Ground Report: In the tribal heartland of Mulugu constituency — a bridge too far

The echoes of an ancient battle resonate in the challenges the tribal communities residing near Jampanna Vaagu face every day.

BySumit Jha

Published Nov 17, 2023 | 10:00 AM Updated Nov 17, 2023 | 4:13 PM

Ground Report: In the tribal heartland of Mulugu constituency — a bridge too far

With the Telangana Assembly elections 2023 just days away, South First is bringing you ground reports from key constituencies. This series brings you voices from the ground, the mood of the voters, and issues that matter — as well as those that don’t.

Mulugu, a tribal district and Assembly constituency in Telangana with a large area but a small population, has a rich historical and cultural heritage.

According to a tribal legend dating back to the 13th century, men on a hunting expedition discovered a radiant newborn girl, Sammakka, playing amidst tigers. Impressed by this extraordinary sight, they brought her to the tribal chief, who adopted and raised her as a leader. Sammakka later became the saviour of the region’s tribals.

Medaram (in present-day Mulugu district) was governed by the Kakatiyas between 1000 CE and 1323 CE and faced taxation imposed by King Prataprudra. This led to a war with the Koya tribe, whose chief Pagididda Raju had wed Sammakka.

Tragically, Pagididda Raju fell in battle, propelling the grief-stricken Sammakka and her daughter Saralamma, son Jampanna, and son-in-law Govinda Raju to the forefront of the conflict.

Although Sammakka’s forces were on the verge of victory, the loss of Saralamma in battle and the mortal wounds suffered by Jampanna, who bled into the Sampangi Vagu stream, altered the course of the war.

The legend says the stream turned red with Jampanna’s blood, prompting the renaming of the watercourse to “Jampanna Vagu” in honour of his sacrifice.

Devastated by the events, Sammakka retreated to the Chilakala Gutta hill, transforming into a jar filled with kumkum powder.

Post-battle, Sammakka and Saralamma were revered, and a biennial festival was instituted to honour their memory. It is still celebrated in Medaram, with around 10 million people visiting the site during the festive season.

The Jampanna Vagu still flows — as a tributary to the Godavari river. The enduring reddish hue of the river is scientifically attributed to the soil composition. But for the tribals, it symbolises a supreme sacrifice.

For the tribal community, a sacred dip in the crimson waters serves as a poignant reminder of the sacrifice that protects and emboldens them.

Mulugu Assembly constituency.

Mulugu Assembly constituency. (Click on the image to expand)

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Through the river, not over it

For the tribal communities residing near Jampanna Vagu, the echoes of the ancient battle resonate in the challenges they face in their daily lives, in the form of enduring hardships.

Ganpath navigating the way towards river.(Sumit Jha/South First)

Gummadi Ganpathi purchased pesticides for his cotton field in Chinnaboinapally, located in the Mulugu district of Telangana, along National Highway 163.

Embarking on his journey to his village, Kondai, Ganpathi traversed on foot. Upon reaching the Dodla village, he paused by the Jampanna Vagu river.

From a distance, a noticeable bridge stood, providing a passage to the other side of the river. However, Ganpathi deviated from the route, turning right into fields blanketed with riverbank sand. “This bridge was washed away during the flood in July,” Ganpathi told South First.

In response to inquiries about reaching the village without the bridge, Ganpathi explained, “I have to cross the stream on foot. If you take the left side, the water reaches the waist level, and if you go from the right side, the water is knee deep.”

Continuing his journey along the riverbanks for around 100 metres, Ganpathi took off his slippers, holding them in his left hand while tightly gripping the pesticides in his right.

Stepping into the river, he cautiously gauged the water level, skillfully navigating the stream. “I know the path; this is our regular practice. We know how to cover it,” he told South First in the middle of the river. Eventually, he reached the other side.

Also read: The truth about Central assistance to Telangana for floods

A bridge for a few years

Ganpathi, hailing from the Koya tribe, said the bridge was constructed in 2013. “Every villager — from Kondai, Malyala, even half of Dodla village, Raigudem, and Elishettipelli — used to pass over this bridge,” recalled Ganpathi.

However, the bridge — connecting the Dodla and Kondai villages — succumbed to the flash floods of the Jampanna Vagu on 27 July this year. The Kondai and Malyala villages bore the brunt of the fury of the floods, triggered by unprecedented rains.

Mulugu Assembly constituency

The bridge that collapsed. (Sumit Jha/South First)

The overflowing stream left villagers stranded on the rooftops of their houses for several hours. Tragically, eight villagers were washed away in their attempts to reach a nearby village in a desperate bid to save their lives. Their bodies were recovered almost 24 hours later.

