Anganwadi workers trek, swim to reach remote Odisha villages

In the village of roughly 400 people, Sisa at present is tending to five pregnant women, four new mothers, and 27 pre-school kids.

For residents of Nerudupali, a remote village in Malkangiri, Odisha’s southernmost, Maoist-hit district, a connect with the world outside is the visit every Monday by their “anganwadi appa (elder sister)” — Hemalata Sisa.

The wait gets arduous during the monsoon months, when the little river abutting the village gets swollen.

Monsoon Mondays are, thus, tricky for Sisa. Lack of connectivity and absence of boats means she has to swim across the Maliguda, a tributary of the Godavari, after a 1-km trek through a dense, hilly forest to attend to her duties as anganwadi worker.

The 28-year-old arrived drenched – barefoot, empty pots tightly roped around her waist to substitute as floaters, and a dry pair of dry clothes wrapped in a plastic bag. Sisa said she has been doing this for the last 10 years, and there seems to be no end in sight.

“There is a road to reach another village close by, but it is an additional 15-km ride. When it is not raining, the water in the river is at least waist deep and we manage to walk through. But the monsoon is a difficult period,” she said.

During the rainy season, she prefers to stay back in the village to avoid crossing the river every day. She sleeps and cooks at the village anganwadi centre before returning home to her daughters, aged five and two, for the weekend. “There have been incidents of people being swept away, so we avoid swimming across every day,” she said. “It can be even more dangerous in the dark (while returning home).”

At times, when the water level remains high, the overnight stay turns into days.

In the village of roughly 400 people, Sisa at present is tending to five pregnant women, four new mothers, and 27 pre-school kids.

Pramila Pelmal, 37, who works as anganwadi worker in nearby Suapali village, has faced similar circumstances for the last nine years. “Due to Covid-19, there is more to do than what we usually did. We also have to regularly monitor the health of all villagers. There is little connectivity in the village, so we cannot do it over the phone – we have to be physically present to send weekly reports,” Pelmal said.

Her youngest daughter was six months old when Pelmal started leaving her at home and staying away in Suapali for work – “the children eventually got used to it,” she said.

The administration, Pelmal said, had started constructing a road, “but it gets washed away during monsoon”. She said, “The flow of water is high, so boats are difficult to row. Besides, people here do not own boats.”

Sanjukta Sahoo, coordinator for anganwadi workers in the block, said repeated attempts to apprise the administration of the situation has yet to yield result. “We have made representations seeking better facilities but until provisions are made, we will have to continue this,” Sahoo said.

In August, the district administration had proposed construction of a bridge over the river but is awaiting approval from the state government. “We have already submitted a proposal under the Setu scheme for a bridge and are pursuing with the government,” Malkangiri District Collector Manish Agarwal said. “The bridge should be ready shortly. The proposed bridge is from Chintandoli to the other end and would be 80 metres long.”

He said the district administration will “meet the community workers and discuss their concerns”.

The villages in the area come under the ‘Swabhiman Anachal’ (formerly known as cut-off area) situated along the state boundary with Andhra Pradesh. For long a stronghold of Left-wing Extremism, the area has seen little in way of development.

While the villages are jurisdictionally in Odisha, villagers tend to visit nearby villages in Andhra Pradesh to get essential commodities. Most villagers are more comfortable conversing in Telugu than in Odia. “Unless really required, we do not cross the river. We take the river route (only) to get healthcare and other facilities, which we are entitled to, from the Odisha government. Otherwise we visit nearby villages in Andhra Pradesh,” Petru Gebel, a local resident, said.

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