Professionals from varied sectors and posted in various left-wing extremism-affected districts, the Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellows work in sensitive areas where government officials don’t venture out, seeking to improve programme delivery and serve as an interface between the administration and locals.
It also leaves them vulnerable, as the recent abduction of a fellow in Giridih in Jharkhand shows. Sai Vardhan Vamsi of Andhra Pradesh was among four government officials abducted by Maoists on their way to a meeting with villagers. All four were later released.
“I feel they abducted us so they could make their presence felt. They feel they don’t get any space to express their views and want to do it through us. Now that I am back, nothing has changed for me. It’s back to the routine, regular work,” Vamsi says.
He denies having ever felt under a threat but other fellows concede they have to proceed with care in work that often brings them in confrontation with Maoists. “Even the BDO doesn’t go to the difficult areas sometimes, but we visit them,” says Dipti Paridhi Kindo, posted in Ranchi Rural. “Often it has happened that I have attended a gram sabha and after I have come back, I have been told some people there were Naxals. We just have to be careful.”
Posted in Malkangiri in Orissa, Anup Kumar Giri says, “We do get threats but we solve issues at our own level. When we go to interior pockets, we have to communicate with them (Maoists) and they tell us not to come, not to carry out activities that may be against their interests. So we have to arrive at some compromise. But if we go to such areas regularly, there is a greater threat. We are not provided security as such but when we go to the more sensitive areas, we are in touch with the district collector.”
“If they perceive any threat, district or block officials often tell us not to go to an area, and to come back before dusk,” says Kumar Subhashish in Orissa’s Mayurbhanj.
Officials of the Ministry of Rural Development insist the fellows are treated like other government officials in sensitive zones. “The fellows work under the supervision of the district collector and are provided the same level of protection and support like other government functionaries when they go to the riskier areas,” said an official.
PMRDF inducted its first batch of 149 fellows in April 2012 and held exams for a fresh batch last month. The fellows are placed for short durations in 82 districts in nine states; this will now go up to 17 with the northeastern states included.
Another ministry official says they haven’t received any complaints or calls from fellows about fears or a threat. “After training, we had taken in 149 people of whom only 14 have dropped out so far, which indicates they are not living in fear.”
During a three-month orientation session, the issue of security is briefly touched upon. The fellows seem to have figured out for themselves the cautionary measures they should take.
“I don’t go in a government vehicle. I go on a bike with panchayat members,” Kindo says. Giri adds, “I travel by bike to the interiors but I keep changing the bike to avoid getting identified. I borrow bikes sometimes. We don’t tell anyone when we go into the interiors, except the DC and the SP.”
Women say they feel safer. Says Shikha Singh, posted in Sukma in Chhattisgarh, “I am not in danger because there is a tacit understanding that the Maoists don’t abduct women. But we too are careful. We avoid interior areas during bandhs. But the threat is based more on the kind of work we do. For example, crowd mobilisation does not go down well with the Maoists, who in turn send us messages.”
Some fellows say Maoists object also to activities such as building roads and infrastructure.