“A few days later, a man came to see his house. Witnessing the devastation where his home had been, he suffered a heart attack. We had to carry him on a cot for 3 km to the river. Steamers were operational at that time, and there was an ambulance on the other side. Unfortunately, he passed away by the time he reached the Eturnagaram Community Health Centre,” recounted Ganpathi as he traversed the broken concrete roads of the Malyala village.

He also highlighted the loss of a BT Road in the area, which was also washed away in the flood.

Also read: IAF rescues 2 shepherds stranded by flood

Aftermath of floods

“Besides the bridge, almost all houses in Kondai — around 200 — were damaged. About 45 houses suffered damage in Malyala, and approximately 30 houses were affected in Dodla. In Kondai, essentials like clothes and grains were washed away,” Kondai village panchayat chief Kakarla Venkateshwarlu told South First.

“Even the croplands near Jampanna Vagu were damaged, necessitating the placement of sandbags to control water flow,” he added.

Kondai village sarpanch Venkateshwarlu. (Sumit Jha/South First)

Venkateshwarlu emphasised that the community requests the government to provide housing near Medaram — a high-altitude area — in such situations.

“With the lack of a bridge, taking someone who has a medical emergency — be it a fever or anything else — becomes challenging. We urge the immediate reconstruction of a bridge,” said Venkateshwarlu.

Meanwhile, Ganpathi said that although the government provides ambulances, reaching the village remains a challenge.

“In one instance, a pregnant woman went into labour and four men from the village had to carry her on a cot to cross the river. An ambulance awaited her on the other side,” he recounted.

Is there an alternative route? “The other road leads to Medaram, which is approximately 15 km away. From there, it goes to Tadvai for about 12 km, and onwards to Eturnagaram, which is 13 km further. In contrast, the direct road from Kondai to Eturnagaram was 16 km,” said Venkateshwarlu.

Additionally, half the residents of Dodla will need to cross the river to cast their votes for the upcoming Telangana Assembly elections to exercise their franchise.

“Kondai and Malyala have a polling station in the Malyala village, while half of the Dodla village on this side must cross to the other side to vote,” said Venkateshwarlu.

Also read: Telangana journalist missing after car washed away in floodwater

Normalcy in the constituency

This narrative extends beyond a few villages. For those attempting to reach the Mandal Parishad Primary School in the Raigudem village, following the route suggested by Google Maps from the Kothur village leads to a point where the road vanishes.

Mulugu Assembly constituency

A lone motorcycle under the tree. (Sumit Jha/South First)

What appears instead is vast stretches of land covered in river sand. Despite the map indicating a way forward, what lies ahead is a landscape dominated by a large tree. Beneath the tree is a motorcycle sheltered.

A few metres ahead, the Jampanna Vagu comes into view once again. However, this time there is no road, no bridge — just the sight of a village on the opposite side of the river.

Babu, a resident of Elishettipalle, accompanied by his 11-year-old son and wife, was in the process of crossing the stream.

Once on the riverbanks, his wife tucked away her saree in a polythene bag, while he handed his son Akhil a towel from another polythene bag.

Their destination was a primary health centre (PHC) in the Chalpaka village.

Babu and his family crossing the river. (Sumit Jha/South First)

Babu explained the challenges posed by the Jampanna Vagu: “It is becoming extremely difficult to cross. Performing any task on the other side is also challenging.”

He told South First: “We have to cross this vagu to reach the hospital or anything else. My son and daughter study in Mulugu, and have to cross the river daily. I dropped off my daughter and came back just yesterday. We crossed with great difficulty.”

He continued: “My younger son is in Grade 3, and I am making my elder son Akhil cross this dangerous route to take him to the PHC.”

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The health situation

Chitti, a resident of the Elishettipalle village, arrived at the riverbank. He said the motorcycle placed under the tree belonged to a fellow villager.

Chitti, an electrician. (Sumit Jha/South First)

“The guy keeps his bike under the tree. When he has to go somewhere, he crosses the river, takes the bike from under the tree, and then goes to any place,” explained Chitti.

As an electrician, Chitti highlighted that even though the nearest PHC was only 4 km from the village, they still had to cross the river to reach it in emergencies.

He emphasised the critical nature of the situation, stating, “If it’s a serious case and we need to reach Eturnagaram, which is 25 km from here, the patient might not survive the journey in the ambulance.”

