As soon as you enter the thick jungles of Dantewada – 400 kilometres from Chhattisgarh's capital Raipur — children not older than 10 years seek your attention. Barefoot, tribal malnourished boys and girls have blocked our road with tree branches.
"They want us to pay a rupee or two. They need the money to celebrate the mango festival," Poshan Shaao, the
driver of our vehicle, tells us. We do as he tells us and are allowed to proceed.
On a 40-kilometre stretch between Sukma and Dornapal, a Maoist stronghold in Dantewada, vehicles are stopped at more than 30 places and passengers made to pay "tax".
Apart from this mandatory imposition, the stretch is quiet — with dense forests and hills on both sides.
Take a right turn from Dornapal and you head towards the Chintalnar forests, where more than 200 Maoists massacred 76 security personnel on April 6.
Chintalnar is another 50 kilometres inside the forests from Dornapal. The road is pathetic. There is no human habitation. All you see every 20 kilometres are camps of the Central Reserve Police Force's (CRPF) 62nd battalion.
"It's a dangerous stretch, saheb. Naxals must have laid landmines at several places for security forces. But you need not worry. They would know that you are from the media," says Poshan.
Earlier, the government didn't bother to carry out any development here, now the Maoists don't want it. They've destroyed all government buildings, roads and mobile towers.
For the Naxalites it is a war. But the government, too, is prepared. It has deployed 24 battalions in Chhattisgarh — 14 from CRPF, and five each from the Border Security Force and the Indo Tibetan Border Police. But CRPF bosses say another 8-10 battalions are needed for the security forces to dominate.
Those on the ground agree.
Says Deputy Commandant Satwant Yadav, heading a company of CRPF's 62nd battalion at Kanker Lanka: "The distance between two CRPF camps in the jungles is as much as 30 kilometres. You can't expect reinforcements to reach you in time."
The forces here work in the face of adverse conditions — no proper housing, no clean drinking water. But, for the moment, that's not bothering them. They are still shocked over the loss of 75 colleagues last week.
"Many of them were friends, some from my village in Ghazipur, Uttar Pradesh. We were sent to help them. But by 10 am it was all over," says Prahlad Dubey, a CRPF constable posted at Chintagupha, seven kilometres from the site of the massacre.
The battalion Dubey is part of moved to these jungles last year from Arah in Bihar.
The security personnel here haven't taken kindly to the remarks made by senior army officials in Delhi after the ambush.
"What do they mean when they say those who were killed had not been trained by the Army? Even three days after the incident, no one has bothered to send extra forces," said a livid jawan at the Chintagupha post.
For them, the Naxal threat is real and constant.
"On January 1, the Naxalites planted a bomb in the hand-pump from where we fetch drinking water from outside the base.
Fortunately, the bomb went off on its own and we had a close shave," says Amarjit Singh, a jawan at Chintagupha.
The soldiers they they want more powers to question the locals.
"It will immediately become a human rights issue. How about the human rights of those killed by the Naxals on Tuesday?" asks a jawan.
If the Naxals don't get us, disease will, says a jawan. A soldier died of malaria last month without timely medical help.
Brain fever, too, is widespread.
"Even if we wanted to take him to the hospital, the Naxals would have blown our vehicle off," says Lakhwinder Singh, posted at Chintagupha.
Can't they use the mine-proof vehicle stationed at the CRPF post? "It is non-functional. Had the vehicles been in order, we might not have lost so many men," said a jawan.
In Dornapal, the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) guards a Selwa Judum camp where more than 15,000 people who fled 600 villages in the region, live. Complains Dinesh Sharma of the SSB platoon posted at the camp in Dornapal, "There is no water, no light, no proper fencing and we are exposed to Naxals from all sides."
To win the war against Maoists, the CRPF and the state police need to coordinate better, say top officials.
The Maoists have reached as close as 70 kilometres from Raipur, says a senior intelligence official of the state police.
"Their objective is to take control of all mineral-rich areas," he adds.
The preparedness of the Maoists is impressive, says senior Chhattisgarh Indian Police Service officer G P Singh: "They are trained in jungle warfare. Their intelligence network is better. Before an operation they comb every tree and count every branch."
The State needs to find a way to counter this.