Editor's Note: In April this year, Union home ministry removed 44 districts from the list of those affected by Left Wing Extremism (LWE), indicating a shrinking of the area of Maoist influence in the country. This is the result of a multi-pronged strategy that includes an offensive security and sustained development to wean away the locals from Maoist ideology. However, this is not the end of Maoist supremacy in the Red Corridor. The danger is very much lurking in the jungles, beaten, bruised and ready for retaliation. The bigger challenge for the administration is to enter the Maoist stronghold and carry out development right under the nose of the extremists. So, what exactly is the situation on the ground? Debobrat Ghose of Firstpost takes a trip through the Dandakaranya forests in the Maoist-hotbed of Bastar division of Chhattisgarh — one of the most badly affected regions by LWE and site of some of the deadliest attacks on the state by Maoists — to see the changes that have reached some villages, how willing are the villagers in embracing those changes, the immense risk state administration and security forces personnel undertake daily to effect those changes, all in the shadow of the Maoists who are far from finished.
Away from the freshness of new-found freedom in Palnar, my driver Umashankar and I entered Geedam, another nondescript village in Chhattisgarh's Dantewada district in Bastar division whose identity in the world was only as a terror hotbed of Maoists, until a few years ago.
Apart from the many attacks on security personnel deployed in the area, the one executed on 13 August 2003 bore testimony to the nature of Maoists violence. On that fateful day, the Maoists not only blew up the only police station located in Geedam village but also looted weapons after killing a few policemen. They even had the audacity to behead a head constable. Another attack on 27 December 2011 by around 50 armed Maoists left an under-construction, double-storeyed building meant to be the new police station in rubbles. Although the new building was barely one-kilometre away from the then functional police station, no one including the policemen dared to reach the spot even three hours after the blast.
Fear of the Maoists was such that the residents focussed only on remaining alive without antagonising the guerillas. However, things have begun to change in the last five years as the government forces concentrated on area domination in small pockets, and create a congenial atmosphere so that at least the basic facilities of development could be established.
Geedam was under the administration of a gram panchayat till 2003. It gradually metamorphosed into a tiny town (nagar panchayat) only due to an increase in its population.
It took a long time for the tribal population of Geedam to break free from the clutches of Naxal menace and breathe easy. Today, Geedam has a population of 7,440 (Census 2011) and a flourishing weekly market that attracts people from neighbouring areas, including Dantewada, the town's district headquarters.
It is not just about Palnar or Geedam, or a few other villages I planned to visit. All other tribal villages that used to be Naxal-infested but where development has taken place, have followed the same model of a multi-pronged strategy. Clearing off the area under Maoist domination through offensive security strategy is followed by gradual development in terms of road, electricity connection, etc, and then a change in perception through education.
Jawanga in Geedam is a perfect example of this strategy.
At the security level, over the last six years, CRPF posts have been created at a distance of 5 to 10 kilometres. The state police force is supported by newly created District Reserve Guards, which has local trained youth as a part of the police team. An aggressive operation against the ultras is carried out at multiple levels.
Geedam is famous in the vicinity for its weekly market, called the haat-bazaar.
I learnt about it on my way to Geedam, which is 76 kilometre from Jagdalpur town.
Tribals from nearby and far-flung villages come to Geedam's haat-bazaar to sell their forest produce and buy items of daily needs. The popularity of this Sunday market can be measured from the fact that it attracts buyers and sellers even from the town of Dantewada, which is 13 kilometre away from Geedam — quite a distance to cover in this remote region — not only for the buyers and sellers but also for the workers of National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC) mines located at Bailadila in the district.
Earlier, the weekly market was not just an avenue for petty business but was also a fertile ground for undercover Maoist activists. The Maoists would often mingle in the crowd of villagers and keep an eye on police activities.
"The weekly haat-bazaar used to be a great cover as thousands of villagers would come to Geedam with their traditional weapons along with forest produce. It was difficult to prevent incidents as in the disguise of innocent tribals, there used to be Naxals as well. Often, they unexpectedly attacked the police. In the past, the police station was blown up twice in a similar manner," a local from Geedam town told Firstpost on the condition of anonymity.
According to police sources, though Left-wing extremists still visit this market, their numbers have considerably gone down due to strong monitoring by security forces and intelligence network.
LWE-hub to education-hub: A transformation
Till 2016, the villages surrounding Geedam were in control of the Maoists, but now government forces have the upper hand; barring a few villages located in the deep interiors, rest are free.
According to locals, Geedam has undergone a tremendous transformation in the last five years. The establishment of the educational hub in Geedam has ushered a positive atmosphere into the village. It has become an attractive skill-based educational destination not only for the students of Dantewada district but also for the other six LWE-affected districts in Bastar division.
It's also a fillip to the efforts of many social activists — working on tribal issues and their welfare — who have been emphasising the need to educate Adivasi children. Earlier these activists were unhappy with the government apathy in providing basic amenities including education, but now the change in Geedam has set a new benchmark.
