of “slow Internet that is only good enough to see Google Maps”, he says.
Still, access to Google Maps means a lot to Arjun and his friends. It helps them calculate distances to their destinations and accordingly purchase petrol sold by non-tribal settlers in these villages in used water bottles at Rs 10 above pump prices per litre.
A mobile phone shop in the heart of what was once a Naxal stronghold is a “miracle”, say local people. The Maoists either disapproved of these devices, or ordered an outright ban on them. Earlier this month, a handwritten message in Odia on a board, purportedly by Left-Wing Extremists (LWEs), ordered people of Orapadar village not to make or receive calls on their phones without prior permission.
But others hasten to inject a caveat. “In these villages, many things were done in the name of Maoists. We had no way of knowing whether something was a command or a canard, but it was always safer to obey,” said a visitor to the shop, declining to give his name.
“It is best to remain anonymous to participate in a frank discussion about Maoists. But this will change everything,” he says, pointing to the newly-built road.
The new roads are changing the region’s economy. A tale of two shops, situated where Gurupriya Bridge ends, offers a good example.
Dhiraj Byapari, 46, sits in his shop in Jambai village with a wry smile on his face. His shop, which sells an impressive array of items from groceries to stationery and clothes, “will go down in a matter of months”, he says. Right opposite to him, Ajay Mallick, 28, the owner of a tiny garage, is elated about the bridge.
Dhiraj says in the pre-bridge days, his strategically located shop saw the most roaring business in the area because it was a few hundred metres away from where the boats carrying people across the water used to dock.
“People would buy groceries on their way back,” he says. When the boats ran late, business was better. From among the crowd waiting by the water, women would saunter in to buy trinkets, while the children would clamour for toys. Dhiraj says his shop used to sell items worth around Rs 2,000 per day, but now sales have fallen to less than Rs 600.
Ajay, on the other hand, sees his business expanding. “Now, more men here will buy bikes. They will also invest in auto rickshaws. I will get to repair most of them. I can perhaps hire more people”, he says, looking around at his shop in a thatched hut on not more than 25 square feet.
The prospect of roads is also reducing the prices of essential items. Farmers in this previously cut-off region mostly grow ragi and millets. Fresh fruit and vegetables were brought over the water, and were costly.
“Now, prices of vegetables are going down. People here like to eat vegetables like cauliflower and carrots in winter, but we could hardly afford them. Now, supply is slowly increasing, and prices dropping,” said a resident of Jantapai village.
Trucks roll in all day, carrying construction material. The tribals are full of ideas like opening dhabas to cater to the truckers. The poultry in most people’s backyards, previously used for domestic consumption, is now being re-assessed as a source of income when sold to the truck drivers, helpers and road contractors.
Development is also bringing conflict, but with roads being built, tribals can walk up to Papermetla police station, the only one in the area, and register a report.
More people have begun to think about concepts like property rights. “Earlier, land disputes were not frequent. But now locals have started thinking of land demarcation. There are arguments about land boundaries,” said Papermetla inspector-in-charge Laxminarayan Muduli.
Budram Naik, 55, is the patriarch of a family of six sons and two daughters, and a dozen grandchildren in Jantapai village. He says the family farmed 30 acres of which 10 belong to him, but he is worried that he has no documents to prove ownership. “Neighbours can claim my land as theirs. There have been a couple of arguments,” he says.
CPM leader Ali Kishore Patnaik says that lack of land pattas is also an obstacle to the tribals availing government benefits. “The state government must distribute land on a war footing,” he says.
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