The long road and an arduous journey to development

A tribal couple, who had just lost their baby, had to walk 8 kilometres with the body up and down two hills from Vanija village of Mentada mandal in Vizianagaram district to China Konela hamlet of Ananthagiri mandal in Alluri Sitharama Raju (ASR) district, in Andhra Pradesh.

Sara Kothaiah and Sita, from the Konda Dora tribe, work at a brick-making unit at Kolluru in Guntur district, and wanted to take the body of their son, Sara Eswara Rao, to their native village at China Konela for the last rites. The one-and-a-half-year-old boy had asthma and was admitted to a hospital in Guntur, when things took a turn for the worse. He died at the hospital while undergoing treatment.

Though an ambulance was arranged to carry the body, the driver dropped them at Vanija village, about 450 km away from Guntur, refusing to go further, because there was no direct road.

Broken for locals, built-up for tourists

Several people in this area face multiple problems on a daily basis due to the lack of an asphalt road connecting Vanija to Buruga and China Konela. In 2022, the authorities decided to develop a 15-km track (from Sunkarametta side), with cement concrete, but an 8-km stretch remains incomplete with gravel dumped on both sides and some portions developing cracks.

Even experienced drivers steer clear of the road at night, to avoid accidents. According to sources, contractors in collusion with officials are allegedly siphoning off funds sanctioned for the laying of roads and other developmental work, leading to stalling of projects midway.

Seventy-six years after Independence, the lives of tribal people living in ASR district has not changed much. The condition of those living in the interior and hilltop hamlets is even worse, with no electricity, meagre medical facilities, and hardly any access to safe drinking water.

The villagers are forced to stay indoors from dusk to dawn, fearing attacks by wild animals. In case of emergencies, they use the divitilu (fire torch) to see the road as well as drive away wild animals like bears and porcupines.

Some areas among the verdant green hills and valleys have been developed though, leading tourists to Araku, known for its coffee plantations; and Lambasingi, known for its stunning views.

Those who have been living on the hilly terrain for generations endure the biting cold in winter and often fall prey to seasonal diseases like cholera, typhoid, and diarrhoea, mainly due to poor sanitation and lack of safe drinking water.

Many are forced to trek long distances to fetch water from distant streams, get their monthly ration, and even carry pregnant women and patients in dolis (stretchers) through the bushes and rocky terrain as ambulances cannot reach their hamlets in the absence of tarred roads. Children walk long distances through the hills and streams, risking their lives, to reach schools.

The challenges remain the same

“There is electricity till Boddavalasa, about 10 km from Buruga hamlet. Politicians come here once in five years, just before the elections seeking our votes,” said Appalaraju, 36, from Buruga. However, on the positive side, he said that with road construction beginning, “Two teachers, one from Bheemunipatnam and another from Vizianagaram, and a Bhasha (language) volunteer from Rompelli village, come to our hamlet and teach our children.”

He said laying of the road from Buruga to Vanija in Vizianagaram district will cut down the distance people travel by about one-third.

“We had approached the ST Commission Chairman, Collector, and MRO [Mandal Revenue Officer] in this regard, but no action has been taken yet,” he added.

Appalaraju said after cultivating the land for generations, “In 2011, some influential people in connivance with government officials deceived us and got our land transferred to their names.” The tribals lodged a complaint with the Paderu Sub Collector in 2020 but there has been no action, he said.

A borewell was sunk about nine months ago by the contractor hired by the Rural Water Supply (RWS) department, but there is no tap, rendering it useless. “A well that was dug up several years ago goes dry in peak summer,” he said.

Somula Veerayya, 60, says she has lived here ever since she can remember.

“Those days, there were no roads, either towards Sunkarametta in ASR district or towards Vizianagaram district, from our village (Buruga). We used to trek two hills to reach Vanija village of Mentada mandal, and had to carry fire torches at night to keep leopards and bears away.” Nothing has changed.

