THE ANSWER to why Maoists have zeroed in on the western parts of Chhattisgarh to form a new zone lies in a small pocket of land surrounding a 13-km road under construction from Gatapar to Malaida in northern Rajnandgaon, just 20 km from the Madhya Pradesh border.
Here, villagers complain of not getting a “fair price” for the tendu leaves they pick, of the nearest hospital — “where we can actually get treatment” — being 35 km away, and of the only primary school struggling to get teachers.
From Bastar, their stronghold, to the new area of operations — Maharashtra Madhya Pradesh Chhattisgarh (MMC) zone — the circumstances that the Maoists have been tapping are disturbingly similar. The forests are sparsely populated, villages spread out and the population predominantly tribal, who feel “left behind by development”.
As The Indian Express reported Thursday, a 25-page document recovered from the Maoists in April details plans to cash in on local issues, such as the price of bamboo, to gain local support in the new zone, as they did in Bastar. “We live on what we can make from bamboo and tendupatta (tendu leaves), but we never get a fair price. Contractors take their cut, and people from other states take away the produce,” says a villager in Malaida. The New Red Lines: Read the full series here
Besides, there is erratic mobile connectivity on the main roads but a communication blackout elsewhere. The road network is better than in Bastar, with a two-lane black-top road from Khairagarh town to Gatapar continuing to Lanji in Madhya Pradesh, but no access to the forests where the Maoists are setting up camps.
Malaida, a village of over 100 people, has a primary school. “But the teachers rarely come. The nearest hospital, where we can actually get treatment, is 35 km away in Khairagarh. There is an ayurveda hospital in Gatapar, 13 km away, but we always get referred to Khairagarh,” says a villager. Over the past year, however, the Chhattisgarh government has attempted to mitigate these circumstances, including that 13-km stretch of road.
“We are working on at least seven such roads on a priority basis,” says Prashant Agarwal, SP, Rajnandgaon. Besides, a new health centre has been built in Gatapar, even if its gates are yet to be opened. Following an attack in January, when Maoists set fire to four vehicles on the Malaida road, an ITBP camp has also come up in Gatapar. In April, a month-long camp was set up jointly by the ITBP, Rajnandgaon Police’s E-30 teams (Elite 30) and Madhya Pradesh Police’s Hawk squad.
“If the Maoists are successful in setting up base here, it will be difficult to uproot them. This can potentially become another Bastar. So it is our job to dominate the area, go to villagers and talk to them, and provide security to the roads,” says an ITBP officer guarding the under-construction road.
“In certain respects, the terrain is worse than in some parts of Bastar. Some of the forests there, in Sukma for instance, have flat land. This is more akin to Narayanpur and the hilly tracts of Bijapur,” says a Chhattisgarh Police officer. Narayanpur is home to Abhujmaad, 4,000 sq km of unmapped land that the government has little control over. However, indications on the ground here signal an uphill task for the Maoists.
For one, the arrival of Maoist teams has brought a sense of caution among the villages. Unlike in Bijapur or Sukma, conversations here are met with a wary silence. Police officers say this is working both ways. While Maoists have documented that they are not achieving success with the formation of village committees, police are not receiving much information, either.
“Even the sarpanch and influential people in the villages rarely tell us things on their own. They are not used to people with guns around. So while they are not giving the Maoists support, or letting people join them, they don’t want to run afoul of them by giving us information,” says a police officer posted at Gatapar. Dipanshu Kabra, IGP, is sure that this wariness has worked against the Maoists.
“The villagers are not giving them support, this we know from their own documents. For instance, they (Maoists) have been using large drums to store water for cooking and consumption. They seem to be taking these to the water bodies at night, and retreating into non-populated areas,” says Kabra.