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.
It was already quarter past seven. The thick forest at Darbha Ghati in Bastar, Chhattisgarh, wore an ethereal look in the soft glow of the setting sun. But my heart was racing faster than the fall of dusk. Jagdalpur town was still 38 km. From my experience of reporting in this area, it was dangerous to be travelling after sundown.
The eerie silence all around, the darkening forest, the complete absence of habitation, and an out-of-network-area mobile phone were not the best ingredients for safe travel in this Maoist hotbed.
Umashankar, the cab driver, and I were the only sign of life on the road. A little more than an hour ago we had left Jhiram Ghati which brought uneasy memories. In one of the bloodiest Maoist attacks, 31 people, including top Congress leaders of Chhattisgarh, were killed there in May 2013.
Eager to reach the safety of Jagdalpur, I asked Umashankar how long it would take to reach the town, trying to sound casual. But Umashankar read my mind like an open book. He came straight to the point: “Sir, ab yahan pahele jaisa aatank nahi hai. Aaj aap Dantewada, Kanker ya Sukma shaher tak, kabhi bhi jaa sakte hain. Ab too sadke bhi badhiya hai, koi dikkat nahi hogi (Sir, this area is not terror-infested anymore. Now you can go to Dantewada, Kanker or Sukma town anytime. The roads are also very good, there won’t be any problem).”
Home to a number of different tribal groups with a variety of languages and dialects, Bastar is the nerve centre of Left Wing Extremism (LWE) in India known for the vice-like grip of the Maoists and their frequent and ferocious attacks on security forces. Their instant justice system ‘Jan Adalat’ (akin to a kangaroo court) meted out especially to tribals suspected to be police informers, is famed for its brutality and helps perpetuate the rule of outlaw by extreme fear.
Bastar used to be the largest district in the country till it was broken down into seven parts for easier administration. Even now, the Bastar division — the southernmost region of the state — is bigger in terms of area (39,117 sq km) than some states such as Kerala (38,863 sq km).
Ever since the Maoist narrative overtook every other identity of the region, what got lost in the bargain were not only valuable human lives but an entire culture of a people living in nature’s lap and revering it and the immense potential of the area to prosper given its unparalleled wealth of natural resources including precious minerals.
That’s the Bastar I remember and recall but no longer. Umashankar was right. Since my last visit to Bastar in 2013, both the Bastar division and the district have undergone a paradigm change. We reached Jagdalpur within the hour, without incident and here a bigger surprise was waiting for me. Jagdalpur town — the district headquarters of Bastar — was alive and bustling well past 8 pm as we drove in. Food joints, ice cream parlours, tea stalls and departmental stores were buzzing with people and, I was told, remain open till 11 pm.
This was unimaginable a few years ago.
Of course, the evening humdrum in no way suggests the eradication of Maoism in Bastar. What it does indicate is that despite the threat, people have lives to live and they have started to do so at least in some parts of Bastar. It indicates that the “development offensive” of the central and state governments — wherein security forces cordon off an area to allow the civic administration to double down on creating public infrastructure while keeping the Maoists at bay — is at last beginning to pay off. And consequently, the area of influence of Maoists is shrinking, slowly but surely.
This idea of quick, concerted and concentrated development was initiated in 2011 by Jairam Ramesh, rural development minister in the Manmohan Singh government. In August that year, the CRPF surprised the Maoists with a rare offensive during the monsoon to gain substantial control over Saranda (in the Paschimi Singhbum district of Jharkhand). That year, for the first time in more than a decade, the national flag was hoisted in Saranda on 15 August.
Ramesh saw an opportunity to give this operational success of the security forces a ring of permanence. The result was what was then called the Saranda Development Plan (SDP). In essence, it entailed giving the Saranda area an impermeable ring of security cover, a sort of insurance against the Maoists. This would allow the Centre, state and district administrations to create developmental infrastructure so sorely missed by the tribals and so ably denied them by state apathy and Maoist self-perpetuation.
The SDP initially showed a lot of promise as Ramesh drove it personally. Then it stuttered and sputtered in the face of inevitable administrative inefficiencies.
