Late at night on 23 August 2016, while the nation debated whether the Congress member and Kannada actor Divya Spandana, popularly known as Ramya, had committed a seditious act by saying, “Pakistan is not hell,” a tribal man in Odisha beseeched the staff at Kalahandi district headquarters hospital for an ambulance that could take his wife’s dead body home. Dana Majhi, a middle-aged labourer, lived in Melghar village at Kalahandi district’s Thuamul Rampur block, close to sixty kilometres away from the hospital. His wife, Amang Dei, who had been suffering from malaria and tuberculosis, had passed away sometime between 11 pm and 1 am that night. When the authorities at the hospital did not relent, Majhi quietly walked into the Malaria Ward. He asked his twelve-year-old daughter to collect their belongings in a gunny bag while he wrapped his wife’s body with old sheets from the hospital. Without waiting for a discharge receipt, Majhi hoisted the body on his shoulder and began the journey towards his house. His daughter walked beside her father, sobbing.
At around 5.30 am on 24 August, Ajit Singh, a reporter with Odisha TV, a local news channel, received a call from some of the residents of Sagada village who had seen Majhi and his daughter walking. Singh immediately left for the spot with his friend, Bikaash Sarangi, on a motorcycle. He reached the village, where he met Majhi, at 6.30 am. By then, Majhi and his daughter had covered close to 12 kilometres on foot. “I requested everyone in the hospital, but no one listened. What option did I have other than carrying her,” Majhi told Singh. Singh called Brunda D, the district collector of Kalahandi, to ask her if she could arrange for an ambulance. Brunda told Singh to reach out to the chief medical officer instead. According to Singh, when he called the chief medical officer, he was told that the matter was being forwarded to the assistant district medical officer. Finally, Singh called a representative from a local trust called the Balaji Mandira Surakshya Samiti, who sent an ambulance at once. Pramod Khamari, the owner of a restaurant in Bhawanipatna, provided the funds for the vehicle’s fuel. Meanwhile, a video clip of Majhi and his daughter’s journey was broadcast on Odisha TV. Within hours, it was circulated widely, leading to outraged and incensed conversations across the country.
Majhi’s plight is not an exception in Odisha. On 18 September, according to a report in The Indian Express, the family members of Pana Tirika—a 65-year-old tribal woman who died at Jajpur district hospital—had to carry her body in a trolley-rickshaw. In March, a woman who was suffering from labour pains was carried from her village, Kalyansinghpur, to the hospital in the neighbouring Rayagada district on a charpoy because an ambulance did not reach her in time. A month later, in April, another patient from Kalyansinghpur was taken to the district hospital on a sling. In May, two young men carried the body of their relative from the Jharigan community health centre to Bharuamunda village, around 30 kilometres away, on a bike. They did not have enough money to arrange a vehicle. Sanjib Joshi, a reporter who works with Dharitri, a local daily, said, “It’s not uncommon to see tribal people carrying patients or dead bodies of their relatives in sling here because most of the time it’s not about money but unavailability of ambulance and the inaccessibility of the terrains.”
Melghar, the village Majhi is from, is in the Thuamul Rampur block. This block also consists of 16 other villages that form a part of the 97 villages that were affected by the construction of the Indravati dam in 1999. Of the 97 villages, 65 were completely submerged and 32 remained partially affected after the dam was constructed.
The dam has reportedly displaced close to 17, 000 people, most of whom belong to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The 16 villages in Thuamul Rampur block are extremely vulnerable to floods, diseases and malnutrition as they are located within the Indravati reservoir. According to a report in the Times of India, around 1,860 people of the 340 families here live without electricity. The villagers, the report stated, “have to cross the river for salt and reach Talngangi gram panchayat, 15 km away.”