Like finicky goldsmiths, six workers used their hammers gently, perched on top of the iron skeleton of a bridge they are building just outside Kashmir's capital.
It has been 18 years in the making.
For local residents, the bridge, as old as Kashmir's militancy, is an eloquent statement on how insurgencies have become an excuse for misgovernance in India. Across the country's militancy-wracked regions, even that – a bridge that never gets built -- would be considered a luxury. Functional schools, medical facilities, even police stations, just do not exist in vast, trouble-torn regions and in many areas, the state and its symbols have long become invisible. In many areas, when rapes and murders take place, people go to militants for justice, not courts.
In Budgam in Kashmir, citizens got tired of waiting for the bridge and pooled money to build a foot bridge for themselves. Still, life is difficult.
"In the rains, this whole area is flooded with Jhelum water. We have to wade through it. When it is not raining, there is so much dust on this mud road that our children fall sick," said shopkeeper Ghulam Nabi, wearing a green surgical mask to avoid the dust.
"In the winters, they never come to clear the snow, we have to do it ourselves," he said. "They just do not bother. It is as if humans do not live here at all."
In Manipur, residents of the state capital Imphal have not had piped municipality water in their taps for decades – they buy water from tankers every few days. The simplest of tasks like photocopying papers, or extracting a tooth at a dentist's, can meet with long delays because of the crippling power shortages. Unemployment runs so deep that graduates and postgraduates in Imphal run cycle rickshaws, and cover their faces with masks out of shame. Many of them turn to the underground because of its macho image – and because it has become, simply, a crucial job opportunity.
"Insurgency creates problems for governance, but that does not mean it becomes an alibi for misgovernance," said Yumnam Joykumar, the Manipur director-general of police.
But that is exactly what has happened, as HT found out in travels across the states of J&K, Manipur, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Nagaland, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa.
"Apart from the police, people in most villages here have never seen a government official in their lives," said Jeevan Masih Topno, munda or headman of the Digha village in Jharkhand's dense Saranda forest. The forest is the nerve centre of Naxalite activities in India – the all-powerful Central Committee made it home after 2000, because government officials never go there and even police do not venture there after sundown.
Across the areas of Naxal influence in Andhra Pradesh along the Nallamala forests in the Telangana belt, deep into the border areas touching Chattisgarh and Orissa, the squalor is spilling on to the highways.
Broken roads, blown up buildings, poor people squatting on roadsides and women of the Koya Adivasi tribe raising blockades on the roads demanding five rupees from each passing vehicle is a common sight in the Khamam, Dantewada and Bargarh areas.
"Nearly 80 per cent of the rural households in Bastar are without electricity, toilets and clean drinking water. In the name of fighting Naxalites, the state government is cleverly able to divert attention from its failures," said social activist Pradeep Kumar.
Governments deny the allegations.
"NGOs and other activists enjoy the liberty of irresponsible statements. The fact is that the Chattisgarh government has managed to win back Bastar from the Naxalites," said state Home Minister Ram Vichar Netam. "There were days when a war-like situation existed there, and we will now concentrate on development."
The situation is so dismal that out of 31,900 posts of Chhattisgarh teachers sanctioned by the central government from 2001 to 2005, more than 22,200 posts were not filled.
Seventeen years ago, local officials began to computerize land records – the primary source of rural litigation and hostility. The government has still not been able to complete the process.
In Jharkhand, up to 76 per cent of patients left many hospitals against medical advice between 2001 and 2006 because they were fed up of sub-standard medicines, and poor equipment and services. In many state hospitals, major surgeries like Caesarean operations and Appendicitis were performed without anaesthetists, the Comptroller and Auditor-General said.
"We have a terrible shortage of staff – we are working on 50 per cent of strength at all levels," said Jharkhand Chief Secretary AK Chugh.
In several states, top officials privately admit there is a nexus between militants and government officials. Now some citizens are gathering courage to speak out as well.
Eight of the nine public protests staged by citizens in Imphal last month were against this nexus. And in the Ukhrul district bordering Myanmar – the unquestioned hub of the NSCN (IM) rebel group, some youth are, for the first time, raising noises related to governance.
"Recently we closed down the PWD office, but the underground forcibly reopened it. There must be some collaboration," said Tuithing Zingkhai, 27, president of the Young Raphei Conference.
"If the officials related with development were doing their jobs, our jobs would be easier," police officer Shailendra Prasad Burnwal said in Ghatsila in Jharkhand, close to the border with West Bengal. "The state government machinery is almost defunct. At the ground level, officials who should implement government schemes go only on paper."
So more than 1,020 schools in Jharkhand have no buildings, 3,562 schools have no drinking water facilities, 17,523 schools have no toilets, and 2,965 schools have no electricity. A top state official said Jharkhand needs investments of up to Rs 12,000 crore a year -- for 51 years – to match India's development averages.
"You have politicians blaming the insurgency for everything. Insurgency is a hole in the bucket. But in this leaking bucket, there are many other leaks and they are all blamed on the insurgents," said Pradeep Phanjoubam, editor of the Imphal Free Press newspaper.
Tomorrow: How to make a militant