Abhujmaad. The name, literally, means the hills of the unknown. The thickly forested 4,000 sq km straddling Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra have been an enigma for long, sparsely populated, and unmapped by government agencies. On its outskirts, in district headquarters like Narayanpur, local legends are many, the stories adorned with magic realism. Yet, for the last three decades, its unchartered territory is also home to the Maoist leadership fortified by its inaccessibility.
On April 22, for the first time since Independence, the process of demystifying Abhujmaad began — surveying its villages and residents plot by plot, one village at a time. With the Maoist leadership, including members of their Central Committee and politburo making these hills their home, senior officials said that the area has been mapped using satellite imagery but this is the first time that a team is going village to village, to identify which plot belongs to whom. The goal: to create revenue records.
Said Taman Singh Sonwani, District Collector Narayanpur: “We began from Akabeda village, villagers themselves said they wanted rights over their land. This project has been in the pipeline but this is the first time this is really happening.”
A dozen-strong team, including the Collector, the tehsildar, and a technical team from IIT Roorkee, matches land divisions visible on satellite imagery to people on the ground. Said tehsildar Rohit Singh: “We collect the people of the village early in the morning and ask them to show us their plots one by one. The moment one plot is identified, we give it an FID (field identification number). This technology works offline so the moment you come into the network, it gets uploaded onto the website. There are times there is one plot, but owned by several people, we can assign several FIDs to small plots as well. This begins the process of them becoming revenue records and, in time, will allow people to avail of government benefits.”
There are surprises, too.
For instance, in Akabeda, satellite imagery showed 32 families in a village but once the plots were counted, they numbered 78. “We found that once a boy or girl marries, their family allots them a plot of land as well. So we will get to learn about the culture that exists, bringing us closer to them,” Sonwani said. With an estimated 35,000 residents in Abhujmaad, and 237 known villages, many such surprises are expected.
Officials know it’s a long haul. Not only because of inaccessibility of the terrain but the Maoist threat as well.After Akabeda, the team moved on to Kodkanar and Nernar villages. As they returned to Narayanpur one night, a Maoist team killed Somaru Gota, the kotwar of the village, accusing him of working for the government. While opinion is divided among officials whether this was a consequence of the survey process, of which Gota was a part, given that he had received two warnings from the Maoists over a year ago, work is on pause.
“There are security challenges and we will take it step by step. For a short while, we have stopped but work will resume soon. We have begun from villages accessible to us, like Akabeda, because a new camp was placed there in December. The terrain is definitely hostile, because in February, the camp was attacked by Maoists. But we will remain undeterred,” Santosh Singh, SP, Narayanpur said.
Officials said they had identified between 70 and 80 hamlets, categorised as “easily approachable”, more often than not near security camps, where the survey will be done to begin with. Officials are aware of the years of work that lie ahead so every small victory counts. “In this kind of place, especially because the tribals who live inside, they need to see us reaching out to them, this first step is historic,” said Santosh Singh.