Five abandoned villages in Odisha's Niyamgiri hills that have now been reclaimed by the forest indicate a complete failure of governance and lack of the state's reach and action among the Dongria Kondh indigenous people.
By Basudev Mahapatra*, Rayagada, Odisha
After walking nearly 7km from the road head, you will reach a place on the banks of Panimunda stream in Muniguda administrative block of Odisha's Rayagada district, where Ankurbali village once used to exist. On the slopes of the lower Niyamgiri hills, the place is now a part of the forest, with no remnants visible today. Until a decade ago, people of the Dongria Kondh tribe inhabited the village.
Although revenue records and voter lists still mention Ankurbali, the village no longer exists. At least four other neighbouring villages of Umbesi, Uchukumba, Haimandi and Dahli under the Shibapadar gram panchayat (village council) of Muniguda block do not exist physically.
The whereabouts of the people who were living in these villages is a mystery to the local administration and those living in nearby villages.
Of the 10 villages on the Niyamgiri hill slope under Shibapadar panchayat in official records, only five exist today. The rest have vanished during the last two-three decades, Chandra Sekhar Behera, former sarpanch (village council chief) of Shibapadar, told VillageSquare.in. Of the existing villages, Jarapa is now on the verge of extinction, he added.
The irony is that nobody, not even the administration, has any knowledge of why and when these villages were abandoned. The whereabouts of the people who were living in these villages is also a mystery to the local administration and those living in nearby villages.
"Every tehsil (smallest revenue division) might have three or four such villages categorised as bechhapari or deserted," Gunupur sub-collector Basant Kumar Sahoo told VillageSquare.in. He has asked a person at the Munigua Tehsil office to go to the locations and make a quick physical verification.
However, this has been proved to be easier said than done. "Government employees are afraid of going into the hilly forests, fearing attack by left-wing extremists," said a government official of Muniguda block who declined to be named. "How can they give you any concrete information?"
"Jakasika Kuli died. Two others died too. I lost my brother and his family to unknown diseases. The whole village was terrified. I shifted to Serkapadi village down the hill slopes. As my wife died there, I moved to Kesharpadi," said 65-year-old Jhita Kutruka, the lone known survivor from Ankurbali village traced by VillageSquare.in so far. "I don't know what happened to other survivors. But, each time a disease came, at least three-four people from our village used to die," Jhita said at his present village, Kesharpadi.
"Most people died of diseases," said Kumarsami Hial, a local youth. "They live in the forest, consume water from open streams. Diarrhoea is very common to these villages in the hill range. We believe most of these people might have died of this and of malaria as well," said Mukesh Hial of Panimunda village, named after the stream that flows beside it.
"If two or three people die in a village, others often choose to move away, believing their village is in the eyes of the death god," said health worker Bisaya Rout, citing the example of another hilltop village named Kandha Boriguda that was deserted following the death of three people at a time. The village was only 7km from the Muniguda block headquarters. Although she visited the village once and met the villagers, she had no knowledge of the whereabouts of the survivors.
Blame on blind belief
Superstitions beset the tribal people, claimed Bisaya Rout. "They never take the patient to the hospital if a disease breaks out and go to witch doctors instead."
However, practical reasons are equally responsible. There is no road communication to these villages. From different villages on the hill slope, one has to walk between 7km and 20km downhill to reach Panimunda, which is connected by a motorable road. From Panimunda, the nearest hospital in Muniguda block headquarters is about 15km. Getting a vehicle at Panimunda to carry a patient to the hospital is just impossible, said Raski Kulshia of Hatipadar, a village in the foothills.
No government official is willing to go there because of no road, no basic facilities. Simanchal Padhi, journalist
"Even if we get one, we don't have money to pay for it," said a tribal man from Khambesi village who was terrified when we asked his name.
So, they have no other option but to go to witchcraft practitioners or so-called spiritual healers. Only a few lucky overcome diseases while most just die, according to Behera, the former sarpanch.
No governance the real reason?
To many of the tribal community and local people, the indifference and unwillingness of the local administration to reach out to the villages in the forest have been the primary reasons behind the vanishing of these five villages.
Despite the fact that the state government has special agency to look after the welfare of Dongria Kondh tribal communities and develop the region inhabited by them, tribal villages scattered across Niyamgiri hills still exist in near isolation. "The governance system is yet to reach these villages. Forget about modern facilities, these members of a particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG) are deprived of basic things like road, water and health. Nobody bothers about them," said Gournga Rout, a Muniguda-based development activist and researcher.
If such apathy continues, the existing villages will also vanish and no one will even notice. Dundu Kutruka, Kesharpadi resident
"Even though programmes are announced by the government for development of tribal communities, who is verifying and monitoring the works in these remote villages? No government official is willing to go there because of no road, no basic facilities," Rayagada-based journalist Simanchal Padhi said.
"I had never seen any government official visiting our village, when we were living in Ankurbali," Jhita said. "Political leaders hardly visit these villages. Nobody has any interest to know how and in what condition these people live."
Meanwhile, villagers are asked to walk down to reach Panimunda village for every purpose--from attending political meetings as an expression of their support to local leadership to participating in government programmes like the census, voting, etc.
"Even for small requirements like a packet of biscuit or snacks, we have to walk down 15 km on the hilly tract," said Bandleka Drinju of Jarapa village, which is on the verge of extinction. "We don't have money to buy many things from the market," he added.
They are citizens of India on paper, but forgotten in reality. Neither the government nor its administration takes responsibility for these people, leaving them to live in isolation without the most basic amenities. "If such apathy continues, the existing villages will also vanish and no one will even notice," said Dundu Kutruka, a tribal youth of Kesharpadi village.
Basudev Mahapatra is a Bhubaneswar-based journalist.
This article was first published on VillageSquare.in, a public-interest communications platform focused on rural India.