Development no silver bullet, government must bridge trust deficit in Maoist hotbed Bastar

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.

On 25 March, 1966, Pravir Chandra Bhanj Deo, the 20th ruler of the erstwhile Bastar state (today’s Bastar division) was brutally killed by the administration under the then Congress government of undivided Madhya Pradesh, allegedly for fighting for the rights of his subjects – the tribal people.

It was alleged that Pravir Chandra, a scion of the Kakatiya dynasty of Warangal, who was also an MLA from Jagdalpur Vidhan Sabha constituency and immensely popular among his people, had waged ‘war against the state.’ He was shot dead by the police inside his royal palace, at the age of 36.

By killing a popular leader who is revered to this day by the people of Bastar, the establishment sowed the seeds of discontent among the tribal population, and provided a fertile ground for the Naxals — the PWG cadre who came to Bastar from Andhra Pradesh in the mid 1980s seeking a safe hideout — to win over the tribals to their cause. Over the years, the seed germinated and proliferated into a carcinogenic menace called Left Wing Extremism (LWE).

The slaying of Pravir Chand Bhanj Deo proved to be the flashpoint that turned Bastar firmly towards LWE.

 Development no silver bullet, government must bridge trust deficit in Maoist hotbed Bastar

Royal Bastar Palace in Jagdalpur town where erstwhile ruler Pravir Chandra Bhanj Deo was killed by the administration in 1966. Debobrat Ghose/Firstpost

Many elderly people in Bastar and experts believe that there continues to be a trust deficit between a large section of the tribal population and the establishment.

It’s a classic Catch-22 situation.

A large number of innocent tribal people, especially in the remotest parts of the country, are caught between the government and the Maoists. They don’t know which side they have to belong to, and who to believe. They strongly feel that four decades ago, they were much better off – living their own way of life in the jungles. There were no Naxals and the government in those days hardly made any effort to reach out to them.

“Of late, the government has done a lot on infrastructure development, which is appreciable. But, over the years, consecutive governments in the state have failed to win the trust of adivasis in Chhattisgarh. There’s tremendous suppressed anger among tribals, as they are victims of crossfire between the Maoists and security forces. As we are fighting for our rights within the constitutional framework, we can’t be dubbed as ‘rebels’,” BPS Netam, president, Chhattisgarh Sarv Adivasi Samaj told Firstpost.

Skill City at Adawal village in Maoist affected Bastar district -- a symbol of development. Debobrat Ghose/Firstpost

Skill City at Adawal village in Maoist affected Bastar district -- a symbol of development. Debobrat Ghose/Firstpost

Is development the only silver bullet?

Despite large-scale development in Bastar, there are several grievances amongst villagers, especially in the remote ones. They lack access to safe drinking water, medical facilities and basic education.

“There is a disconnect between the ongoing development and rehabilitation issues in the tribal belt of Bastar. Roads have been built across Bastar division, but tribals living in interior villages fail to get access to medical facilities and safe drinking water even today. There’s a lot of corruption in PDS and in the wage payments under MNREGA,” alleged CPM state secretary Sanjay Parate.

“Under the Forest Rights Act, a large number of tribals are unable to get their land deed (Patta). Many of them, who had patta in the past, have now been deprived of it. If the government succeeds in improving the functioning of forest, revenue and police departments, the Naxal problem will end. Over the years, the officials of these departments have been exploiting tribal villagers,” he added.

Social activists have complained about the misuse of corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds in Bastar. They feel that if these funds had been used for improving the living conditions of tribals, the situation would have been different. Activists also alleged that villagers living near Bailadila mines raised the issues of pollution, effluents and red oxide mixed water, and their effects on health, but the complaints remained unheard.

Tribal rights activist Soni Sori alleged, “Development has taken place in areas close to highways or roads connecting one district with other, or one village with another. But, the villages adjoining Bailadila mines still face the problem of effluents and ‘red water’ (due to red oxide), and agricultural fields have turned into barren land. This has been going on for years. Even cattle cannot consume water in those villages.”

However, divisional commissioner of Bastar, Dilip Wasnikar told Firstpost, “There were such issues near Bailadila mines in the past, but now, the government has installed water filtration plants to get rid of this ‘red water’ menace. Several other measures are in the pipeline. We’re also mapping areas that are inaccessible to drinking water. In many places where water can’t be supplied through pipelines, the administration will provide bore wells. The process has begun.”

On the other hand, Rohit Singh Arya, Aam Aadmi Party leader in Bastar, said, “In Bastar, almost the entire CSR fund has been used in building infrastructure, rather than being used for improving living conditions of the poor. The fund is meant to bring change in the social life of people, and is for their betterment. The CSR fund is also being used to beautify government offices and buildings.”

