They sit on their haunches, spades, axes and baskets next to them, beside a brand new path. Unmetalled, its gleaming orange colour makes a happy clash with the green of the forest in the hot morning sun. Tired, they often slump, resting their backs against the hill that has been cut through to make the road.
Looking at where the road dips out of sight, Dhaniram wishes someone would come by. Sure enough, in a few minutes, a motorcycle emerges in the distance, making a slow climb up, the noise of its engine travelling first to where they sit in the jungle.
As the bike arrives, Dhaniram flags it down and asks for a lift. Climbing on, he smiles broadly, telling the others, “Can you believe this is happening? A bike is passing through the road we built, cutting through the hill. We no longer have to walk 20 km.”
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The others smile back. The road is special, dug through the Lohareen Konha pahad by them with their own hands.
Till not so long ago, the hill separated the Gond tribal villages of Murumsilli, Nathukona, Raipara, Harrakothi, and Saiphanpara in Dhamtari district. Close to a year ago, when local officials did a round of the area, the lack of a road was a common complaint. However, the hill, with its boulders, had always posed a challenge.
Says Naresh Kumar, the up-pradhan of Bhatapara block, under which these villages fall, “Our lives are dependent on each other. Some have farms on this side of the hill, but must go to forests on that side to pick produce. We had to travel around 20 km to reach the other village, which was difficult. For people on the Nathukona side, even reaching the district headquarters of Dhamtari in case of a medical emergency meant at least two hours circumventing the hill.”
Around the summer of 2015, the villagers of Nathukona and Saiphanpara started talking about carving out a road on their own, cutting down the distance between them to 5 km. The more they talked about it, the more the idea appealed. Eventually, they approached the local officials,
Says Jeevan Chandra, a local district official and assistant for the project, “We told them it would take a lot of time because machines would have to be brought, sanctions taken… They said they would build the road with their own hands. We didn’t think they were serious, but they persisted, and we brought this to the notice of the collector.”
It was in October that Dhamtari District Collector Bhim Singh received the request from villagers around the Murumsilli dam. “They wanted to break through the hill on their own. We thought about what role the government could play and it was decided that the district administration would aid them through MNREGA,” he says.
“It is an example for the rest of the country. An idea came from the people, which was a dire requirement, and has been implemented. Close to a hundred people have been working on the road, earning Rs 167 a day since April,” Singh says.
The budget for the road has been fixed at Rs 9.90 lakh, with 270 metres laid so far. The portion through the Lohareen Konha pahad is 165 m long and 6.4 m wide.
A Ministry of Rural Development team visited the spot on May 11 and 12 and there is a plan to hold up Murumsilli’s model for the rest of the country.
It’s 6 am when Balram Tetar, a Gond tribal, arrives at the site of the road. Pointing to the grey rocks dotting the top of the hill, he says, first they had to remove those. For this, they cut tree logs, smoothened them with sharp instruments, lifted each rock enough so a small portion of the log could be inserted underneath, and then rolled them down.
“Each rock needed seven to eight people, and there were hundreds. Then when the surface of the hill became smooth, we began digging,” Tetar says.
Like most activities in the community, everyone, men, women and children, are involved in the road-building. They use spades, pickaxes, and baskets to move the earth. “We work from 6 am to 11 am, after which we go back to our farms or to the forests. We could work the entire day, but we need food for our children,” Sita Bai says.
Officials who come to see them at work once told them they were following in the footsteps of Dashrath Manjhi, who had cut through a mountain in Bihar to build a road in homage to his wife. A group of them, sitting under a makeshift tent, laugh at the mention of the film made on Manjhi. “We all went to homes in Murumsilli which have a television set and watched it twice. We are also Manjhi,” one man smiles.
The motorcycle that came down the road the other day is no longer a rare sight. Ever since the first signs of a path began showing, traffic has started. Everyday now, there are cycles, motorcycles and the occasional jeep making their way across.
Taking a small breather, Barturam Singh, who only has one arm but works as hard as the others, lists the advantages of the road, “There is only one high school in Narharpur, which the children can now go to. Many will now be able to go to Murumsilli dam, which is a tourist spot, and sell small items. We can go to the hospital in Dhamtari, or to the big market wherever it is.”
In the afternoon, Collector Bhim Singh arrives. Sitting on one of the rocks overlooking the road, he tells the assembled villagers of government schemes, asking what problems still remain. Some respond with a request for a handpump, others speak of forest rights.
“We are glad they are paying us attention,” says Tetar.
After the Collector leaves, women from the villages around Murumsilli disperse first, as the men stay back talking. Around 2 pm, they climb down the rockface atop where the collector held his chaupal, and reaching the road, head for their respective villages.
The few children in the group scamper ahead, playing a game of their own. After a few steps, they turn around and call out to their friends going in the opposite direction. There is an unsaid promise to meet again the next day. The road beckons.