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HindustanTimes Sat,30 Aug 2014

Red road block: High profile abductions leave officials in a tough spot

Ashok Mishra, Om Prakash, Pradip Maitra, B Vijay Murty, Naveen Ammembala, Snigdhendu Bhattacharya, Priyaranjan Sahu and Ejaz Kaiser, Hindustan Times   May 05, 2012
First Published: 22:38 IST(5/5/2012) | Last Updated: 13:05 IST(6/5/2012)

A bductions in the fast-expanding Red corridor are not new as a strategy. However, two successive high profile kidnappings have deepened the hue of Red terror. Though both Biju Janata Dal MLA Jhina Hikaka and Sukma Collector Alex Paul Menon are back with their families, one thing is obvious - the fear among politicians and officials is palpable. And as a consequence, development and welfare could be seriously affected.

In Chhatisgarh, the fear is being felt in no uncertain terms. "Life isn't the same. Free movement is restricted", said OP Choudhary 2005-batch IAS officer who took over as Dantewada collector in April 2011. He has asked his officers to be more vigilant. "Such abductions dampen the spirit and efficiency. It becomes more challenging for the collector since he needs to move around with his team," Choudhary adds.

In West Bengal, the dread of Maoists is not new. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a former block development officer who worked in Belpahari, West Midnapore, said, "It was like life in jail for the two odd years I had to live (there). I was not allowed to move outside the residential area without proper security, forget visiting villages."

In Odisha's Malkangiri district headquarters, top district officers like collector or SP stay put in their barbwire-fenced premises following government guidelines after the abduction of the then-Malkangiri collector, R Vineel Krishna in February last year.

Officials in Bihar too are playing safe. The abductions have had the impact of sending them into a cocoon and have served to further reduce the government's already low direct contact with the masses, especially in Maoist-hit areas of the state.

Following a government directive, several district magistrates posted in extremist-affected areas, sources said, have virtually stopped touring remote areas. The cascading impact of this avoidance, they said, could be gauged most tellingly in the Maoist-hit districts like Gaya, Aurangabad, Arwal, Rohtas, Kaimur, Jamui, Lakhisarai, Munger, Banka, Sitamarhi, Sheohar and Muzaffarpur.

In Maharashtra's Gadchiroli district, Naxals had already thrown an open challenge to the administration and the democracy.

A recent spate of political killings (at least four political leaders/workers in April alone) by Naxals, followed by mass resignation by office-bearers of local bodies owing to Reds' threat, the people's representatives too feel disenchanted.

In Karnataka, where the Maoist threat is relatively new, the fear psychosis is spread across politicians, officials and even teachers. There is increased fear among politicians belonging to Maoist-affected areas in the Western Ghats. MLAs like CT Ravi, DN Jeevaraj and others are taking extra care while traveling in such areas despite having armed security details provided by the State Intelligence Department.

Fear has spread to other departments, like public works, rural development, and revenue. A village accountant, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, "We are working in the villages and conduct public work on a day-to-day basis. We have already sought protection from police and have written a letter to the government."

Fear stalling work
Development work is likely to slow down as officials fearing Maoist action refrain from going into the interiors.

"If we stay back in our office (fearing) Maoists reprisals, villagers will be the biggest losers. The police has asked us to take extraordinary precautions and keep them updated about our movement in Maoist-hit areas," said Rahul Sharma, deputy commissioner, Gumla, Jharkhand.

In Bihar too, Maoists are holding up welfare work in various districts. "Monitoring of important welfare schemes like the Indira Awaas Yojana (IAY), the housing scheme for the poor, has suffered a setback as officers are reluctant to visit interior villages. This has increased the risk of IAY funds being cornered by unscrupulous persons," said an official aware of goings-on in north Bihar districts like Sheohar and Sitamarhi.

In Gadchiroli, fear is achieving what Maoists want from it. Due to the demoralisation in the district and local administration, a posting in Gadchiroli is considered as a punishment by officials, who would lobby hard to get their transfer orders cancelled.

In Odisha's Malkangiri district, work continues only because of the personal courage of a few officials. The Chintalwada gram panchayat office was blown up by the Maoists two years back and had not been reconstructed; so the panchayat executive office Bijay Kumar Sahu set up a table under a tree to register people for pensions for widows, old people and the disabled.

"This is not the right place to talk," said Sahu when asked about problems he was facing as a government official in a Maoist-affected district like Malkangiri.

Every village under Chintalwada gram panchayat, about 750 km southeast of Bhubaneswar, has a village committee of the rebels which virtually decides how the government sponsored welfare programmes would be implemented.

It is the field level officials like block development officers and tehsildars who have to implement government schemes. And they have come to terms with the Maoists' diktats.

"I have never received any threatening calls from the Maoists," said one officer, who has served in the district for more than five years.

Nonetheless, the field officers get short and crisp notes from the rebels forwarding to them people's grievances relating to welfare schemes.

Maoists want people to come to them with grievances rather than going to the administration. Later, they just get the things done through the same administrative network.

State officials who are hard at work in Maoist-affected areas

Balwant Singh, 34, Collector, Gadchiroli
Balwant Singh, the collector of Malkangiri district, has only served in Maoist affected districts of Odisha since he started as a probationer in Mayurbhanj in 2009.

His first posting was as sub-collector of Baliguda in Kandhamal district the same year as the aftermath of Swami Laxmanananda's killing allegedly by Maoists. "My focus was rehabilitation of riot affected people," he says.

