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In tribal heartland, India fights Maoists with herbs, honey

Natural cosmetics, lime grass insecticides, gooseberry candy, herbal medicines and honey are among new weapons deployed by India in its fight against Maoist insurgents.

india Updated: May 14, 2010 09:43 IST

Natural cosmetics, lime grass insecticides, gooseberry candy, herbal medicines and honey are among new weapons deployed by India in its fight against Maoist insurgents.

They are produced by villagers in state cooperatives in Maoist-hit Chhattisgarh, providing income that the government hopes will help keep the workers out of the ranks of the rebels and their supporters.

India's war against Maoist insurgents cannot be won with guns alone, experts say -- economic development and solutions to the grievances of rebel sympathisers are needed.

Last month's massacre of 76 Indian policeman by the rebels touched off a national debate about the need for "hearts and minds" efforts in insurgency-hit areas to accompany a nationwide security offensive launched last year.

The Chhattisgarh cooperatives are part of an attempt by the state to regain influence in the 45,000 square kilometres (17,374 square miles) of forests at the heart of what is known as India's "Red Corridor", where the rebels hold sway.

"We will not join the Maoists because we have money in our pocket and food in our belly," 18-year-old Sharda Mandavi told AFP as she busily ground herbs.

Around her, men and women mostly aged 16-19, in aprons and face masks, worked eight-hour shifts in spartan tin-roofed enclosures set up by the state's forest department.

"These kids are so busy that they cannot even think of joining the insurgency," said forest warden U.S. Thakur in Jabarra, 165 kilometres (100 miles) from state capital Raipur.

In the villages in the area, home to the Gond, Muria, Maria or Halba tribes, Maoist recruiters are constantly on the look-out for jobless or disaffected potential cadres. Nocturnal visits are common, say locals.

One supervisor at the reprocessing centre in Dugli, who was abducted last month by the rebels but was freed when he refused to join the movement, said the project is helping to fill a void.

"We are doing what the police cannot do with guns and bullets," he said, asking not to be named for security reasons.

"These men and women are now fighting back with candies, herbs and honey and in the process we are also protecting our forests from the Naxals (Maoists)," he said.

Chhattisgarh's top forest conservator R.K. Sharma told AFP in Raipur that 8,500 such facilities were operating in troubled areas to try and "wean away young men and women into skilled jobs."

The projects under the Joint Forest Management (JFM) scheme have paid dividends of 584 million rupees (12.9 million dollars) between 2000 and 2008 to local villages, according to records and supervisors.

Villages earn up to 30 percent of the profits from the sale of the forest products in government shops and other retail chains nationwide. Money is also shared with settlements that do not have resources.

Experts warn, however, that isolated projects such as Chhattisgarh's JFM are not enough to fight the Maoists in states where they have entrenched support that feeds off resentment at state corruption and incompetence, as well as land disputes.

"Primary healthcare, education, agricultural reforms and tenancy laws need to be improved," said Maoist expert Mallika Joseph from the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, a New Delhi-based private think tank.

"It is a challenge but it is doable. The Maoists cannot achieve them," she added.

Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram is the architect behind a surge of 58,000 federal paramilitary forces into Maoist-affected states and he has faced criticism, even from within his own party, for the hardline approach.

He has stressed, however, that the government has a "two-pronged strategy" that includes development aid.

But as with many national policies in decentralised India, there is often a gap between initiatives decided at a federal level and implementation by states and local governments.

Nearly one-third of five billion rupees (112 million dollars) of devlopment aid earmarked in financial year 2008-2009 for the 35 worst-hit Maoist districts had not been used, he told a ministry committee on May 3.

"There are also questions on whether the money spent actually had reached the intended beneficiaries," he said.

Besides these targeted funds, India has set aside 661 billion rupees in the current financial year for general rural development.

In addition to the implementation constraints of development projects, the government also faces a dynamic enemy.

"Naxals still come to us and say 'we will pay you more if you join our fight,'" said a 21-year-old man at the Dugli facility.

"But please do not mention our names as we are scared and besides the police are powerless to give us any protection."

First Published: May 14, 2010 09:41 IST