All the way here from her in-laws’ village of Saidoke, 25-year old Swarna, with voting card in her hand, has been waiting at the banks of Sutlej river in village Alike of border district Ferozepur. It is only after a wooden boat from the other side of the shore would come and ferry Swarna that she would reach her maternal village Chandiwala via another village Khundar Gatti that she would be able to reach polling booth and vote. “We need a bridge. There are almost twenty two villages on the other side and we use a boat to reach there. Whenever there is wind storm, it becomes too dangerous and risky. It is only Jagtar chacha who has been mustering courage to row boats here for almost 30 years. Otherwise, it would have been really tough,” says Swarna. However, she is still out to vote. “Yes, I wanted to vote because this chance comes once in five years. I think it is our duty to do so,” says Swarna.
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Jagtar Singh (70), the sole rower from village Alike, gets food grains from villagers in lieu of running boats for them. “I still work on barter system, but people here are really poor. I cannot ask them for money each time I ferry them. So after every six months during harvesting, they give me wheat and rice,” says Jagtar.
Having spent close to 35 years of his life ferrying people in boats, Jagtar has still not lost hope and he voted on Saturday. However, he still remembers unfulfilled promises made to him in recent months when government announced evacuation of border villages in Punjab after “surgical strikes” across the Indo-Pak border.
“There was panic everywhere. I worked day and night to ferry people safely through. After all, they are my own people. But I also need something to run family. They give me food grains and some rich villagers give money sometimes. But my job is too risky. Our MLA Parminder Pinki of Congress and deputy commissioner visited here and asked me to help people as much as I can. For years, I am being promised a permanent salary of Rs 10,000/month, but it has never started. Still, I voted today,” says Jagtar.
Even the two boats have been made and repaired after taking loans, he says. “We do not even get money for boats. I took Rs 70,000 loan to get a boat made and then another loan to get older one repaired. I cannot risk people’s lives if government is not giving money,” he says.
Joginder Singh loads his motorbike on the boat along with a sack of fertilizers. “It is a daily routine. Multiple requests to MLAs to get a bridge constructed here have gone unheard. We are thankful to Jagtar who runs these boats. He is here to help whenever a child falls sick, someone needs medicines or any other emergency. We voted today because we still have hope something will be done after these elections,” he says.
Roads here, which are nothing but piles of dusty mud hills with potholes, tell that state of development in border villages of Ferozepur. “Even reaching through a motorbike to take a boat is tough. There is a longer route through a pucca road, but most villagers are so poor that they do not have any conveyance. We just need a small bridge to make our life easy,” says Kulwinder, 45.
“Whenever there is some tension at the border, it is our life which is at risk. We have to run out of our homes immediately looking for a safe shelter. Is providing a bridge that big a task? If we can vote every time, why can’t we get a bridge,” asks Jagga, 39.