Thankfully, the Narendra Modi government picked up the threads of the Saranda development model, in spirit, if not in nomenclature. On the one hand, it intensified the security operations against Maoists much more than P Chidambaram’s much-talked-about Operation Greenhunt and on the other stepped up development activity in the “free zones” giving the tribals an option to choose between the terror-and-stagnation of Maoism and the fruits of a semblance of development.
Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Hansraj Gangaram Ahir, underscored this model of development in a written reply in the Lok Sabha in March 2018: “The government has a multi-pronged strategy to deal with Left Wing Extremism which involves security-related measures, developmental interventions and ensuring rights and entitlements of local communities etc. The strategy has resulted in an overall improvement of the security situation in terms of reduction in violence and of the geographical spread of Left Wing Extremism thereby creating conditions that are conducive for speedy development work.”
Rifles and Roads
But Bastar is different from Saranda. It is one thing to take development to a village declared free of LWE and quite another to build infrastructure for a village that exists under the cloud of Maoist terror where the threat to villagers as well as government workers is immense. That is very much the case with villages in the seven districts of Bastar that are still Maoist hotbeds.
Besides being affected by LWE, these seven districts of the Bastar division also figure among the most backward in the country as per the government’s list of 115 ‘aspirational districts.’ That is why roads, such as the one described at the beginning, connecting Jagdalpur to other Maoist-hit districts of Dantewada, Sukma, Bijapur, Kondagaon, Kanker and Narayanpur are worthy of notice.
As I drove further into the interiors over the next ten days, it became evident that roads are playing the biggest role in connecting the population with the mainstream. It is through these roads that development is reaching the villages in the Maoist stronghold; these roads are also taking the villagers to the facilities that they badly need, such as hospitals, administration, educational institutions and markets.
The roads have even boosted the confidence of people attempting to visit any of these villages in the Maoist territory.
No wonder, the biggest threat to the Maoists is not only the rifle-toting security personnel but roads that are sneaking up around them and opening up options to the tribals of a more permanent nature.
However, the nation had to pay a heavy price to build these roads in this hostile territory. A large number of Central Reserve Paramilitary Force (CRPF) jawans, policemen and construction workers were killed by Maoists during the building of these roads. A memorial arch – the ‘Shaheed Smriti Dwar’ — on the Bijapur-Basaguda road in Bijapur district to commemorate the CRPF jawans who laid their lives protecting this road from the Maoists is a reminder of the grim realities of road-building activity in Bastar.
“There has been a rapid overall development across Bastar division in the last five years and as a result, the Maoists have been pushed back considerably. You’ll find even roadside dhabhas (eateries) operating at night without any fear. Our children are now able to crack Civil Services examination and IIT entrance test. Now Bastar has rail connectivity and an airport,” Dilip Wasnikar, Bastar commissioner, told Firstpost.
Under Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojna (PMGSY), 3,998 km of roads have been built in the last five years. “There has been a record construction of roads under PMGSY. Today, we’ve 8,588 km of roads across Bastar division connecting remote villages with district headquarters, which is one of the biggest achievements of the government. This has helped tribal villagers to have better access to day-to-day facilities,” he pointed out.
Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways, Nitin Gadkari had announced in Raipur in January 2015 that the government would build 7,294 km of road in Naxal-affected areas of the country under Road Requirement Plan (RRP). These are the main roads that connect heavily affected areas like Dantewada to Sukma, etc. “Out of a total 451 km of 14 highways and roads under RRP in Bastar, to which CRPF is providing security, 244 km stretch has been completed,” a CRPF official said.
Development Rides on the Back of Roads
On my drive through the area, besides good roads, newly constructed educational institutions, hospitals, primary health centres, etc. were visible as telltale signs of efforts being made by the government. Besides central government schemes, the Chhattisgarh government as part of its development agenda in the last five years has set up nine additional government colleges including those for engineering and medical studies, two civil hospitals, 101 Ayurvedic hospitals, 140 AYUSH centres, eight primary health centres, 13 sub-health centres, 41 higher secondary schools and 58 high schools in Bastar division. Skill-development hubs, a nursing training college and free coaching institutes for civil services, IIT joint entrance and other competitive examinations have also come up.
A lead bank report shows Bastar division has witnessed the opening of 112 new bank branches and 115 ATMs between 2013 and 2018. Mobile network connectivity used to be a nightmare a decade back. It had also proved a major handicap both for the police and security force personnel operating in the jungle terrain of Bastar. To improve connectivity, 225 new mobile towers have been erected taking the count to 551. However, for any outsider not having a local connection, it is still a difficult task to get a signal on phone, especially while on the move.
