Hanging in the balance

a silent struggle Hydel projects across River Kali contribute majorly to the State's electricity production. But life is no different for people who l

Hanging in the balance

Melody of a lullaby echoed as we crossed the sliding wooden gate and stepped into the well-kept yard of Sushila Velip’s house in Kirwati village of Joida taluk. Sushila effortlessly put the crying child to sleep and then hurriedly pulled two-three plastic chairs, making place for us to sit. Later, with a broad smile of welcome, she sat comfortably on an old chair.

Sushila has been the most sought after mid-wife in the region for the past few decades. “I have not counted the number of delivery cases I have handled. There are times when I have walked more than twenty kilometres crossing hills and valleys to attend a patient,” she said, as we initiated  a conversation with the help of a translator. This woman has been a ray of hope to many families in the villages of Joida, where medical assistance is still a distant dream. As Sushila narrated various instances of her day and night struggle to save lives in the deep forests of Joida in eloquent Konkani, stories of misery began to unravel.

After the harvest
Joida, the biggest taluk in Karnataka has many stories of concern to share. It might be people’s struggle to get access to basic amenities; language and education barriers; intricacies of human-animal co-existence; Kunbi community’s fight to get appropriate social status; or the enormous pressure of coping with geographical hardships.

Development has come unevenly to this region. Dandeli, that once thrived as a perfect model of industrialisation (based on natural resources) lost its relevance long back. Mining (Manganese ore) was another activity that exploited human labour and proved invasive to natural resources. The phase of industrialisation had nothing much to offer to local people whose economy was still in the subsistence level. On the contrary, it added to their woes. Though mining activities have stopped now, the dust has not settled down.

Let us begin with Kushavali, a village where river Kali, lifeline of Joida, originates (another tributary comes from Diggi village). Dwellers abandoned the village and migrated to taluk centre Joida, after their long wait to get access to basic amenities went futile. The contrast is striking when we consider that the same river is a major source of electricity to the state with six hydel projects and one nuclear power plant.

River Kali flows 184 kilometres before it joins the Arabian sea at Karwar. The short distance is marked by six dams, submerging thousands of hectares of land. Supa reservoir, which has now become a tourist attraction has caused the submergence of many villages and thousands of hectares of pristine forest compelling people to relocate.
A large number of Kunbi and Maratha families are yet to recover from the loss of land.

They are not happy with the compensation provided either. As these children of the forest didn’t know how to handle money, it brought them more misery. Local people claim that some are still waiting for the monetary compensation that the Government had promised decades ago. Kadra, Kodasalli, Bommanahalli, Tattihalla, Kaneri and Kaiga projects have had similar impact on people, forestland and wildlife. “The Karnataka Power Corporation controls the flow of the river, squeezing away all its natural advantages from the local community,” said researcher Balachandra Saimane who has been working in this region for the past one decade.

Over 40 per cent of the villages in Joida taluk get cut off from the mainland during monsoon. Other seasons are no less difficult, explained Manik Gavda of Patagudi. At any given time of the year, they have to trudge 19 kilometres to Kumbarwada to get grains from ration or to access medical care or even to catch a bus. A person has to spend two days, walking to and fro, even to get a small work done at the faraway taluk centre.

Villagers repair the mud-road that cuts across the forest after every monsoon and ensure that it is motorable. The village youth balance on motor bikes on these pebble filled roads much to the relief of the elders. Patagudi represents many other villages in the Diggi region, considered as the most backward area of the taluk, in spite of its rich resources.
Bondeli in the same region, is 38 kilometres away from basic amenities.

“Walking is inevitable for us. Matters turn worse when someone falls ill. In this age of modernity, can you imagine people being carried in blankets for tens of kilometres to get first aid,” questions Jayanand Derekar, an enthusiastic leader from Kunbi community. He has been striving hard to see a change in the living conditions of the community with his team of local youth, duly supported by well-wishers.

Lack of political will and foresight have made circumstances worse for the Kunbi community. Consider this example: One has two cross two locally set temporary bridges while striding the path from Kumbarwada to Patagudi. We happened to see the construction of a concrete bridge to replace the second temporary bridge on our way to Patagudi. Local people had no clue as to how it would help them when the first one gets drowned in monsoon. Jayanand cited a prior instance of the construction of a medical centre at Diggi, which was never used and consequently abandoned. “On-the- wheel medical care is suitable here, considering the geographical constraints. Since last three years one unit supported by a private foundation has been travelling in different directions of the taluk reaching a certain point at a fixed time, and the service is utilised by people.”

In the dark
The taluk which has 15 gram panchayats is identified as one of the most backward taluks in the state by the D M Nanjundappa committee report. Konkani is the widely spoken language. Since population density (26 persons per square kilometres) is less in these villages the geographical area of the Gram Panchayats is huge, making it difficult for people to access the panchayat centre for all necessary purposes. Only 50 per cent of the community gain access to health and education. Forty-seven villages in the taluk don’t have electricity connection. Solar lighting has brought relief to some. Though funds released under various programmes have been used for laying tar roads and providing electricity connection, there is a dire need to accelerate need-based development activities here.

Narasimha Chapakhanda, owner of a homestay near Joida recalled a moment when a teacher cried with joy after hearing him talk Kannada. Unlike other places, teachers’ tasks are doubled here. They have to teach the subject as well as the language of medium. To make all this happen they have to get familiar with the local language first. This has posed problems for both children and teachers. Schooling stops early here, mostly due to the lack of accessibility. Jayanand Derekar (42) is the first post-graduate of the community in the taluk and very few have achieved this feat since then.

The community’s demand to get the constitutional status of Scheduled Tribes is yet to yield any result. While it is considered as a scheduled tribe in the neighbouring Goa, a committee appointed by the Karnataka Government gave a contradictory report. But the community continued its fight to get the right status and as a result, the state government has appointed another committee for the purpose. “Recognising the community as a scheduled tribe would help us in many ways. It is a matter of political will,” said Devidas M. Velip, President of Joida Taluk Kunbi Community Association.

Conservation activities with an aim to lessen the burden on the forest and formulate ways of sustainable livelihood are gaining momentum in this region with the active participation of local enthusiasts. Possibilities of value-addition of forest produces are explored. Forest department has also offered suitable jobs to some. The word ‘relocation’ has surfaced the community again, now with the declaration of Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve. Jayanand feels that the situation has changed for better, and this time they are assured of satisfactory compensation. People living deep in the forest are volunteering to leave, providing the required space for wildlife.

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