Bastar development offensive: Once a Maoist den cut off from mainstream, Palnar village is now a digital hub

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.

Jagdalpur town, headquarters of Bastar district, 8.30 am.

After a good night's sleep and a filling breakfast, it was time for me to move on to my next destination in my quest to find out how some areas in the Bastar division in Chhattisgarh are trying to free themselves from the relics of destruction that the Maoists caused during their long domination. I told my cab driver Umashankar to hit the road to Dantewada even as the hot sun indicated another day of sweltering heat ahead.

As we set off on our journey, he began telling me how dangerous Dantewada used to be even four years ago. But things had begun to change. He added, "Par ab Dantewada shahar mein Naxaliyon ka koi khatra nahi hai."(But there’s no danger from Naxals in Dantewada town now).

The blacktop road to Dantewada was excellent, and with hardly any traffic, we were enjoying the drive. The car's speedometer was touching the 100 km per hour mark as the dense forest on either side of the road zoomed by. While the greenery was in abundance, there was however hardly any human being visible and further, there was no mobile network for over a stretch of 35 km!

I asked Umashankar whether he was aware of Palnar village in Dantewada district. He nodded in affirmation.

"Let’s go to Palnar," I said.

The driver's reaction was worth noticing. He immediately brought down the volume of the Punjabi pop music he had been playing to almost zero and slowed the speed of the car to 60 km per hour.

"There’s nothing to see at Palnar. Instead, you should visit the famous and the most auspicious Danteshwari Mata temple at Dantewada. Chief Minister Raman Singh begins his election campaigning from here," he proposed an alternative plan.

Bastar development offensive: Once a Maoist den cut off from mainstream, Palnar village is now a digital hub

Palnar school cluster's boundary wall depicts slogans encouraging education for girls. Firstpost/Debobrat Ghose

When he failed to convince me about skipping Palnar, he used the last arrow in his quiver. "Palnar gaon ke andar jaane ke liye Naxaliyon ki anumati chahiye, Sir(To enter Palnar village, you need permission from Naxals)," he quipped.

"I have, you don’t worry," I lied with confidence.

Umashankar, however, wasn’t lying. Locals told me that even five-six years ago, Palnar was under Maoist control. Villagers had to take permission from Maoist cadres while leaving the village. No one, not even people from Dantewada or Jagdalpur town, dared to visit Palnar then. Every entry and exit was monitored by the frontal organisation of the Maoists.

Whenever security forces attempted to free the village from the clutches of the Maoists, they met with severe resistance. There had been several cases of ambush and blasts as Maoists wanted to retain their domination on this tribal village and other villages such as Jagargunda. (Jagargunda in Sukma district lies further up on the same road on which we were travelling. The district is a Maoist stronghold and one of the most volatile regions in Bastar. The terror of the Maoists is so all-pervading that in the last seven years, no new bank branch or ATM was opened in Sukma district.)

"Ten years back you wouldn’t have wanted to be at Palnar, due to the deadly Maoist threat. It was completely alienated. Like in the Hindi film Newton, where security forces described such a village as ‘Pakistan’, so was the case of Palnar. But, not anymore," a senior police official had told me a day before I started for Dantewada.

Earlier, Palnar had no security on its eastern and southern sides. It was open to Maoist camps and its close proximity to Jagargunda had made it synonymous with Maoist terror. There was no cemented road to Palnar.

After covering 128 km, we eventually entered Palnar. A road branched off from the main highway and after traversing further 18 km, we reached this quaint village. It was a true tribal village and wore an antique look, unlike the ones we see in any other states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh or West Bengal. The huts were at quite a distance from each another and were surrounded by trees and bushes. A narrow, serpentine dust track connected various structures in the village.

It was almost 3.30 pm, but the village was wearing a cloak of silence, rather eerie for the unaccustomed pair of ears from the country’s capital. We parked the car by the side of the cemented road passing from one end of the village to the other.

Bastar_Logo

On one side of the road, there was a community centre with small shops and a common service centre (CSC) equipped with computers, VSAT, micro-ATM and other paraphernalia. On the other side was the primary health centre (PHC) of the village and its walls were beautifully painted with sketches and slogans like ‘Digital Payment’.

At one corner of the PHC, there was a large LED TV facing the road and the village boys and girls were keenly watching a show on National Geographic featuring a cobra. It was unbelievable, not only for me but for my driver as well, who belongs to Bastar. Until a few hours ago, he still believed that permission from the Maoists was mandatory to enter the village.

A board above the CSC proudly proclaimed – ‘Welcome to Palnar — Digital Village.’ I was stumped and was naturally curious to know more about digitisation in Palnar.

How could a Maoist stronghold suddenly become a digital village? Was that a publicity stunt?

I tried to enter into a discussion with the people around who came close to me as I was an outsider and was taking photographs. But hardly anyone in the group could speak Hindi as their local dialect is Gondi.

A young girl from the CSC, Janaki Kashyap, came to my rescue as she could interact in Hindi and knew a bit of English as well. She asked a local boy to get the village sarpanch (head) and other senior members to meet me.

