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Sukma's distant snow

Why Alex Menon and others of India's corroded steel frame are still the best bet against the Maoist insurgency, Samar Halarnkar writes.

columns Updated: May 24, 2012 19:25 IST
Samar Halarnkar
Samar Halarnkar
Hindustan Times
Samar Halarnkar,Alex Paul Menon,Maoist insurgency

When Alex VF Paul Menon was on his Bharat darshan - an old civil service tradition that takes young probationers on a familiarisation tour of their country - his colleagues noticed his aversion to luxury and general enthusiasm.

"Enthu cutlet," noted a blog written by one of his classmates from the 2006 batch of Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers. "(Alex) had a natural aversion to leather seats…so (he) could be found sitting, standing, crouching or even lying at any other place of any vehicle except the seat…"

On that tour, Menon - captured last week by Maoists irked by his zeal to bring public services to India's most underserved communities - formed part of the "crazy four", a microcosm of those who represent the still-idealistic underpinnings of India's much-corroded bureaucratic steel frame. They were so named, explained the blogger, "because (they) were characterised by one absurd behavioral pattern - climbing up glaciers with absolutely no gear, and just because snow 'appears' pretty close".

That sums up the attitude that the 31-year-old Menon adopted when he was sent to one of India's newest, remotest and most dangerous districts, Sukma, as its first collector, or chief bureaucrat, when it was created in January this year.

Before the Maoists got him, Menon worked out of an office with no walls, proper electricity lines or toilets. Accompanied by just two security guards - both killed when he was abducted - he journeyed into Sukma's interior villages over the last three months, trying to build roads, set up schools and simply represent a government in a place that does not know one.

To understand how far the snow was in Sukma, you must know that the district is, as tribal and Maoist-controlled areas tend to be, simultaneously one of India's most beautiful and most wretched places.

Sukma is in south Bastar, Chhattisgarh's tribal heartland, a sparsely populated district with 45 people per sq km, about as much as Bhutan. About 70% of its area is forest, roughly the same as highly-developed Sweden; or highly-backward Congo, an economic basket case that nevertheless tops Sukma's abysmal literacy rate, which is lower than 40%. This is not surprising because nearly three-fourth of Sukma's people are tribals. They represent 90 million Indians who are citizens only in name, who are some of the world's most discriminated and ignored people, and in whose name the Maoist insurgency festers.

The creation of Sukma and 12 other districts like it this year and the posting of their best, young officers to these places is an acceptance by the Chhattisgarh government that governance is the best weapon against the Maoist insurgency. It cannot be otherwise in a state where, as my colleague Harinder Baweja recently reported in this paper, a recent security push towards a "Maoist camp" - its images teased out of satellite imagery and Google Earth - found instead Bodiguda, a tribal village that fell off the map after the British left, 64 years ago. Little wonder then that the villagers, cut off from India, believed the Maoists were the government.

Sukma was carved out of the underbelly of Dantewada, scene of numerous atrocities against tribals - by both Maoists and police - and Maoist massacres of security patrols. The government was almost absent in Dantewada, more than three times the size of Goa. It is still thinly spread in Sukma, still more than one-and-a-half Goa's size, but administrators like Menon try to make up in determination what they lack in resources.

One from Menon's old "crazy four", Shruti Singh, is the first collector of another new Chhattisgarh district, Bemetara. She spends her time taking government to the villages, persuading legislators and MPs to mediate between the government and citizens, and sending officials to not just spend days and nights in villages but deliver on-the-spot solutions (more than 2,700 such cases were solved as of this month) and make people aware of what's on offer.

(Digression: In another part of the country, the third of the "crazy four" Salma K Fahim, Karnataka's first female Muslim IAS officer, tries to reach HIV-positive people who are off her radar as director of the state's Aids-prevention society. The fourth, Rohit Gupta, an IIT graduate, is collector of Jhalawar district, where he set up an online system, now being replicated statewide, that allows people to check which sub-divisional officer and doctor is on leave; he's also configuring systems that track births, ultrasound centres and teachers - part of a plan to reduce female infanticide and boost female education).

Whatever happens to Menon - and I hope he is safely delivered to his pregnant wife Asha - the government cannot waver in its commitment to ploughshares, keeping the sword-arm for clear, intelligent strikes. Menon's abduction is an indication that the Maoists view development dimly, targeting the bureaucrat who strives for transformation, however formidable that task might be.

Before he reached Sukma, Menon recorded his frustrations as CEO of a zilla panchayat, a local-government body, in Dhamtari, where he started a system that tracked children who did not attend school. In his blog, he noted how "a whopping amount" of R1,100 crore delivered few changes. "Ultimately," he wrote, "all the schemes are put on a platter and spent in a splatter…so wat (sic) can be done."

In another entry last year, Menon wrote how despite his efforts to bend the rules, "churn them with goodwill and cheer", the government refused to approve a R8-lakh wheelchair for a paraplegic man who rose from a coma and became a painter. "Today," he said, "is a sad day in my life."

To civil servants like Menon, the distant snows are clearly no deterrent. No government could ask for more.

The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Apr 25, 2012 21:45 IST