Education facilities in interior villages continue to be poor, as teachers are not available in schools. However, in some cases, teachers have reasons to avoid going to schools. On many occasions, Maoists have burnt schools, and fear exists in such areas.

The Dantewada district administration created a school cluster at Palnar village to accommodate schools from nearby villages, the buildings of which were damaged by Naxals.

Tribal villagers in Sukma on way to earn their daily wage. Debobrat Ghose/Firstpost

Tribal villagers in Sukma on way to earn their daily wage. Debobrat Ghose/Firstpost

What the government needs to do

From social activists to experts on LWE, all believe that guns alone won’t help in solving the Naxal problem, which has assumed gigantic proportions now.

-First and foremost, the government needs to win the trust of the tribal community.

-Provide a safe environment to tribals, as they are often victims of crossfire between the Maoists and administration.

-Once a region becomes free from the influence of Naxals, facilities in the form of health services, education, regular supply of ration, etc should be provided.

-The government must take the adivasi population in Bastar into confidence by making them stakeholders in the planning and dialogue process. The voices of adivasis need to be heard.

-The grievance redressal mechanism needs to be strengthened by creating an appropriate ecosystem.

-The government needs to create a positive perception amongst tribals by ensuring them that no police excesses, harassment by administration, fake arrests, surrenders and encounters will take place.

-Proper implementation of Forest Rights

and Tribal Rights.

Prakash Singh, former director general, Border Security Force and ex-DGP UP Police told Firstpost, “The government is doing a lot on the development front, but redressal of grievances of tribals is far more important than just building infrastructure. The government has to show empathy towards the tribal population, which is already living under fear due to Maoists on one hand and security forces on the other. They don’t have faith in the local administration and police. This needs rectification and faith needs to be restored.”

Singh, who is also an author and and expert of LWE, says, “The Naxal problem can be solved by bringing reforms, having a proper rehabilitation policy in place, adhering to Forest Rights Act and redressing grievances of the people.”

Maoists massacred 55 policemen by lighting up a school building at Rani Bodli village in Dantewada in March 2007. It’s alleged that later Salwa Judum took revenge in a similar fashion at Naxal-dominated villages. Image procured by: Debobrat Ghose/Firstpost

Maoists massacred 55 policemen by lighting up a school building at Rani Bodli village in Dantewada in March 2007. It’s alleged that later Salwa Judum took revenge in a similar fashion at Naxal-dominated villages. Image procured by: Debobrat Ghose/Firstpost

Salwa Judum’s dark phase still haunts tribals

The Salwa Judum, which was initiated by Congress leader Mahendra Karma, who was later killed by the Maoists at Jhirum Ghati, was a counter-insurgency catastrophe. In 2011, the Supreme Court banned Salwa Judum because the members of the group, along with the police, allegedly killed ordinary people in the name of fighting Maoists, burnt villages and created havoc.

“The incidents of atrocities and rapes during Salwa Judum and thereafter by special police officers (SPOs) have left villagers completely shattered. The tribals face the wrath of Maoists as well as of the police. They have nowhere to go,” remarked tribal rights activist Soni Sori.

Bastar_Logo

Despite the Supreme Court’s order, attempts were made to revive Salwa Judum between 2014 and 2016, by setting up different outfits like Jan Jagran Abhiyan, Vikas Sangharsh Samiti, Nagrik Ekta Manch, Samajik Ekta Manch etc in various districts of Bastar.

Some activists, local journalists, bureaucrats and police officials said on the condition of anonymity that the ‘concerted effort to revive the Salwa Judum was a blunder’.

“It gave a bad name both to the government and the police. Cases of police excesses surfaced during the tenure of former Bastar IG SRP Kalluri,” a senior bureaucrat said.

“After I took over as head of anti-Naxal operations, I issued instructions that no fake encounters, arrests and surrenders should be made. Strict action will be taken against the guilty. In the last one-and-a-half years, we didn’t receive a single complaint,” special director general (Anti-Naxal Ops), Chhattisgarh, DM Awasthi told Firstpost in an interview.

Police excesses have given Maoists a handle to win villagers to their side on the pretext of giving ‘protection from brutal security forces’. They dub the blacktop roads built to connect villages as a means to ‘provide passage to the corporates by the government to exploit natural resources of Bastar’.

“Even as development activities are being initiated, it’s equally important for the government and all its agencies to win over the people. They must create the confidence in them that the government is sensitive about their problems, and that it will solve them,” summed up PV Ramana, a research fellow at Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) and an expert on LWE.

The series concludes with this article.

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Updated Date: Aug 01, 2018 19:47:01 IST