Development has spelt doom for a section of boatmen. A bridge over river Mahanadi in Sonepur, known as the fishing hub of Western Odisha, has no doubt bridged the distances but has left hundreds of boatmen in the district marooned. The bridge connects Sonepur sub-division with Birmaharajpur to facilitate direct road communication with Sambalpur district. It was dedicated to public on May 7, 2003.
Around 1,000 members of 150 boatmen families, whose main source of income was to ferry people across the river from Sonepur to Birmaharajpaur, are now leading a life of penury.
Living on the banks of the Mahanadi for over three generations, ferrying people of around 400 villages to the other side of the river has been their mainstay. The boatmen earned around ` 5,000 by ferrying around 6,000 persons everyday. There are around 150 families of Keuta caste who are Dalits and dependent on boats for livelihood in Tentulighatpada, Tariapada, Talpada, Tikripada in Sonepur block and Hikudi in Ulunda block.
After the bridge came up in 2002, the boatmen, who had their own boats, were rendered jobless. While some sold their boats and invested the money in tea stalls in the town, others worked as daily labourers or vegetable vendors.
Although the then Collector Bishnupada Sethi had mooted to give two acres of land to each boatman family in Kalapathar area to help them rehabilitate themselves and start life afresh, the proposal was pushed to the backburner after Sethi was transferred from the district. Today a few boats are tied to the banks of the river. They only ferry a few tourists who visit Lankeswari temple having presiding deity of the community located at the middle of the river, said boatman Purna Mallick of Taripada.
Even the fish population has dwindled and it hardly makes any sense for them to go for fishing as the catch is too little. The river is home to some rare species of fish, but in the absence of a proper riverine fishery policy, some of the rare species have become extinct. The fisheries officials in the district have recorded extinction of at least seven varieties of fish due to lack of conservation measures.
The affected villagers said youths of the Keuta community should be imparted skill development training in other trades and rehabilitated.
Mallick said though there was a proposal to hand over small water bodies in the town to their community members for pisciculture, the proposal has no takers. However, Sonepur Sub-Collector Faguram Marandi said they have not received any application for pisciculture in water bodies.
■ A bridge connecting Sonepur sub-division with Birmaharajpur was constructed in 2003
■ Around 150 boatmen families, whose source of income was to ferry people across the river were rendered jobless
■ The then Collector had mooted to give two acres of land to each boatman family to help them rehabilitate, the proposal was pushed to backburner after his transfer