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Speeding along the roads of hope

Feature

By Kabir Rana

24 May 2022

In the photo, Kabir Rana, the young and passionate rural development professional. Photograph shared by Kabir Rana

I have to travel extensively through the rural hinterlands of Odisha for work. On 23 May, I returned to my base location from an adjacent district after a short tour. I was with a colleague whom I said I would drop on the way. I quite well frequented the route, and thus it did not concern me a lot when we left pretty close to dark on my bike. The journey ordinarily takes about three hours; however, I soon discovered that this trip would be anything but ordinary.

We had covered almost a third of the distance within one hour of leaving. The ride had been uneventful till now, except for the occasional skids on the terribly maintained, steep, hilly roads. A police jeep stopped me and asked me to furnish the motorcycle paperwork. A friend’s voice rang out in my head from the morning. He had a few minor mishaps while preparing for office in the morning, leading to a delay in a meeting he was supposed to attend. For him, it felt as if the Universe had come together to conspire against him. As he explained it in his native Malayalam, it was nimitham.

In my nearly two years of stay in Odisha, this was my first encounter with the police, and essentially my first sighting of them as well, outside of the capital city of Bhubaneswar and occasionally in some railway stations. To say that they caught me by surprise would be an understatement. I hardly cared to keep my original bike documents, on my person, for fear of losing them. I always relied on the Cloud to bail me out in these situations. However, in this instance, it had slipped my mind to factor in my nature and place of work.

On the whole route, there are hardly a couple spots which offer phone connectivity. Internet connectivity is even rarer. So, when asked to produce the papers, all I could give the police officers was my Driving License and a sheepish grin. Fortunately, I had my work ID, which seemed to calm the guy down momentarily. But to my dismay, soon, he began his barrage of questions again and kept questioning my intelligence, which led me to do the most foolish thing of the day. I told him he could hold my Driving License, and I would come and show my papers and reclaim them the next day. Very happy with this arrangement, and after driving home the point multiple times that he would cancel my license if I did not arrive the next day, he let me go. Dismayed, I continued my journey.

In the next town on the way, some 4-5kms from the checking spot, I was fortunate to find a shop offering digital services. The owner had one of the only broadband connections (that doesn’t work when there is no electricity, mind you) in the area. He was gracious enough to let me use his Wi-Fi connection to download my papers. I showed them immediately to the policeman and was able to retrieve my license, saving time, effort and petrol in the process.

While getting my license, I came across tens of others like me who were not carrying their papers. But, unlike me, most did not have any legitimate documents in the first place as hardly anyone in the region bothered to apply for driving licenses, and second-hand vehicles rarely came with any registration documents. Another angle was the flourishing marijuana trade in the area. Traders would sell the vehicles used to transport the goods at cheap rates to unsuspecting individuals. Unbeknownst to them, the police would be keeping tabs on vehicles of this kind and had the right to seize and indefinitely detain them. It was pretty surprising for me to see a Sarpanch of a nearby Panchayat also caught in this unfortunate business. I left the place with a great lesson and some precious information.

Soon, we came to the place where Ashok, my colleague, wanted to be dropped. It was already dark, and his house was another seven kilometres from the main road. Offering to drop him at his house seemed the only logical thing to do. As I dropped him off, he told me of a new route that would not require me to go back to the main road and would take me some way forward on my way. However, he warned me that the road would be empty at this time and would pass through some very dense jungles. By then, my adrenaline raged, and I started exploring the new route.

I sped along the road, and only about 10 km in did a slight doubt creep into my mind about my choice. Until this point, I had seen no other people but had already passed four different snakes, which glistened brilliantly in the glow of my headlamps. I tried concentrating on the driving and not thinking a lot, as a fall here would mean no help from anywhere. I was well accustomed to accidents in desolate areas, but that is a story for another time.

Another 10 km in, I finally found a hitchhiker who had come to a nearby village for a feast. I do not know who was more relieved to see the other, me or my newfound friend, Simon. His first concern was what I was doing this late on these roads. He then told me that these were all “Maoist” areas and that anyone travelling after 5 p.m. was unsafe here. Time seemed to pass quickly with Simon in the back. He told me about his village and how he had come to the feast, got stuck, and had no way to get back until I came along.

After another 15 km, I finally arrived upon a familiar road. A slight drizzle had started by this time, and the sky lit up in a brilliant purple with occasional lightning bolts. This last stretch of the ride was heavenly. A fantastic cool breeze, the smell of the slightly damp earth and the astounding natural beauty of Gajapati’s hills made for a perfect combination as I quickened my pace, hoping to escape the rain. I finally reached my destination two and a half hours later than expected, terribly tired but with my heart complete.

Some days feel taxing while some are refreshing, but all days are unique, like no other. I hope every day keeps on giving like this, and I can continue to take, whatever I can, and when my time comes, pass this all along.

The beautiful landscape witnessed everyday to reach the villages. Photograph shared by Kabir Rana.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Priya Pillai edited the blogpost.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kabir is the Project Manager for the Rural Livelihood Project being implemented across 846 villages in Kandhamal and Ganjam districts of Odisha. He joined us in 2020, as a Young Management Trainee, from Jadavpur University.

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