For 13 years, more than 150 residents in the Nettara tribal colony of Thirunelly village in Kerala’s Wayanad district have been dependent on a makeshift wooden bridge to access the mainland after a concrete bridge was washed away by floods in July 2006. Since then, after almost every monsoon, the makeshift bridge gets washed away in the heavy flooding and the villagers get stranded. Before the onset of next monsoon, the villagers restore the bridge on their own with bamboo and wooden planks, due to no help from the panchayat. This cycle repeats every year.
This year, too, with no sight of the panchayat delivering on its promise to build a permanent concrete bridge across the Kalindhi river, the villagers put up a fresh makeshift bridge before the monsoon, in mid-June. “But how long will this go on,” thought Lijin Thomas Varghese, a resident of the colony, to himself.
He restarted his online petition on change.org from last year when the residents of the colony were stranded for more than 15 days as the makeshift bridge was washed away in the floods in August 2018. This time, he added Wayanad’s new Member of Parliament (MP), Rahul Gandhi, as one of the Decision Makers of the petition, to draw his attention to the plight of the tribal colony. The District Collector AR Ajayakumar and Mayadevi, president of Thirunelly Panchayat, too, have been marked in the petition.
On Wednesday, Rahul Gandhi responded to the petition and shot off a letter to the Collector, to construct a permanent bridge across the Kalindhi river for the tribal colony in Wayanad.
“For the last 13 years, the residents construct a temporary wooden bridge before the monsoons. In fact, the primarily tribal residents of this village have pooled in their personal resources for this endeavour each year. However, the structures have been washed away on several occasions due to heavy rain. This has left the residents stranded for extended periods of time in the past,” Rahul Gandhi wrote to the Collector in the letter dated July 31.
“In this backdrop, I request you to expedite the construction of a permanent bridge to connect Nettara Tribal Colony, Thirunelly village to the main village. In the interim period, I request you to consider providing makeshift arrangements for the convenience of the residents,” wrote Rahul Gandhi.
Villagers continue to live in fear
Residents of the Nettara Colony, which is in Ward 1 of Thirunelly panchayat, once accessed the mainland through the hanging bridge. Later, the panchayat replaced this with a bridge made of concrete pipes until heavy rains washed away a major portion of the structure in 2006, says Lijin.
Speaking to TNM, Lijin said that in 2016, the Thirunelli panchayat grama sabha, under local MLA OR Kelu, passed a budget to build a new concrete bridge. A grant of Rs 10 crore was also announced then. However, three years have passed since the announcement, and no progress has been made in this regard.
“The previous governments have failed in providing permanent access to the villagers,” said Lijin.
He further explains that if the current makeshift bridge collapses again, it will kick-start another cycle of inconveniences: The elderly, pregnant women, ill and school-going children in the village will have to walk more than 4 km in extremely dangerous and slushy terrain. “In the absence of the bridge, the villagers will have to take a particular route through the forest, where there is also a threat of attack from wild animals. Besides, the villagers need to access the other side of the Kalindhi river to procure basic necessities such as rice bags and other provisions,” Lijin said.
“I included Rahul Gandhi in the online petition this year because he is our MP, and never came to the colony although he visited the Thirunelli temple in the village in April,” says Lijin.
When TNM contacted District Collector Ajayakumar, he denied receiving the letter from Rahul Gandhi. “I will look into the matter when I receive the letter,” he said, when asked about the budget allocated to construct the bridge.
Meanwhile, as rains continue in Wayanad and the river swells up, villagers remain fearful of losing the makeshift wooden bridge. “Let me appeal yet again to MLA Kelu Master to follow up with the respective departments on starting the work on the bridge that was budgeted for and promised three years ago,” Lijin wrote in his updated online petition.