The talk of thousands of crores of development programmes and legislations to improve their lot puzzles Pitam Mukka, 51, a tribal hailing from Kavalnar, near Pharaspal in Dantewada (Pharaspal is the native village of senior Congress leader Mahendra Karma who was killed by Maoists last week).
Mukka used to farm on his small piece of land and collected minor forest produce — a lifeline for thousands like him in the Bastar forests. Life was simple.
“But that was during the 90s. Now I work as a daily wage contract worker. If there’s no work, I have to struggle to feed my family of six,” he says.
Mukka’s story is typical to Bastar where thousands of tribals feel deprived in their own land, often attributed to the excesses by private moneylenders or junior government functionaries in the revenue and forest departments.
It was those years — the 90s when the Maoists or Naxals, as they are known, set up their activities in Chhattisgarh, which was then part of Madhya Pradesh.
The Maoists capitalised on the lopsided governance structure and gained on the growing discontent to organise the people against the government of the day.
Government intervention through laws like the Forest Rights Act 2006 ensuring right over land to the tribals came at least ten years late for people such as Mukka who were by then separated from their roots and resources.
It was three years later — in the summer of 2009 — that the government woke up to the crisis at hand. P Chidambaram, the then home minister, realised that the Maoists could not just be wished away. Maoist violence had killed 900 people that year.
The states did not have the money, resources or often the political will to take the Maoists head-on.
That laid the foundation for a centrally-coordinated anti-Maoist offensive underway in the last three years, grounded in the common sense that the government could never develop territory it could not enter.
Around the time that the Maoists carried out the audacious attack to wipe out the state Congress leadership last week, there were 82,000 central police force personnel across the Red Corri­dor.
The figure is more than twice the number of central forces fighting the Maoists before the Centre launched the all-out offensive.
At least for Mukka there are some government interventions, though not fully sufficient, like the monthly ration under the public distribution system and NREGA wages.
But for lakhs of people in the interiors of Chhattisgarh’s Danda­karanya, there was no government before and none exists now — at least not an elected one.
It is the Maoists who hold sway over large swathes of forests in central India and established ‘liberated zones’ like Abujhmad — completely inaccessible to the government’s machinery or security forces.
Left-wing extremism has been term­ed as the biggest internal security threat by the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Chhattisgarh has become its citadel.
The state’s police budget became fourfold to Rs. 1,019 crore in 2010-11 from what it was a decade back when Chhattisgarh was formed. The state also has the highest deployment of central paramilitary forces in the country.
But still, the state’s security structure is awry. The ultras have consistently, with strategic lulls in between, executed attacks the targets of which are predominantly the security forces.
“Violence remains the political philosophy of Maoists,” says PC Hota, a scholar on Maoist strategy and affairs.
The Salwa Judum, brainchild of Karma who was killed last week, enlisted and armed tribals miffed by the Maoists till a Supreme Court order termed the special police force as illegal and unconstitutional, disbanding it two years back.
In several cases, innocent tribals were caught in the crossfire that resulted in diminution of the humane face the Maoists assumed. Of late there are voices against the Maoist influence.
“Naxals are no well-wishers of the locals and have, in fact, destroyed their culture,” says BK Manish, a tribal rights activist. But the problem, Manish says, is the government “pushing its concept of development without asking the tribal villagers exactly what they need.”
An example cited to substantiate the statement is the Integrated Action Plan (IAP), the Centre’s initiative in the Left-wing extremist affected districts, ten of which are in Chhattisgarh.
The Planning Commission of India scheme provided block grants to each district for projects like school buildings, crèches, health centres, drinking water, roads and street lights.
The programme has been criticised for the projects being decided, not by the gram sabhas (village councils), but by the trio of district collector, superintendent of police and the forest officer.
IAP is supposed to plug development deficits in these districts but after three years of implementation, several gaps still persist — depriving forest communities the fruits of the UPA growth story.
Data shows that against 105 anganwadi buildings taken up in Bastar, only 62 were completed as of May 2013. Several drinking water projects are incomplete as are school projects and most importantly, 142 road projects that connect these remote Bastar habitations with the outside world.
About 20% of the IAP projects are still underway in the state — many in the most affected regions.
“The problem here is accessibility, given the strong presence of Maoists, which blocks major schemes from reaching these poor tribals,” says a district IAP official.
“We need 27-30 more battalions to fill the security vacuum that exists in several areas like Darbha, the attack spot, which hardly has security presence,” says a senior Central Reserve Police Force official.
No wonder, it took the police over two hours to reach the site when the news of the Saturday attack first came in.
Home ministry officials concede there are no quick-fix solutions. Regaining control of thousands of kilometres of territory — where Maoists often have the last word — was never expected to be easy.
“Maoists have built their bases in Bastar and elsewhere over a period of 25 years. Give us at least five years to flush them out for good,” appeals a sen­i­or home ministry official.