In 2010, Singh moved to Malkangiri district as project director, district rural development agency. The collector, R Vineel Krishna, was abducted by Maoists in February 2011 and during the eight-day hostage crisis, Singh was the face of the district administration. After his release, Krishna was transferred and the government elevated Singh to collector.

After Krishna's abduction, the government made guidelines for officers' movement in Maoist affected areas. "The biggest challenge is restriction on movement," he admits. However, he called it an "occupational hazard" like any other job.  "Without challenges, there is no administration," he said.

Restrictions have made Singh depend on electronic gadgets and a team of officials, civil society, panchayati raj institutions and local youth to implement welfare programmes. The second challenge is the lack of quality human resource. "That's why we aren't getting results," he says.

Singh's most formidable task, however, is to win over people. There are two generations - one, aged, illiterate and the other, children and youth.  Different schemes have to be implemented for different demographics.

Singh said around 25,000 tribal children are residing in tribal welfare hostels in the district. "In education, we are making strides; that is the only hope."

Alok Kumar, 43, Commander, ANF
Alok Kumar, IPS officer belongs to 1994 batch and he is now the Inspector General of Police (IGP) rank officer and serving as Commander of Anti-Naxal Force (ANF), Karnataka.

Kumar, who is famous for his investigative skills, is now heading the ANF force, which comes under the Internal Security Division of the state, and camped at the ANF headquarters based in the Forest Area of Karkala, in Udupi District.

It is known that the South Western Regional Bureau (SWRB) of the Maoist movement has decided to extend its activities from Western Ghats to the Eastern Ghats through Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, to expand the Red Corridor.

Kumar, who busted the Bangalore serial blast case by arresting the kingpins along with the politically powerful Abdul Nasser Madani from Kerala when he was Joint Commissioner of Police Bangalore, is now with a different job of curbing the Maoist menace in Karnataka, which steadily grew since year 2000 in the state. Naxalites are confined to Shimoga, Chikmagalur, Udupi and Dakshina Kannada districts. But now they are extending their activities in three more districts including Hassan, Kodagu and Chamarajanagar.

Kumar told HT that there is a High Power Committee attached with the government  to sort out the Maoist menace including the Secretaries of Home, Forest, Revenue, PWD etc departments. They will chalk out plans to identify problems in the Maoist-affected areas and give solutions.  "But there are several glitches including the Forest Act of the state does not allow roads and other facilities inside the forest areas. So, there is a scope of amendments in such acts, rules and regulations."

Pooja Singhal, 33, Deputy Commissioner, Palamu
A posting in a Maoist-affected region demands an officer to go the extra mile. Nothing can be left to chance. Palamu deputy commissioner, Pooja Singhal, 33, makes that extra effort to keep government machinery going in a district that has been a battleground for Left wing extremists.

Babus in Maoist-affected Jharkhand work slow and prepare for excuses to run home for the weekend. But at Daltonganj, headquarter of Palamu, Singhal is preparing for a surprise operation. Without informing subordinates, she drives to Hurmur village deep in the forests.

Palamu was one of the eight districts in the country selected by the Centre for its pilot anti-Maoist campaign in 2007. However, Maoist threats have never dissuaded this Chandigarh girl from traveling in their strongholds and reaching out to the poor. Singhal strives to take the government's pro-poor schemes to its beneficiaries.

On reaching Hurmur, a village of tribe groups, Singhal visits an anganwari to inspect the mid-day meal scheme. She is disappointed by the sevika, who has failed to take care of the children. She orders her removal.

The paradox of the trip is that the security personnel escorting her left the moment her vehicle moved onto non-metal roads to reach the village.  "They have bigger threats to their lives," she says, trying to play down their misconduct. "We have accepted that the Naxalites will not harm civil administration. But post-Malkangiri collector, Vineel Krishna and Sukma collector, Alex Menon's abduction we are out of the misnomer."

The result? "Already wary field officers now have valid excuses to not visit the countryside, thereby making neglected areas more vulnerable to neglect."

Abhishek Krishna, 32, Collector, Gadchiroli
The district collector of Maoist-affected Gachiroli, Abhishek Krishna, has his task - to ensure that the administration reaches out to the last man in the society - cut out for him.

Krishna, the IAS batchmate of Sukma collector Alex Paul Menon, who was kidnapped and released by Maoists after 12 days in captivity on Thursday, has been working in tribal areas in Maharashtra since he joined the elite service in 2006.

The son of a university teacher, Krishna wanted to the join the civil service to work for the upliftment of the poor and always laid stress on the importance of education and healthcare.

"After Alex's kidnapping, my family and police prevent me to go to interior areas without proper security," said Krishna. His official residence now resembles a police chhaoni given the presence of heavily-armed security following the Chhattisgarh development. The Maoist threat notwithstanding, Krishna believes in doing his work, win the trust of tribals to ensure development.

During his over-two-year stint as Gondia zilla parishad CEO, Krishna was instrumental in ensuring that every school in the district has basic facilities such as clean drinking water, toilet, electricity and proper building.

When a contractor was reluctant to undertake the work of school buildings of Murkutdoh, Dingori and Murkutdoh (Khed) in Maoist-hit Salekasa region in Gondia, Krishna went there on a motorcycle to persuade him and got the work completed before schedule.

Krishna wants to repeat his Gondia experience in Gadchiroli.


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