Located approximately 75 km from the Mulugu district headquarters, the Eturnagaram Mandal is nestled in the heartland of tribal villages. A newly-constructed area hospital stands at the town’s centre.

Jagaiah and Sumalatha. (Sumit Jha/South First)

Jagaiah and Sumalatha, a couple in their 60s, sat on a bench near a tea stall outside the hospital, scanning a newspaper. With a smile, Sumalatha remarked, “I can’t read. Just looking at the images.”

Jagaiah explained: “We came to the hospital. We are from this town. She has been experiencing a toothache for the last few days. That’s why I came to see a doctor.”

Are the doctors readily available? “It depends,” said a candid Sumalatha. “The doctors are there for 24 hours, but they can’t treat everything.”

Mulugu Assembly constituency

Newly constructed hospital in Eturnagaram. (Sumit Jha/South First)

She added: “If a person is bitten by a snake, antivenoms are available, but reaching the hospital may take time. This is the only major hospital in an 80-km radius that is open at night.”

She also said that although the hospital had been established, there were very few doctors.

“If emergency surgeries need to be performed, a person has to travel 100 km to Warangal to get it done. Even if someone has a heart attack, they might not survive it. Doctors say they don’t want to stay here,” Sumalatha told South First.

The area hospital also houses a newly constructed MCH Hospital, a blood bank, and a modern test laboratory. However, the hospital staff confirmed that the required number of doctors was not available.

Also read: Telangana’s doctors to safeguard nation’s health, says KCR 

The constituency

The Mulugu Assembly constituency is a Scheduled Tribe (ST) reserved constituency in the Telangana Assembly, and is currently represented by Dansari Anasuya (Seethakka) of the Congress.

Former tourism and tribal welfare minister Azmeera Chandulal held the constituency from 2014 to 2018 on a then-TRS ticket. His son Azmeera Prahalad Naik is now the BJP candidate from the constituency.

In 2009, Seethakka represented the constituency on a TDP ticket. She is widely admired by voters, and seen as an idol in the region. During the July floods, she personally reached out to people, offering consolation and ensuring their safety.

However, political dynamics are shifting in the constituency. Seethakka, branded as a Maoist-turned-doctorate politician, faces a challenge from 29-year-old Bade Nagajyothi, the chairperson of the Mulugu Zilla Praja Parishad and the current BRS candidate.

Nagajyothi’s parents were former Maoist leaders, and she was raised by her grandparents before entering electoral politics.

Seethakka’s popularity surged after she won the 2018 election against TRS candidate Chandulal by a 13 percent margin. Now, the BRS is attempting social engineering to challenge her dominance.

Ganpath (Sumit Jha/South First)

Asked about voting preferences, Ganpathi indicated, “I vote for the person my sarpanch tells me to vote for.”

Sarpanch Venkateshwarlu of Kondai mentioned switching allegiance from the Congress to the BRS because the Congress MLA had not done any work.

The porch of the sarpanch’s house displayed an empty carton of cricket bats and sports items, distributed to youngsters in the villages to promote sports.

It is evident that village heads play a pivotal role in influencing polling in the constituency, and the  BRS has been actively trying to sway these sarpanches to join the party.

On the other hand, locals perceive Seethakka as a daughter of the land. Sumalatha said: “She is Mulugu’s daughter.”

The state government proudly showcases the glittering infrastructure of Hyderabad — cable bridges, sleek glass buildings, six-lane roads, IT towers, and three-level flyovers — to demonstrate progress and development. However, in the tribal villages of Mulugu, none of these amenities are accessible.

The absence of basic necessities — like a lack of proper roads reaching every village, schools without benches for students, and inadequate mobile network coverage for communication with loved ones — are the stark reality.

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A personal note

Returning from Kondai village and faced with the challenge of crossing the Jampanna Vagu, I decided to wait on its banks for someone who could guide me through the river’s depth and current. The absence of mobile network coverage rendered me unable to make any calls.

After an hour of waiting with no assistance in sight, I was compelled by the setting sun to take matters into my own hand (or feet, if that’s how you wish to see it).

Stepping into the river, I found the water initially reaching only knee height. However, halfway through, I found it rising to waist level, and the current intensified.

Feeling uneasy and despite knowing how to swim, I found myself unable to navigate the current.

In a moment of desperation, I closed my eyes briefly and then instinctively waded forward purposefully. Fortunately, I found a log for balance, enabling me to cross the river successfully.

This is the reality with which the 1,800-odd people of the Kondai, Malyala, and Dodla villages grapple every day.