According to the AP Eastern Power Distribution Company (AP EPDCL), mandal-wise data of services (as on April 3) released to Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG) shows that out of the 5,457 households, which do not have electricity, 4,158 were given access to it, and 1,299 are yet to get access in four mandals of Chintapalli Sub-Division.

In Araku sub-division, 258 power connections have not been released in the three mandals, and in Paderu Sub-Division, 514 services remain to be released. Total number of services yet to be released in Paderu Division is 2,071 as on April 3.

Burugu, an interior hamlet of Alluri Sitharama Raju district, is about 23 km from Kasipatnam village. It has a population of 150 with 30 households, but no power. Tribals here, depend on cultivation of paddy, gantelu (pearl millet), and korralu (foxtail millet). There is a school (till Class V) sans a building, where teachers take classes under the shade of trees.

If children want to pursue education after Class 5, they travel all the way to Kasipatnam. As a result, many have dropped out of school.

There are a few electric poles and a supply line to provide solar power to the hamlet. “These were erected in 2015, but the solar panels and bulbs didn’t function after some time, and were neither replaced nor repaired after that. There is no power in two hamlets under Rompilli panchayat and seven under NR Puram panchayat,” said Appalaraju.

Tribal girls are averse to marrying boys from hamlets where there is no power, say some of the village heads. If they come from hamlets that have electricity, then most households have Dish TV connections and mobile phones.

Youth from deprived hamlets, who have migrated to cities and towns, are unwilling to return to their hometowns even during holidays. Tribal girls who manage to finish school are not willing to stay in their villages anymore, says Appalaraju.

Polling problems

People from some of these hamlets have to travel long distances to cast their vote during Lok Sabha elections. They leave their homes around 6 a.m. to reach the nearest polling station, kilometres away from their hamlets.

“The long trek in the hot sun deters several voters from exercising their franchise,” said Govinda Rao, a member of the AP Girijana Sangham (APGS), an association of tribal people formed to protect their interests. On April 5, tribals of Madrebu village took out a 4-km procession, some on horses, to announce their message loud and clear that they would come out to vote in large numbers only if roads were laid to their villages.

Madrebu hamlet, which comes under Ananthagiri mandal of ASR district, has 45 households belonging to the PVTG Kondhu tribe.

The village has 70 voters. While 50 of them had to reach Pedhakota panchayat headquarters, 30 km away, others were allotted the Velamamidi polling booth, 18 km away. Similarly, 170 voters from Dayarthi village had to travel 30 km to cast their vote.

“Anantagiri MRO B. Nagajyothi and Revenue Inspector P. Sankara Rao travelled to Madrebu and nearby hilltop villages on May 7 to interact with villagers. She ruled out the possibility of arranging a polling booth there, but assured us of providing transportation to the nearest polling booth,” Govinda Rao said.

On polling day (May 13), a private mini van, arranged by a political party, carrying people of various villages of Pedha Kota panchayat in Ananthagiri mandal to the poll booth (no. 295) overturned near Kudia village, critically injuring three. According to the tribals, one person had died in a road accident on the same spot, three months ago.

They alleged that though the government was spending crores of rupees, engineering officials and contractors were siphoning off funds and failing to ensure quality work. Revenue officials should be held responsible for the accident, they said in unison.

Two days later, Govinda Rao, also the CPI-M district secretariat member, demanded the officials concerned hold a medical camp at Rachakeelam, a hilltop hamlet of Pinakota panchayat in Anantagiri mandal, where 12 people had fever for 10 days. The hamlet has no road connectivity and the sick have to be carried in dolis for 10 km to reach any kind of healthcare.

The tribals are forced to have contaminated water from a distant stream due to lack of a clean water source. Govinda Rao said that though a drinking water scheme was sanctioned for the village in 2022, and the authorities concerned released a fund of Rs. 8 lakh, and a pipeline and motor were laid, the engineer was transferred, and the electricity officials failed to provide a transformer. The Rural Water Supply (RWS) officials had also paid the money for provision of the transformer, he alleged.

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