Today, Geedam — with a total population of 7,440 and with 1,715 households – boasts of a post office, a bank branch, ATMs, mobile-phone tower, primary health centre, bus stand, marketplace, police station and a CRPF camp. But what lends it a distinct identity is the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Education City based at Jawanga, just 2 kilometres from the town.
The plan of the education city was conceptualised by former Dantewada collector OP Choudhary and construction began during his tenure between 2011 and 2013. In the last three years, the hub was built with funding from the Centre, state government and NMDC's corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds.
The faculty members of NMDC-DAV Polytechnic and other institutes told me that the education city became possible due to Choudhary’s extraordinary zeal, execution of the plan on a mission mode and procuring of funds.
"Besides literacy, now the youth are getting good education and skill training opportunities. We've come from small tribal villages in Bijapur district, which is still under Maoist control. Education and thereafter job opportunities will bring a change in perception among youth and they won't be drawn towards the Naxal ideology. Things are changing in our district as well," Raman Kumar, a trainee at Yuva BPO, Jawanga told Firstpost.
The education city is situated on a sprawling 120-acre campus. Besides NMDC-DAV Polytechnic, the campus houses 14 different institutions — an Industrial Training Institute, a degree college, sports academy, CBSE and state board schools, two residential schools ‘Saksham’ for disabled children, hostels for boys and girls and an 800-seater auditorium. The authorities told me that the campus can accommodate about 7,000 residential students.
But what really caught my attention and surprised me was a BPO situated on this campus! A large number of students, mostly from tribal areas, chatting outside the swanky, glass-facade multi-storey building, had brought alive the environment. It was quite impossible to imagine that this campus was hardly a kilometre away from the spot where the first police station had been blown up by Maoists.
Named as 'Yuva', this rural BPO is providing training to 550 youth from across Bastar division. The plan is to expand its capacity to 1,000 students. It's the first-of-its-kind facility in the tribal belt to introduce the local youth to corporate work culture.
"This kind of facility will help educated youth from all the seven districts to get skilled and then secure jobs within the state as well as outside. The main attraction is an assured job after completion of the training session. While, on one hand, it provides employment opportunities, on the other it'll keep tribal youth away from the Maoist ideology," Dantewada district collector, Saurabh Kumar later told me.
The state-of-the-art classrooms and facilities were really impressive. While the government provides infrastructure, equipment, hostel and conveyance facilities to trainers and trainees, private companies have been roped in to operate on 'plug-and-play' mode and create jobs.
"We’re providing 45-day training to computer-literate candidates, who come from far-flung and remotest areas of Bastar. Besides free training, a stipend of Rs 4,000 is also paid. The hostel facility has helped them to live in the campus and get trained," said Yuva BPO trainer Sai Sushwant.
Fear lurks in the background
Though the small town of Geedam, with enough will on part of the administration, has set itself on the road to education and possibilities of opportunities, fear still continues to lurk in the background.
Even within Geedam, the area in a radius of 5 kilometres from the main road seems peaceful and abuzz due to the BPO and education hub, but the pockets in deep interiors of the village still have Maoist supporters. Development is yet to reach those outlying areas.
On my way back to Jagdalpur from Dantewada at night, my cab driver Umashankar reminded me that everything wasn't as hunky-dory as it seemed when we were crossing the village of Bastanar. Indicating the dark jungle area of Bastanar, he said, "Yahan Naxali aaj bhi raj karte hain (Naxals still rule this region)."
Bastanar, 24 kilometres from Geedam, is a Maoist stronghold and continues to cast its long shadow on the latter that seems to have turned a new leaf.
Despite two CRPF camps and jawans patrolling in the dark of the night, Bastanar continues to be an Achilles heel for the government due to the control of Maoists over the village. Outsiders fear to cross this village after sunset. Similar is the case with other villages in Dantewada such as Katekalyan, Kuwakonda and Kasoli.
"A decade ago Geedam was highly Naxal-infested and we’ve heard about Maoist attacks in the marketplace and on roads. In the last five years, there has been a tremendous development. Literacy and education will help in bring change in perception among tribal youth. It will wean them away from the Naxal ideology, as the youths are now getting an opportunity to be a part of mainstream education and career options," said Pankaj Sharma, a lecturer at NDMC-DAV Polytechnic.
When I see life going about normally in Geedam, I’m surprised at the realisation that this is a village in Dantewada district, one of the most volatile in the entire Red Corridor, and that has witnessed some of the most brutal ambushes carried out by the Maoists against the State.
The credit must be given where it rightly belongs – to the zealous young team helming the state administration at Dantewada.
I next head to Dantewada town to meet collector Saurabh Kumar to know more about the kind of development taking place on the ground in this highly volatile district. And as my company, I have Umashankar, his car and of course the blaring Punjabi music.
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Updated Date: Jul 11, 2018 19:18:47 IST