Tuesday began as just another day in office for Pradeep Kumar Dishari, the BJD MLA from Lanjigarh in Odisha’s Kalahandi district. With panchayat elections scheduled for February, Dishari had a string of routine visits to make in his constituency, including to Baitikhaman village. While there, villagers from neighbouring Bandhapari gram panchayat requested him to inaugurate a telecom tower in their village. Dishari agreed.
It was only when he reached the village ground that he realised he had been tricked. In place of the mobile tower stood a dummy — a rickety bamboo structure adorned with a banner that read ‘BSNL 4G’ — around which stood angry villagers, shooting questions at him about the poor mobile network in the area. Another banner nearby read: “Inauguration of our new telecom tower by honourable MLA Pradeep Kumar Dishari.”
“The fake inauguration was our way of protesting against politicians and their fake promises,” said Taruna Dalapati, one of the villagers. “We have made several requests to politicians for a mobile tower here because all of us, especially the children and the elderly, suffer a great deal without mobile connectivity. All our requests have landed on deaf ears. Politicians come with a lot of promises ahead of elections but forget all that. We have been extremely polite with our requests so far, but this time we wanted politicians to feel embarrassed about making fake promises,” he added.
Villagers say that last year alone, they submitted at least four memorandums to the MLA and district authorities requesting a mobile tower for their gram panchayat.
Villagers say the BSNL network connectivity is so poor that they travel at least 4 km through hilly terrain to Kukelkubori village, around 4 km away, to even make a phone call.
Dalapati said that a 27-year-old pregnant woman recently died after villagers were unable to take her to hospital in time. “She was in immense pain, there was no vehicle around. We had to walk a long distance to call an ambulance. We could have saved her if we could contact the ambulance earlier,” he said.
Villagers also say that since the start of the pandemic, when schools moved their classes online, children have had to undertake a small trek to Hathisal Ghati, a small hillock nearby, to catch some network on their phones.
“All the students, especially the older ones, walk together to Hathisal Ghati for better internet connectivity. They return only around 8 or 9 pm. Until they are back, parents keep worrying as there is no way to communicate with them,” said Bishikesan Bibhar, another villager.
In October last year, the Department of Telecom (DoT) had sanctioned 483 mobile towers with 4G features to be set up by BSNL in the state, including six in Kalahandi. In his meeting with Amit Shah last year, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik had informed that at 6278, Odisha has the highest number of villages without internet connectivity.
A BSNL official in Kalahandi said the installation of the towers is still in the works and will be completed within a month. One of them is to come up in Lanjigarh, but not close enough to service Bandhapari gram panchayat.
Meanwhile, MLA Dishari admits the villagers’ unique protest took him by surprise.
“I was not aware that the villagers had planned something of this sort, though I was suspicious about how a mobile tower would come up here. I understand their grievances. Time and again, we have asked for clearance to set up telecom towers in these regions. The clearance has to come from the Centre, until then, there is little we can do,” he said.
But the villagers aren’t waiting any more. Until their demands are met, they have threatened to boycott all upcoming elections.