“One day the war will be over. And I hope that the people that use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built and who built it.”
(The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957)
Lt Col Nicholson’s memorable dialogue from the cult Hollywood movie rings through the 900-metre span of a bridge across the Gurupriya reservoir in Odisha’s Malkangiri district, a Maoist hotbed where Left-leaning insurgents hold sway in pockets of the impoverished area. Inaugurated last week, an incredible 36 years after it was conceived, the bridge is expected to end the isolation of a cluster of 150-odd villages in what is unofficially referred to as the “area of darkness”. The government and security forces hope the bridge will help them make the decisive push to the Maoist strongholds. The “war”, it appears, is finally ending in one of Odisha’s most remote areas.
Golapi Khinchari, 35, can barely conceal her excitement. “I was always worried about my one-year-old daughter. The only school in the area is on the other side of the reservoir. In the absence of any dependable mode of communication, there was no way one could reach school and return every day. With the bridge open to the public now, not just my daughter but all children in our village can go to school,” she tells Outlook, shortly after chief minister Naveen Patnaik inaugurated the bridge.
For an estimated 30,000 people in these villages, the bridge is nothing short of a miracle. The Gurupriya reservoir, created out of a series of poorly planned irrigation projects on the Machhkund river in the 1960s, and the Balimela hydro-electric power project in 1972, had confined them to one of the most inaccessible areas in the state. A highly erratic motorboat service run by the state government, once a day, was the only means for them to reach the world outside, which mostly meant the Chitrakonda market.
Surrounded by water on three sides and dense forests on the other, these people were denied even the most basic amenities—healthcare and education— and depended on the Chitrakonda market for the smallest of needs. But reaching there was a matter of luck. There were frequent disruptions in the boat service because of inclement weather and Maoist threats. In case of medical emergencies, the people had little choice but to risk their lives by crossing the reservoir on a rickety country boat.
Turmeric farmer Rama Pangi of Bodapada village hopes it will now be easier to go to the market for selling his produce. Earlier, the people used to barter goods produced or gathered by them for things they did not have. They would, for example, barter bamboo and tamarind for millet and ragi grown on family farms by others. With no avenues for selling their produce, there was little incentive for the people to grow or collect more than they needed.
“The biggest gain, however, would be the newfound trust in the government,” says academician and researcher Debashish Patra, who has toured and studied the area extensively over the years. “With bus services in the offing and healthcare and other essential services within easy reach, they would now believe the government does care for them after all.”
However, it is only partially that the bridge has solved the problem of communication—only two of the nine panchyats in the cutoff area will now have access to areas outside the cluster, while a third remains only partially connected. There is no access to the six other panchayats by land.
“Though inter-panchayat communication remains a problem, the Rs 100-crore package announced by the chief minister during the inauguration of the bridge should take care of that,” says journalist Kishor Dash. The package envisages the construction of two roads to improve connectivity within the area.
The other components of the package—six bridges on streams separating panchayats and villages, six health centres, four water supply pipelines and 100 tube wells for two panchayats—are expected to set the long-neglected area on the fast road to development.
So why were the Maoists so persistent in opposing the construction of the bridge for so long? One of the key factors favourable to the Maoists in the area had been the absence of the bridge. This had enabled them to turn the area into a virtual fortress from where they could mount the most audacious attacks on security forces, secure in the knowledge that the forces could launch a counter-attack only by approaching the area from Andhra Pradesh.
The dense forests on one side of these villages straddle both Andhra and Chhattisgarh, which too have been battling a protracted Maoist insurgency. Any attempt to cross the reservoir on boats can make the security forces sitting ducks, as Andhra’s elite anti-Maoist force, the Greyhounds, found to their horror on June 29, 2008, when 38 personnel were killed. Even when the security forces entered the area, the Maoists could slip into either Andhra or Chhattisgarh through the forests.
“The situation has changed,” says Sanjiv Marik, a former director general of police, who was involved in counter-insurgency operations in the area. “For a change, now it’s the security forces who hold all the aces. The bridge will be a big morale booster for them and deliver a severe jolt to the Maoists.”
Boosting the morale of their cadre is also high on the immediate agenda of Maoist leaders. Barely 48 hours after the chief minister’s appeal to give up violence, the rebels struck a note of defiance at a meeting of cadre and villagers at Ralegada village on the Odisha-Andhra border. The bridge would throw open the area to “predators” coming in search of its resources, they warned, using a term the local adivasis use for traders from outside.
Why it took so long for the bridge to be completed is another story. The foundation stone was laid for the first time in 1982 by the then chief minister, JB Patnaik. Eighteen years later, in his first year as CM, Naveen laid another foundation. A variety of factors, including the tough and inaccessible terrain, technical and engineering challenges, and, most importantly, administrative inefficiency conspired to delay the project inordinately. But the biggest single reason for the delay were the Maoists, who had found a safe haven here after the Andhra Police launched an all-out offensive against them in the 1980s.
Tenders were floated for the project 11 times, but there were few takers. The handful that evinced interest found the going immensely tough. Safely ensconced in what they used to call the ‘liberated zone’, the Maoists would serve periodic warnings, blow up construction equipment and threaten staff at the construction site. No wonder, many companies, including majors such as Gammon India, abandoned the project after starting work.
The tide began to turn in 2014, when the Border Security Force (BSF) was deployed to guard workers and equipment against possible Maoist attacks. Two BSF camps were set up on either side of the bridge under construction, while a third was built recently at Jantapai, once a rebel stronghold.
The fact that the Maoists are not quite the force they once were also helped. Royal Infra, a Kolkata-based construction company, was hired to complete the work under the supervision of the state government. After doubts were raised about the quality of construction, the government ordered a third-party quality audit through the Central Road Research Institute (CRRI), which certified the safety of the bridge.
The Killing Fields of Malkangiri
- June 29, 2008: Maoists gunned down 38 police personnel, including 35 of the elite anti-Maoist force, the Greyhounds of Andhra Pradesh Police, when they were crossing the reservoir on a motorboat
- July 16, 2008: 17 personnel of the Odisha Police’s Special Operations Group (SOG) were killed when their anti-landmine vehicle was blown up in an ambush by Maoists
- February 17, 2011: Malkangiri collector R. Vineel Krishna was abducted; he was freed after nine days when the government agreed to release five arrested rebels
- August 26, 2015: Maoists killed three BSF personnel and wound six more in an ambush
- October 26-27, 2017: 28 rebels killed by the Greyhounds and Odisha Police
By Sandeep Sahu in Bhubaneswar