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Thursday, March 04, 2021

A bridge in Bastar — why a district, security men are counting on it

Three years after the security forces managed to reach Pamed, gradually laying an 11-km road between 2017 and 2019, they hope to finally finish the last 5-odd km to Chintavaagu, and build a bridge over it.

Written by Gargi Verma | Bijapur |
Updated: January 24, 2021 8:51:10 am
A bridge in Bastar — why a district, security men are counting on itVillagers crossing the Chintavaagu stream. The last 5 km to it, and a bridge, are now awaited. (Photo: Gargi Verma)

Chintavaagu, or the stream of worry, is an important line for the security forces in Chhattisgarh. One of several streams lying on a 44-odd-km axis between Pamed and Basaguda in Bijapur district, on the state’s southernmost edge — across a rugged terrain secured by around 2,000 security personnel, including the elite CoBRA unit — Chintavaagu controls access to the Maoist heartland of Bastar, particularly the home of dreaded Naxal commander Hidma.

Three years after the security forces managed to reach Pamed, gradually laying an 11-km road between 2017 and 2019, they hope to finally finish the last 5-odd km to Chintavaagu, and build a bridge over it. The foundation was laid by Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel earlier this month.

A bridge in Bastar — why a district, security men are counting on it

Standing near the stream armed with an automatic rifle, SDOP (Sub-Divisional Officer of Police) Abhishek Singh says, “A couple of weeks ago, we were on an operation when there was indiscriminate firing from the other side… We are trying to get closer and they don’t like it.”

Access over Chintavaagu won’t be just a security landmark for the 64 villages between Pamed and Basaguda, as Shrinu, 19, a farmer from Dharmaram village points out. To reach the district headquarters for something as basic as getting himself registered as a farmer with the Pamed society, to be able to sell his produce to the government, Shrinu first takes his run-down motorcycle to the stream; pushes a dongi (a thin boat made out of a hollowed-out tree trunk) loaded with the motorcycle across to Pamed; and then drives another 200 km, crossing in and out of Telangana twice.

Shrinu, who got married last year, says that without the registration — and with bigger markets inaccessible — he is forced to sell his paddy for Rs 1,050 per quintal to local vendors, against the MSP of Rs 2,500 per quintal. Most of his family has already moved to Telangana for work, leaving him to till their 18 acres.

Priya, listening to the Telugu songs Shrinu got downloaded on her phone the last time he went to the city, worries every time her husband leaves home. “We are stuck between two warring forces. Villagers are beaten up randomly by security forces and detained. Andar waale (the Maoists) do the same if they suspect us,” says the frail 19-year-old, who belongs to Cherla in Telangana.

Recently, the seven villages falling under the Dharmaram panchayat wrote to the Superintendent of Police against “police brutality”. Says Kama Gundi of Dharmaram, “When we go in or out of the village, security personnel stop and interrogate us. If someone gets scared and can’t respond, they are beaten up for being Naxal supporters.” With several protests on the matter held recently across Bijapur, senior officials

With Chintavaagu in the way, most of Pamed’s needs, as that of security forces, are met from Telangana. The sliver of new roads have brought in some changes though, including electricity two months ago. “Till 2019, no one stepped out alone. Even the security personnel would go out in groups. Now, because of streetlights and electricity, shops stay open till late evening,” says Koyo, a shopkeeper in Pamed.

The village even has a small hotel now, as labour from Telangana buzzes around to meet a spurt in construction demand.

Sandeep, 28, recently set up a Wi-Fi device with reach in a kilometer’s radius, and offers Aadhaar registration services as well as space for children to attend online classes. He spent Rs 12,000 for the device, but business has been good. “I also help villagers from the other side of Chintavaagu,” he says.

It was the plight of his neighbour Guddu, 17, who studies in Class 11 at a boarding school in Telangana but has been home due to Covid shutdowns, that gave him the idea, Sandeep says. “He is very good at studies, even ranked first in the school in the 10th boards. But he would have to cycle 30-odd km to Cherla and hang his phone from a tree to just get network for classes… I have written to the district administration (for Internet connectivity), but there has been no help.”

Guddu wants to become a doctor. “All of us have lost family members to diseases that could have been treated,” he says. His mother Uma Devi suffers from kidney failure, with seven dying of similar ailments in 2020 alone in Pamed. “Doctors told us it could be because of the water. We get muddy, red-tinged water here,” says Sunny, 16, whose mother Swapna Vankail was among those who died last year. His father Jaikumar says he now buys bottled water for drinking.

On January 10, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel asked the Bijapur district administration to arrange filtered water in the area. Bijapur Collector Ritesh Agrawal says while they got the water tested in 2020, the deaths were probably due to “the excess use of urea in making mahua”. Villagers brew the local intoxicant at home, and Agrawal says they have started an awareness campaign on the risks.

The 14 gram panchayats and 64 villages of Chhattisgarh on the other side of Chintavaagu have it even worse. Jaya, 21, says they have been unable to get the sole handpump in Dharmaram’s Schoolpara fixed for two months, forcing them to resort to makeshift arrangements.

The only PHC around is at Pamed. Deva, 25, recently trekked 15 km to it from his village Kawalgutta, wading across the Chintavaagu with his four-month-old child and ailing wife Bhime, 22. She only required basic medicines for fever, but the family spent the night at the hospital compound. “We couldn’t have brought her again fast if needed, especially at night,” Deva says. Kawalgutta is yet to get power, and Deva and others use their solar-powered lights sparingly. “If they malfunction, we can’t get them fixed, we have to wait months for district officials,” he says.

Collector Agrawal says they hope to start the Rs 15 crore project to build the bridge over Chintavaagu by February and complete it before the monsoon. “While things are not perfect, the situation has improved manifold,” he says, adding, “Once we cross the river, other villages will also benefit.”

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