Subba Ram wakes up with a start. The light begins to fade on the horizon, he squints into the distance as the Indravati river rushes along beside him. He sees his dhongi, a boat he and three others built, still tied to a rope on the other side, bobbing dangerously on the other bank of the river. He whistles, but nobody appears from the thick green foliage. “They better come back quickly. Only then can I return to my home in Kodnar village. Or I’ll have to sleep on the banks tonight. There is no other way to travel,” he says.
Like the rest of Bastar, all of Dantewada is what the administration calls “Maoist-affected”. Even so, there are divisions. Where Ram waits is the Barsoor side of the “ghat”. Eight km away on a dirt road is the small town with a bus service to the district headquarters of Dantewada located half an hour away; there is also electricity, cement houses, and a nagar panchayat building. On the other side, there is nothing but the jungle. “Jaha sarkaar nahi hai, vaha dadalog hai (where there is no government, there are the Maoists)”, says Ganga, who has arrived to cross the river.
For him, and more than 5,000 others that live on the other side, Ram, and four other boatmen from Kodnar village — Lakshman, Pandu, Laccha and Masa — form a lifeline between the jungle and Barsoor. “I went to Dantewada to bring some bricks and rushed back. In two days, the river will rise, and for the next two months, we will be cut off entirely,” says Ganga.
For four days, there has been incessant rain, and soon, over 10,000 people, Ram says, will be cut off. He points to the middle of the river, where a cluster of rocks are keeping their heads above water — it is their indicator. “In two more days, the water will rise above the rocks. We cannot ply our wooden donghi after that, and nobody can come across. If people fall ill, or there is some other emergency, what will happen, will happen,” says Ram.
The river itself is legendary, entering Chhattisgarh through Jagdalpur, and cutting a horizontal line through the middle of Bastar; police officers often refer to the land across the river as “their area”. “If you cross the river, and walk some kilometres inside, Abhujmaad begins,” says Ram. The boundary of Narayanpur district is also nearby. “But none of this matters if we are marooned,” says Ganga. During the monsoon, in Dantewada district alone, four gram panchayats, and 24 villages under them, get cut off from the rest of the state. That’s approximately 5,047 people. More fall in Narayanpur district for whom emergency services are closer across the Indravati in Dantewada.
That their lives are dependent on the whims of a river is a problem not new to the district administration. There has been much talk about a bridge, and in the absence of that, providing boats that can withstand the current an empty wooden shell cannot. “Three years ago, they gave us a motorised boat, which could hold 55 people, and could travel in any weather. But it lasted for one week. There was a problem in the motor, and we asked the officials to fix it. They said they would, but never did,” Ram said. The boatmen of the Indravati remember that time well. “The boat came one week before the elections in 2013. And it stopped working on the day of the polls,” they say, and laugh. Officers in Dantewada blame the Naxals for damaging the boat.
This monsoon again, the district administration has begun work on long term, as well as short term solutions to an admittedly grave problem. “There is one bridge across the Indravati called the Satdhar near Barsoor. But the real problem is that on the other side, there is no road beyond the bridge that connects the 24 paras. So, the idea is to eventually build a 25 km road on the other side that connects villages,” says Saurabh Kumar, district magistrate, Dantewada. But this can only begin in January or February, and given security considerations, Kumar says that it may take over a year to complete. “The road will cost around Rs 3.5 crore. Apart from this, the only real solution is to build bridges at several points, but here, that is a long and difficult process,” he says.
In the interim, Kumar has charted out a plan to give fiber boats to those who traditionally operate the donghi at the five locations where people usually cross. The boats have to be small, seating eight people each, so that they do not appear to be a security threat. “What we intend to do is to form samitis of boatmen and give it to them to operate. These will be infinitely more hardy than the donghis. Also, at each crossing point, we are building waiting rooms. This will help the old or the ill,” says Kumar. The state government runs ambulances with helpline numbers, and officials believe that the waiting rooms will serve even those who have crossed but need to be taken further for medical attention.
And yet, the question of development or of building infrastructure, like everywhere else in Bastar, is hardly simple. “The dadalog (Maoist) say that if they build a bridge, then the force will come and take away our forests. Even in boats, force vaale can cross. We don’t want our forests to go away, but we want access to shops and hospitals. So, we want a boat here or a bridge. These things are decided by people above us — the Maoists and the administration,” says a villager, who didn’t want to be named.
A faint shout, barely audible above the snarling water, wafts across. Ram stands up and watches Lakshman, Pandu, Laccha and Masa, and two passengers, untie the donghi, and crouch down inside it. It’s begun to rain again, the current is strong, and the boat seems to have a mind of its own. Somehow, they make the journey across. “In summer, when the water is calm, we take Rs 10 per person. In this weather, it’s double. Maybe 10 people can come across. On bazaar days, there are so many, the boat is overcrowded. Each of us make Rs 750 every week. But in the monsoon, there is nothing,” says Lakhsman, struggling to steady the donghi on the banks. There are days when a man will bring his sick wife in his arms, desperate for medical attention. That day, no money is taken.
Ram was 15 when he first began operating the donghi. His parents, who looked after the small crop they grew outside their village, fell ill. They shivered for weeks, the fever rising, till their bodies could take no more. The 20-something says the bimaari killed them. But there was something else too. “It was the monsoon and the river was high. We couldn’t take them to a hospital,” Ram said.
Of the three brothers, the two elder ones took to the fields, and Ram had to drop out of school. “Some of us began putting together the donghi with wood from the forest. It took us a month to build both the boat and the oars. And since then, we have become boatmen. When we take people across, we are afraid for them. If they are old, or can’t swim, there is always danger, especially when the water is high,” says Ram.
There are other dangers as well. The crocodiles in the Indravati that lie calmly on the banks in the monsoon coast along the water the rest of the year. Once, powerful jaws clamped down on an unsuspecting thigh. The villager escaped, poking an eye, and in the days that followed, even trapped and killed the attacker. “This was a few years ago, and since then, there has been peace,” says Ram, with a laugh.
They began at 8 in the morning, and 10 hours later, the clumsy wooden boat rides the current for one last trip. In the distance, some lights twinkle in Barsoor. But where the boat is headed, there is only darkness.