"Sir, through this CSC we help the villagers in getting online transactions done, making digital payments, checking exam results online, etc. During demonetisation, our collector Sir (Saurabh Kumar) made it a cashless-enabled centre," said Kashyap, who had received an award from Union Minister for Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad for her achievement in making this one a model CSC.

Soon, the young village sarpanch Sukalu Murami arrived with a few others.

"Collector sahab got an award from the prime minister for this village. He donated his prize money to buy this LED TV for the village," said Murami pointing towards the TV screen.

Dantewada collector Saurabh Kumar had received the ‘PM Award for Excellence in Public Administration’ in 2017 for making Palnar cashless-enabled after demonetisation. As a next step, he turned it into a digital village, with facilities of a modern town.

The graffiti on the walls of the health centre announced ‘Digital Economy’ in English for the benefit of outsiders like me, to make the visitors aware that this village with a small population of 1,962 and 342 households was as updated in the use of modern technology as any Tier-II city. That makes it leagues ahead of several other villages in this country.

Today, Palnar has a telemedicine centre, maternity centre with waiting facility for pregnant mothers to encourage institutional delivery, virtual education classes for tribal children, Aadhaar card centre, primary health centre among other notable facilities.

The public health centre with a 10-bedded hospital, maternity ward and Telemedicine centre at Naxal-free Palnar village in Dantewada district. The slogan on the boundary wall of the PHC encourages villagers to go for cashless transaction. Firstpost/Debobrat Ghose

The public health centre with a 10-bedded hospital, maternity ward and Telemedicine centre at Naxal-free Palnar village in Dantewada district. The slogan on the boundary wall of the PHC encourages villagers to go for cashless transaction. Firstpost/Debobrat Ghose

These facilities have contributed in giving Dantewada district better healthcare indicators – the infant mortality rate (IMR) has decreased from 70 in 2003 to 44 in 2018, whereas institutional deliveries have gone up from 19 to 72 in the corresponding years.

"We have lived here for generations. Earlier, there wasn’t any road, and it was under the influence of anti-social elements (read Maoists). But in the last five years, we’ve got a road and so many facilities. Now we have a 10-bed hospital and this maternity centre has helped pregnant women to come a few days before their delivery date and stay here," said Uday Chand, a tribal farmer, who’s also into poultry farming.

Chand’s reference to Maoists as asamajik or ‘anti-social’ elements is not an aberration but an unwritten rule in the tribal villages I visited, by which the locals refrain from using the word ‘Maoists’ out of sheer terror.

The sarpanch took us to a large campus with buildings and classrooms. It was a cluster of schools and hostels for children coming from far-flung villages. On the walls, slogans in English like ‘When you educate a girl, you educate a nation’, etc. were painted.

"Here you’ll see names of different villages on different blocks. Each block is a school meant for a particular village. They (Maoists) burnt the schools in these villages, so now children from those villages stay here and study in this school cluster. It’s a unique experiment by the district administration. There are a few other projects in the pipeline for Palnar,” the sarpanch announced with pride.

The school cluster at Palnar village has a cluster of primary to higher secondary schools and hostel facility for tribal boys and girls from the neighbouring villages. Firstpost/Debobrat Ghose

The school cluster at Palnar village has a cluster of primary to higher secondary schools and hostel facility for tribal boys and girls from the neighbouring villages. Firstpost/Debobrat Ghose

Among the roadside shops – also the main market area of Palnar, a few single-phased mini rice mills were visible. On inquiry, I was told that these were run by women entrepreneurs belonging to self-help groups (SHGs).

"SHGs have been in existence for long, but now, the government subsidy scheme has enabled SHG members to buy mini rice mills. It has helped many tribal women of this village to earn their livelihood. This one rice mill can convert 150 kg of paddy into rice at one go," informed Chandravati, a woman entrepreneur, who also owns a small grocery shop.

On the way back from Palnar to Dantewada district headquarters, we crossed Awapalli and many other villages that used to be Maoist-infested even four years ago. An outsider needed permission from Maoist cadres to enter these villages, but today, a majority of them are free and have active facilities like schools, bank branches, primary health centres, mobile towers and post offices.

Though Palnar and the neighbouring villages have been freed from the clutches of the Maoists, the same cannot be said for the entire Dantewada district. The administration might claim that Maoists have been pushed to a small area in the district, but if one keeps an ear to the ground, one hears a different story. The Maoists continue to hold sway in parts of the forested land in the district. They are strong enough to trigger unexpected IED blasts anytime, anywhere, even in broad daylight.

Like they did on the Kirandul-Cholnar blacktop road near Cholnar village on 20 May that killed seven policemen travelling in a vehicle.

Moreover, the Maoists continue their reign of terror further down the road on which we were travelling, in Sukma district, which is the home of the Naxals. As my journey continues trying to trace how development is fighting terror, my next stop would be Geedam village where the red terror even did not spare the cops.

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Updated Date: Jul 09, 2018 18:50:51 IST

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