“Despite obstacles, development has been taking place in LWE-hit districts. Roads especially have helped in pushing back Maoists from large areas. People are now responding positively towards development,” DM Awasthi, chief of Anti-Naxal operations in Chhattisgarh told Firstpost.
Ramesh Nayyar, a veteran Raipur-based journalist seconded that. “The government’s education scheme ‘Prayas’ has helped a large number of tribal children to get educated. The opening of schools, colleges and professional institutes in this tribal belt which otherwise has become infamous for Naxalism, has developed inquisitiveness among tribals towards knowledge. I hope roads and development will bring back teachers in many village schools who have left due to Maoist terror, as the extremists burn schools,” he told Firstpost.
Both Wasnikar and Awasthi give credit of this rapid development to former chief secretary Vivek Dhand, who recently retired from the topmost post. “Dhand, like a CEO of the state, had ensured speedy implementation of development plans for Bastar. He used to directly interact with contractors to know about the progress of road construction in volatile regions and motivated all those working in these projects,” said Awasthi.
Added Wasnikar, “Because Dhand had also served as Bastar commissioner in the past, he was well aware of the issues plaguing the entire division. He had been at the helm of development activities that took place in the last three and half years, right from roads to institutions.”
For decades, due to a combination of reasons — the rough terrain of Bastar, Maoist terror and political apathy — this region was deprived of rail connectivity. The only way to reach Bastar or move across the 39,117 sq km area was by roads whose deplorable condition was unspeakable. Now, besides the existing rail route from Jagdalpur to Visakhapatnam, two upcoming passenger train routes within the division — from Jagdalpur and Dalli-Rajhara to Bhanupratapur — would prove to be a boon for the locals.
“The construction of a 350 km railway track is in progress between Dalli-Rajhara and Rowghat – nearly 60 km of which has already been in spite of much opposition from LWE. Trains have started plying on that short stretch, but we are confident of getting through up to Rowghat within a short time. Three companies of CRPF are securing the track and providing protection to workers and machines,” a senior official of South East Central Railway said.
“There’s a route from Durg to Dalli-Rajhara for iron ore transportation. Raipur to Durg is already connected. Gradually, we’ll complete an entire stretch from Raipur to Jagdalpur via Dalli-Rajhara for passenger trains too,” the official said.
Dalli-Rajhara is one of the most important iron ore mines in the country and is the captive mine feeding the Bhilai Steel Plant. Establishing connectivity to Dalli-Rajhara, as also other towns in this mineral-rich region, cannot be overstated.
However, one vital infrastructure that really surprised me even in the midst of all this feel-good development work is the airport at Jagdalpur. It was inaugurated and became operational on 14 June.
Both rail and air route will act complementary to the upcoming 3-mpta capacity steel manufacturing project at Nagarnar, 20-km from Jagdalpur. It is not only the first greenfield integrated steel plant in this Maoist-infested tribal belt but also the National Mineral Development Corporation’s (NMDC) first steel plant as part of its diversification, value addition and forward integration programme. Till date, NMDC has been involved in the mining of iron ore at Bailadila in Bastar. It is expected to go on stream in December.
“Nagarnar Steel Plant will help in large-scale employment generation in Bastar and also boost the local economy,” said Bastar district collector Dhananjay Dewangan.
“The speedy development that has taken place in last four-five years is no match to what happened in the last 30 years. Bastar is changing,” remarked Jagdalpur-based businessman Lakhan Sao.
Yes, Bastar is changing. For the first time, the Maoists are being firmly pushed back, security forces are tasting more successes and the administration is making inroads into villages and tribals are getting their first taste of basic needs. In the rest of my despatches in this series of ground reports from Bastar, I will examine how this brush with the world outside is changing the tribals and their lives.
First up will be a close-up of Palnar, a small hamlet in Dantewada, one of the most volatile districts in Bastar division. Not too long ago, a villager needed permission from Maoist cadre to leave the village, and no outsider was allowed without their permission.
When I reached Palnar, I found young boys of the village enjoying a show on Nat Geo channel on big screen, public LED. The village is changing, and how…