For the past eight days, an entire tribal colony in the Wayanad district of Kerala has been cut off from the mainland following unusually heavy showers in the state this year.
Nettara, a tiny colony in Thirunelli, Kalpetta, faces the wrath of the swollen Kalindhi river and swift currents, making it impossible to cross over. However, if today the colony has been isolated by dangerous waters, the seeds of this problem were sown 12 years ago, when a concrete bridge built across the river collapsed on a rainy day in July 2006.
The bridge was built by the Thirunelli panchayat in 2005. It connected Nettara, the colony in ward 1 of Thirunelli panchayat to the town in Wayanad's mainland. This was the main passage for Nettaraâ€™s 60 odd families from the Adiya, Kurumba and Kurichiya communities to the town. The bridge was their access to the markets, schools and other institutions that their colony lacked.
But the very next year, the bridge collapsed into the water when a tree floating down the river collided with it. Following this, Nettara did not have a pathway to cross over to the town.
â€śAfter the concrete bridge broke, locals would wade through shallow waters during dry seasons. There was no absolute need of a new bridge then. However, during monsoons when Kalindhi swelled up and flowed dangerously, it cut off access to Nettara,â€ť says Lijin John Varghese, a resident for the past four years.
And while the local administration delayed replacing the old bridge, the colonyâ€™s residents took matters into their own hands. For 12 years, the community got together and constructed wooden makeshift bridges by themselves to cross the river during monsoons.
"The makeshift bridge would also have to be strengthened or rebuilt every year if it got washed away by the strong currents of the river. We would use bamboo from the nearby groves, wooden sticks, ropes and eucalyptus wood to build the passage. The colony's locals - from youngsters to old men - provide the labour. They would get together and build the entire structure from scratch on a Sunday when they didnâ€™t go to work,â€ť Lijin adds
Over the years, the Thirunelli panchayat has neither lent financial nor technical support in this endeavour, residents say.
â€śWhen the bridge weakened and collapsed during rains, the colony residents have to walk 3.5 kms north of the river to cross it. They use the Chinnani bridge, a narrow cement pathway connecting the neighbouring village to Thirunelli town every time they had to access the mainland when it rains," Lijin says.
Ten years and a flood of petitions later, the Thirunelli panchayat grama Sabha, under local MLA OR Kelu Master, finally took note of the colonyâ€™s plight and passed a budget in 2016 to build a new concrete bridge.
According to media reports published then, Rs 10 crore was set aside to build a 'hi-tech' bridge that could withstand the riverâ€™s currents. However, two years later in 2018, not even a foundation stone has been laid to kickstart the project, as the panchayat officials have been citing technical difficulties, Lijin says.
He notes, â€śDuring the last grama sabha meet, they said that they were building a hi-tech bridge so plans and drawings would take time. They also said that the approach road to the bridge had to be widened. The colony residents are just asking for a motorable path that would connect them to the main town. They don't want a wider road or a bridge.â€ť
Rains and isolation
Come 2018, the local community again built a makeshift bridge on May 22 to weather the monsoons.
â€śNone of us saw what was coming. We were not one bit prepared for this yearâ€™s monsoons,â€ť Lijin says.
By May 29, the rains came and stayed for longer than anybody expected. And within a month, rain induced floods inundated the state.
Lijin recounts, â€śOn July 16, within just two months of building it, the bridge collapsed and got washed over again. It happened because it rained continuously for 7 or 8 days. The water welled up and started flowing on top of the structure which could not handle the pressure of the currents and collapsed.â€ť
For eight days when it was pouring, the colony residents were cut off completely from the mainland. There was no way to build another bridge as the river flowed rapidly.
â€śThose in the colony wouldnâ€™t have been able to fight the currents and fix the poles on the river bed. It was humanly impossible. This required an engineering team either facilitated by the panchayat or the military,â€ť he adds.
The heavy showers have weakened now. However, children who attend the government school in the town now have to walk 3.5 kms, through slush, watery fields and dangerous forested tracks to cross over to their school.
"School children in Nettara are around 40 and most of them have not attended school since it reopened a week ago," says Lijin.
The colony also has 4 patients, who have had to be carried in sheets and taken to the government hospital on the other side, he adds.
"There are also two pregnant women among the residents. If they have to cross they have to walk 3.5 kms of forested track along to the river, all the way to the Chinnani bridge to cross over. Elephants too have been spotted in this track earlier. Basic necessities such as buying groceries and visiting the hospital have become a task now," he says
Wayanad Collector Ajay Kumar confirmed to TNM that discussions on the issue are ongoing.
"We have contacted the Tribal Development Department as well as Panchayat authorities to take further steps on the matter. I wanted to check with all the concerned persons as I was told that a budget was set aside earlier to build a bridge and nothing was done yet. In the next two or three days, we would have a clear idea on how a bridge can be built or other transportation can be arranged for the people," the Collector says.