If Maoists hate something as much as security forces and their informers, it is roads that bring people in uniform to their doorstep. Security personnel know this and are cautious, yet Maoists in Chhattisgarh served a chilling reminder of their strike capabilities on March 11 — killing 12 CRPF troopers as well as stalling work on a crucial road.
Around 9.10am that Saturday, Maoists ambushed troopers of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) road opening party (ROP) in Bastar region’s Sukma, one of the worst left wing extremism-affected districts in India.
This is the single largest casualty the ROP has suffered in Chhattisgarh. The troopers killed were guarding road construction work on the Injiram-Bheji stretch inside Bastar. This is the road that Chhattisgarh government believes will break the back of Maoists in the region.
“Security forces will move with ease in the area after this road is built and this is troubling the Maoists. We are entering their core through this road,” said DM Awasthi, special director general of police (anti-Maoist operations).
Awasthi added, “This road will be in main area of Maoists, which could spell the end for them, while providing connectivity to many villages and bringing development.”
After the ambush on the road stretch, the CRPF licked its wounds in private, before sending ROP troopers back on the road 10 days later. Work resumed.
“Road to poora banega aur hum hi banvayienge… chahe dus nahin, bees shaheed ho jayen (The road will be built and we will build it… even if 20 are martyred),” said CRPF assistant sub-inspector Pawan Kumar. He led a ROP team to the ambush site to ensure work on the road resumed.
The Injiram-Bheji road is a 20-km stretch the Chhattisgarh government is keen on completing. The road connects Bheji village, considered a Maoist turf, to National Highway 30. “Maoists are attacking us in frustration. Inka jungle raaj khatam karna hai iss road ko banaake (we have to end their lawless reign by building this road),” said Kumar, casting his eye across bushes in the radius of 100m to 500m from the construction site.
Most of his colleagues are not to be seen. Kumar knows they are in the bushes, keeping an eye on each and every movement.
Kumar has constable Syed Yusuf for company. Yusuf said, “Nothing can stop us now. This road will be built.” He insisted the death of his ROP colleagues would not be in vain.
Roads in Chhattisgarh’s Maoist hotbeds are never built without the protective cover provided by the ROP. Over the years, the state government has built around 300km of roads crisscrossing Bastar’s Maoist hotbeds with ROP support.
According to Awasthi, an average of three to four security personnel are killed in a month and about a dozen injured in providing security to under construction or constructed roads in Bastar.
Around 120 ROP troopers are protecting the Injiram-Bheji road. Awasthi said around 5,000 security personnel are on duty across Bastar and among them are more than 30 ROPs.
The CRPF’s ROPs are drawn from among the force and a switch to search teams is made depending on operational assessment.
The Injiram-Bheji ambush has forced a strategy rethink. “We have changed our strategy and the situation is under control. The construction work restarted within 10 days, which is commendable,” said Awasthi.
CRPF troops are stationed in four camps in the area. The road will be the game changer, giving security forces swift access to remote locations and aid combing operations. Maoists know this and Injiram-Bheji will remain on their radar. Authorities expect work on the road to be completed in about a year.
Of the 20 km stretch, the state’s public works department built 7 km four years ago before abandoning work because no contractor was willing to take up the project. Now, Chhattisgarh Police Housing Corporation Limited (CPHCL) has taken charge of the work. “A local contractor has dared to start the work,” said a young CPHCL engineer at the ambush site.
To prevent Maoists from digging up the road to plant landmines, the CPHCL is making the stretch a concrete cement (CC) one instead of a damur (tar) one. “A CC road is costlier than a damur road but it is more difficult to dig. We know that Maoists will want to plant bombs,” said the engineer.
Contractor Pramod, who has taken up the road work, told HT, “I know I am on the hit list of Maoists, but the situation will change after the road is built.” Getting work done, however, is not easy. “No one wants to come here and work. I have more than 200 staff here and all of them are from Uttar Pradesh. I have to pay them more than the usual rate,” Pramod added.