Every morning at 8:30, Usha Maliwad (24), a nine-month pregnant ASHA worker, begins her day by waiting at Panam river bed in Mahelan for her ride. Her wait finally ends after 15-20 minutes when a boat arrives at the shore to ferry her to a sequestered small hillock village, almost a kilometre away. Usha pays Rs 10 and at times Rs 15 for the one-way journey to the village – Simlet.
Maliwad visits Simlet twice a day to survey each household everyday for symptoms of Coronavirus, collect daily reports of pregnant women and provide medicines to the villagers. For almost the last two months, Usha is the only visitor to this village. As most parts of India struggle to come to terms with the pandemic and the ongoing nationwide lockdown to contain the virus spread, little has changed for the 90 families residing in the village.
The village, under Sehra taluka of Panchmahals district, had submerged in the Panam reservoir in 1974, when the dam was built. The residents were provided lands in Mordungra and Kalali villages in Panchmahals. Some of them decided to stay back and some others, who had left, returned claiming that they had a bigger piece of land in Simlet which was more fertile than what was offered to them. Since then the residents have stayed in this village, marooned from the main land and disconnected.
For all these years, Simlet has lived without electricity, school, healthcare centre and shop.
“I have always been very enthusiastic about this work and I do not feel scared at all. If I feel unwell, I try not to go. But I have been taking the boat ride for the last five months and now I am used to it. There are other women like me (pregnant) in Simlet who need my help, so I do it as a part of my duty. I constantly visit my doctor as well and my family is very supportive too,” says Maliwad. 0
Sana Pateliya, a resident of Simlet, says, “We used to commute to Mahelan for every basic need and we are still doing the same. Normal shops are closed but we go to Mahelan to get ration from fair price shops. There are no shops here in Simlet. And most people do not have enough money to buy the ration from grocery stores themselves. No ration or food kits have been provided here.”
For every basic necessity, the villagers have to commute via boats to Mahelan – the closest village almost a kilometre away. The students enrolled in primary school take a boat ride every day. The students from secondary sections are enrolled in residential ashram shalas in Panchmahals district and other districts. Even during the election, the villagers row their boats to Mahelan where the election booth is set up. Each household in the village which has a population of around 900 owns a small boat.
No organisation or welfare groups have reached out to them for help. “We got rice and dal on our BPL cards and we managed to get wheat. That is what we eat and at times fish. We haven’t eaten vegetables in almost two months now. Earlier vegetable vendors would come here or to Mahelan. Now no one does. And most of us do not have vehicles to drive till Sehra market to fetch vegetables,” Pateliya adds.
The village though is covered under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna, the households still lack water and toilet facilities. “Being cut off and isolated is how it has always been for us. There is hardly any difference now. No houses have toilets… we go to the farm side and the jungle area in the hill. A few households have handpumps but the others do not. We directly use the river water for drinking and other purpose,” says Radha Nayak, who is seven months pregnant with her second child and uses the family boat to reach Mahelan every time she has to consult a doctor.
Radha’s is also the one of the few households who were provided solar panels under the solar power scheme almost a decade ago. The rest use “mobile torch” as the sun sets.
“We do not have fans or lights in our house because there is no electricity… we charge our phones in our neighbour’s house where there are solar panels or in Mahelan. We have become so used to this darkness that it does not affect us anymore,” says Parvat Nayak, one of the villagers.
The entire village is divided into two neighbourhoods, Pateliya and Nayak faliyas. While the Pateliyas own bigger lands in the village and depend on farming, the Nayaks mostly migrate to other urban cities for work and return in monsoons and generate their income from farming and fishing. However with the lockdown in place, they have been unable to sell their produce.
Raman Nayak (43) goes out to sell fish on alternate days, but it is rare when he finds customers and is able to sell all the fish. “I worked in Junagadh as a farm labourer and come back for Holi. I had to return for work but could not go due to the lockdown. Now to sustain ourselves I catch fish and try to sell them. Some days I am able to sell them, some days I return with all of them. It is very uncertain. I don’t have any vehicle. So I got to Mahelan in the boat and then walk on foot across the villages to sell fish. I hardly have a half bigha land and will plant maize in monsoon.”