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.
Development in Maoist-infested districts in Chhattisgarh is not just about roads, bridges, educational institutions or hospitals.
In this region, the government has actively intervened to develop infrastructure. Further, there are several villages across the seven Maoist-affected districts of Bastar division that have made use of government schemes to give themselves a push into the future. The initiatives undertaken by such villages may be on a smaller scale, but they are significant as this inventiveness gave these remote tribal villages a distinct identity.
Chitaloor in Bakavand sub-division in Bastar district is one such tribal village with a population of nearly 2,000 people.
While travelling from Jagdalpur to Dantewada district, I came to know about this village while having tea by a roadside dhaba (eatery).
The location of the village, on the banks of river Indravati, interested me the most. Indravati, the lifeline of the tribal belt in Bastar, originates in Odisha, flows through different districts of Bastar division, emerges as one of the biggest waterfalls of India — the Chitrakot waterfalls (also known as Niagara falls of India due to its horseshoe shape) — and finally meets the river Godavari in Maharashtra.
Another aspect that fascinated me about this region was the fact that the banks of the Indravati river and Maoist strongholds are interconnected. But, it doesn’t mean that both the banks of the river are LWE affected. There are certain pockets on the river bank that are dominated by the Maoists.
We got off the Bastar-Dantewada highway and took the side road forking from it to drive towards Chitaloor. Unlike Palnar, Geedam or Awapalli, Chitaloor and many other villages in Bastar district have been free from Maoist influence for some time now. But these villages continue to be extremely underdeveloped.
In fact, barring a few areas like Darbha Ghati, Kanger valley, Kotmasar, etc., where some of the deadliest Maoist attacks have taken place in recent times (and continue to be a command division of the Maoists), Bastar district almost became Naxal-free after it got bifurcated into two new districts — Dakshin Bastar Dantewada and Kanker in 1998. After the formation of Chhattisgarh state in 2000, Bastar again got divided and Narayanpur and Kondagaon districts were carved out of it. Since 2003, only stray Maoist incidents have occurred in Jagdalpur and neighbouring areas.
We reached Chitaloor after driving through a narrow serpentine road. On one side there was a forest with trees like saal, mahua among other varieties and on the other side there was a large swathe of agricultural land owned by several farmers.
Standing in the midst of the farmland where vegetables were being grown, I spotted large solar panels in a row.
Instead of using traditional diesel-operated pumps, the farmers here have adopted an innovative method to irrigate their fields—by using solar-based pumps to draw water from the adjoining Indravati river. I counted 22 such solar panels along the bank of the Indravati.
But, how can the poor tribal farmers of an interior village afford to install expensive solar panels?
After enquiring with the local farmers, I found that the price of each solar panel was Rs 3 lakh.
“We’ve got rid of diesel-operated pumps as diesel is expensive and we have to repair it several times. Maintenance of diesel pumps is a costly affair. These solar-based pumps are perfect. I paid Rs 10,000 and state government paid the rest Rs 2.90 lakh as a subsidy and installed it here,” Mansaivar, a tribal farmer told Firstpost, who at present has sown vegetables in his field.
A couple of other farmers from nearby fields joined our discussion. Many of them, however, couldn’t speak Hindi.
They were aware of the pollution caused by diesel pumps.
“Diesel pumps se pradushan bhi hota thaa, isliye ise badal diya gaya (Diesel pumps have been replaced as it caused pollution),” another farmer said.
“There are 30 applications for solar-based pumps in pipeline and mine is one of those. Farmers in Chitaloor are benefitting from such pumps,” said village panch (council member) Phuleshwar Kashyap.
The animated discussion about solar versus diesel pumps did not give away the fact that not too long ago, the entire region used to be under a real Maoist threat.
I veered the conversation to Naxal influence on the village.
Without using the word ‘Naxal’ or ‘Maoist’, another villager said, “Woh log nahi aate hain. Aate bhi honge to pata nahi chalta. Par raat ko kabhi kabhi police aur jawan khet mein gasht karte hain aur poochte hain (Those people don’t come. Even if they come, we don’t know. But police and jawans of the security force patrol the fields and inquire about them).”
This is all they had to say about Naxals. Soon, the farmers were enthusiastically talking about the crops they had sown in the season and led me into the fields to take a look.
It seemed that LWE was a thing of the past in this village.
With nearly 360 houses, Chitaloor got a small post office some three decades back but there was no road to connect it with the main road or district headquarters Jagdalpur. But in the last five years, a high school, a primary health centre, branch of a public sector bank and an anganwadi centre have come up.
“In the last three years, we have got a road. It has immensely helped us, as now we can take our produce to the market on a motorcycle or tempo. Life has now become easier and we’re also getting medical facilities at the PHC,” a farmer said.
With village literacy rate at 37.2 percent, almost all the girls go to school in this hamlet. This will certainly lead to an increase the present female literacy rate, which is at a meagre 13.8 percent.
“I’m in Class 9 and my sister is in Class 2. We go to school together. During vacations, I assist my parents in the field with my younger sister,” said 14-year-old Usha, daughter of Mansaivar.
She is clearly oblivious of the Naxal problem that has transformed the otherwise peaceful Bastar into a terror hub.
I leave the village with hope in my heart for the younger generation that is looking towards a brighter future, unlike villages where life still remains under the shadow of the gun.
Next up: On my way back from Chitaloor, I came to know that a large haul of IEDs and explosives have been unearthed at Narayanpur. My cab driver Umashankar remarked, “Sir ye Bastar baarood ki dher par baitha hai (Bastar is sitting on a keg of explosives)”. He was not the first to make such a remark. It is a widely held belief about Bastar – both locally and in the power corridors further afield. It made me inquisitive to find out how far this comment is true.
News credit : Firstpost