The road was paved with bullets. Stretching from Konta to Sukma, across Chhattisgarh’s Maoist heartland, it was the centrepiece of the Indian government’s efforts to transform the lives of the region’s adivasis and break their links with the insurgents. Local contractors refused to take on the work, fearing for their lives and the protection-rackets run by the Maoists. For 15 years, the Central Reserve Police Force stood along the road, braving ambushes and attacks on guard workers.
In the midst of the Maoist killing fields, the government built a skill city, an education hub, a multispeciality hospital and also set up a call centre. A one-time Maoist stronghold, Palnar turned into a ‘digital village’, hooked up to the world.
But November’s elections to the Chhattisgarh assembly have called into question the government’s “clear-hold-and-build” counter-insurgency paradigm that involves taking back an area from insurgents, keeping them away from it and winning the confidence of the locals.
The Bharatiya Janata Party made development works the main plank of its campaign—but of the 12 seats in the adivasi-dominated Bastar, the BJP won one, and lost all 14 in Surguja. The lesson is clear: New Delhi needs to think hard about its counter-insurgency model. Part of the problem is that what passes for development hasn’t done a lot for adivasis, despite the huge sums of money that have been spent. Roads have been built to connect districts and blocks, which only helps the villages within a periphery of 10km or so from the local headquarters. While there is an education hub and a call-centre at Jawanga village in Geedam block, other villages such as Turmrigunda, Cherpal and Kaurgaon remain inaccessible.
It’s widely known that road-building businesses are the big beneficiaries of New Delhi’s open-handed spending: a recent Comptroller and Auditor General report found ₹4,600-crore irregularities in e-tendering for work contracts. For Bastar’s adivasis, development hasn’t translated into a better life. In towns such as Jagdalpur and Dantewada, government spending has sparked something of a construction boom---magnificent new homes and commercial buildings have mushroomed over the years. In its third term, the Raman Singh government initiated large-scale development and infrastructure works. It also offered rice at Re 1 a kg to the tribal communities. The measures, however, didn’t reach the adivasis in Bastar, fanning resentment against the ruling BJP. Maoists cashed-in on the anger to win over the local youth.
“Tribals want development," says BPS Netam, the president of the Chhattisgarh Sarv Adivasi Samaj, “but instead they’re getting construction." “What about basic amenities? Unemployment and lack of education are pushing tribal youth towards Maoism, but if an adivasi complains, he is branded a Maoist.” In the villages, schools are without teachers and hospitals without doctors. In 2015, the state government closed 2,918 schools, including 782 in Bastar, under a ‘school rationalisation programme’—a byproduct of a chronic shortage of teachers. Students who walked four kilometres to school now trek up to 12km in the state where public transport is missing in rural areas.
The 15th Sarv Siksha Abhiyaan’s review report says 58.3% adivasi children remain out of school, which means they have little chance of capitalising on the new opportunities in the towns.
Several Bastar villages do not have primary health centres either. From Dudepalli and Kerpe in the Bhopalpatnam block, the nearest medical help is 10km away.
In a report auditing healthcare system for the 2012-17 period, CAG found the state was 89% short of its sanctioned strength of doctors and 34% short of nurses. Even basic medicines were in short supply, says the report tabled in the assembly in January 2019. Four of 10 children in the Kuwakonda and Katekalyan blocks, government data show, are malnourished—perhaps the most graphic illustration of how the government’s development drive has failed Chhattisgarh’s adivasis.
Maoist hubs, such as Basaguda, Jagargunda and Chintalnar villages, still don’t have access to clean drinking water or electricity, let alone education or healthcare. Adivasis defied a Maoist election boycott to participate in the assembly election. Bastar voter turnout was 83.64%, against 76.35% for the state, making it clear that the adivasis want to participate in policy-making. But the development blueprint rarely acknowledges their concerns: forests have severely degraded, hurting incomes; land is incapable of sustaining agriculture; water sources that have depleted and the lack of basic government services. British anthropologist Verrier Elwin, an authority on the Gonds and Baigas of Central India, warned that forcing “improvement on very simple people without at the same time having an adequate programme of development to make their lives fuller, richer and happier can be disastrous”.
For the most part, Indians are unaware of the long history of adivasi resistance to the appropriation of their resources, both the colonial era and after independence. Pravir Chandra Bhanj Deo, Bastar’s hereditary raja, wanted a different model of development. His ideas became immensely popular with adivasis, but drew the wrath of the government. In March, 1966, 36–year-old Deo was killed in his Jagdalpur palace by the Indian police for “waging war against the state”. That battle, in some senses, is going on—with the Kalashnikov replacing traditional adivasi weapons.
Even today, adivasis resist big infrastructure development projects, arguing that their land is taken away but they don’t benefit. Farms and water in villages adjoining the Bailadila mines, for example, have been contaminated with effluents and red oxide turning the land barren. “Land is taken away in the name of development and acquired without the consent of gram sabhas,” says Netam. “There is a gap between the type of development the government has done and the kind the tribals need,” says Archana Prasad, a professor with Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of Social Sciences. “Development should be democratic and shouldn’t be thrust upon tribals.”
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