In Binagunda and its surrounding villages in Gadchiroli district, tucked deep inside the forests of Abujhmad, change creeps in so slowly that hardly anyone notices it. Like on January 26, when a team of policemen walked two days from Bhamragarh to hoist the Tricolour at a school in Binagunda. Nobody remembers the last time the Tricolour was hoisted here but then, to most, it didn’t really matter. Yes, they had been asked to assemble at the school, they had stood around for a while as some people sang the national anthem and had looked up as the flag unfurled. And then, they had gone back home. Nothing really changed for anyone.
“Age?” asks Rajesh Pungati, looking baffled, and then shakes his head to say he doesn’t know. No one has ever bothered Pungati with his age. The few times he has been asked his age is when he has had to get his election card or ration card made. Even then, the authorities had made their own guesses. What’s age, after all, in a place where time has virtually stood still? Pungati continues his walk down the treacherous slopes of Abujhmad hills with practised ease — he has to make sure he gets to Lahiri market, 18 km away, in time to sell his bamboo wares that he has strung on a long pole balanced on his shoulder. If he is lucky, he will earn about Rs 300 a month, but these trips to the market are getting rarer and the demand for his bamboo wares has gone down considerably.
Few outsiders walk up the hill and the mud track to Binagunda and the six other villages of Bada Madia tribals. The Gadchiroli police usually visit these villages — part of the so-called “liberated” zone of Naxals — only during elections, to secure the place for polling. The last time they were here, in 2009, Naxals had fired at their helicopter. After that, the polling booth was shifted to Lahiri, down the hills.
The Indian Express last visited the village in 2004, to gather villagers’ impression about the first-ever visit by a top government official. A Naxal dalam had held us up for a few hours at the village school before allowing us to trek down. This time, they are not around.
While the administration may have sent out a powerful signal to the Naxals by hoisting the flag, the symbolism is entirely lost on the 240-odd families of Binagunda and its neighbouring villages.
Bhamragarh, the tehsil headquarters that’s about 170 km south-east of the district headquarters of Gadchiroli, is a mere 36 km from Binagunda. Bhamragarh itself is more in news for Maoist violence than for anything else. These 36 km take more than three hours by a four-wheeler, that is, if the driver agrees to go up the road no outsider wants to take. There is a semblance of a tar carpet till Lahiri, 18 km from Bhamragarh. It takes up to six hours to walk the remaining 18 km to villages such as Binagunda and Pungasur.
From Lahiri, the kuchcha road, which rises steeply and snakes through a dense mixed forest, was built by the Forest Department many decades ago to transport bamboo from these villages to the Ballarpur Paper Mill in Chandrapur district. The road used to be annually repaired after every monsoon to help the trucks go up. But the trucks stopped coming two years ago when the mill stopped sourcing bamboo from these parts after the Naxals demanded a steep rise in wages — from Rs 28 a bundle to Rs 200.
The Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act, which was extended to these parts last year, didn’t have the desired effect. The Act made bamboo the sole property of the villages, so even if the mill wanted to source it from here, it couldn’t do so without a gram sabha resolution. Besides, Bingaunda’s physical isolation and backwardness meant that it couldn’t make the most of the Act that had helped many villages auction their bamboo.
Collector Ranjit Kumar says, “We are trying to see if we can somehow manage to help implement the new bamboo regime in these villages. But it is difficult to say if villages like Binagunda will come forward to do it.”
Till that happens, villagers have to depend on the highly unreliable PDS for their supply of grains, which they fetch from Lahiri or get whenever a tractor trolley manages to deliver it. At least three rivulets crisscross the area, entirely cutting off these villages during the monsoons.
The nearest government primary health centre is at Lahiri. “Many people in these parts have died because there was no way they could get to the hospital. The nurse comes to the village once in a month or so,” says an elderly villager.
Ashok Pipare, the headmaster of a residential tribal school run by the NGO National Centre for Rural Development in Binagunda, says, “Last year, I was down with jaundice. I had to walk down the hills for several hours till I got to Lahiri.” The school, the only one in these parts, is up to Class VII and has over a hundred students.
The ones who manage to make the trek prefer Prakash Amte’s Lok Biradari Hospital at Hemalkasa near Bhamragarh to the ill-equipped government primary health centre in Lahiri.
January 26 was only the second time in a non-election season that the administration had turned its attention to Binagunda. In 2004, then divisional commissioner of Nagpur J S Saharia had visited the village on the directive of the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court.
Sahebi Kana Dhurva, a village elder, says that after the visit, the government “gave us some bulls, bullock-carts and a few pigs”. Saharia had also organised a visit for the villagers to cities such as Nagpur and Chandrapur, where, for the first time, they saw sights they had never seen before — airport, aeroplane, train, cinema, etc. And then, they trekked up their village and hardly ever came down.
The Naxals blocked whatever little development that was planned. Last year, they drove out the contractor who was putting up electricity lines — broken wires and bent poles still lie along the Binagunda road. The few lights that go up at night are from solar lamps. Mobile phones and a few motorcycles are the only signs of modernity here. But with no signal — the BSNL network dies out after Lahiri — cellphones are used only to play music or watch films.
Tired of the hardships, the young are slowly moving out of these villages. A few families have shifted to Lahiri. “Many young boys have started moving out to far off places in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu for jobs. Nothing changes here,” says a village elder.
When asked what the government should do for people in Binagunda, a village elder says, “It’s high time the government gave us roads, electricity, water, Gharkul (government’s housing scheme) and helped in agriculture.”
It’s a silent assertion. Maybe something’s changing in Binagunda after all. A new flag goes up.