How 74 BSNL towers are changing lives in Bastar

As part of a Rs 3,046-cr plan, the Centre is putting up BSNL mobile towers across Naxal-hit states. Bastar’s 74 towers are changing lives, routines, and security operations.

Written by Dipankar Ghose | Published: November 15, 2015 12:47:57 am
BSNL, Bastar, Bastar BSNl, Bastar mobile, Bastar mobile reception, naxal hit areas, bsnl news, India news Constable Krishan Dev trying to get a signal outside the CRPF camp in Nemedh. He has been waiting there for 24 hours, for a call from home. (Express Photo by Dipankar Ghose)

It is a Monday afternoon, and dressed in fatigues, Constable Krishan Dev can do little else but wait. In his hand is a small Nokia phone, the kind that can only send messages and receive calls. “I left the big one at home in Mahendragarh in Haryana. Yahan laane ka kya faayda (What’s the use getting it here)?” he says.

Not that this one is doing any better. Over the past 24 hours that he has stood outside the CRPF camp in Nemedh in Bijapur district, he has received just one text message from his family, a part of which says, “pls phn ke paas rehn, urgnt”. They want him to stay next to the phone, he explains. But since the wait began, his phone has beeped just once, for a “missed call alert service” message. It tells him his family has tried calling him 114 times.

When Dev got to know two months ago that he was being posted to the camp in one of the worst Naxal-hit districts of Chhattisgarh, his first reaction was to laugh. “I had just applied for a Reliance life insurance policy for my family!” he says.

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He no longer sees the funny side of it. With him in Nemedh, Dev’s insurance application is on the verge of collapse. “When I left, I gave Reliance my BSNL number because I knew Airtel wouldn’t work here. But there is an old tower here, and it never works. If you stand outside the campus, maybe you will get one bar (showing the strength of the signal) in two hours. When I last spoke to my family, they said Reliance people were trying to get in touch with me for verification. Then they sent me this message to stay near my phone. So I’ve been standing outside,” he says.

Even as he talks, Dev keeps moving, sometimes holding the phone high above his head, sometimes crouching down, in his attempt to get a signal. Two of his colleagues holding guns posted at the watch-tower near the gate smile sympathetically.

Two kilometres away, Pinu Modiam sits with his feet up on another chair behind his shop counter. Oblivious to the weekly fair outside, he is watching highlights of the last one-day international between India and South Africa, on a small television set with a Tata Sky connection. His shop sells everything, electronic equipment, household goods, Coca-Cola, chips. But no mobile phones. “Everybody has a mobile phone, which they bought when the old tower came up, but nobody wants to buy a new one because the connection here is useless,” Modiam says.

Medical emergencies are the worst, he agrees, but what Modiam hates most is being isolated from the world. “It’s like being cut off in my own world, only talking to people of my village.”

Yet, for both Modiam and Dev, there is hope. “I read that the government is putting up new BSNL towers in Chhattisgarh. Maybe they will install one here,” Modiam says. After a second’s gap, he adds magnanimously, “At least Nemedh is on the Bijapur-Jagdalpur road. Imagine what it’s like for villages not on the road. They should put the towers there first.”

Soon after the 2013 attack in Darbha, Bastar, that left 27 people dead, including top Congress leaders, the Centre began work on a Rs 3,046-crore plan to put up BSNL mobile towers across nine Naxal-affected states. Under the first phase, 146 new towers are being set up in Chhattisgarh, 74 of them in Bastar.

A senior police officer said 101 towers are active already. “Their importance is such that all 74 towers in Bastar are located on campuses of security forces.” However, not all are active yet.

Three hundred kilometres away, sitting outside a kirana store in Kodapakha village in Kanker, Bhagyon Kawde and Nagesh Kumar Pandit are also discussing the new towers. One recently came up at the BSF camp in the village. Talking about all they had to do for a phone call till two months ago, both burst out laughing.

Pointing behind them, Pandit says, “That’s the only place where a signal would come. Ek tile ke paas, ek ped hai. Vahan pe hum gaon ke saare phone taang dete the, aur kaam pe nikal jaate the. Shaam ko kabhi kabhi, koi missed call dekhte the, to Durgkondal jaana hota tha phone karne (Next to a mound, there is a tree. All the villagers would hang their phones there and head for work. In the evening, if somebody saw a missed call, he or she would go to Durgkondal town nearby to call back).”

For Kawde and Pandit, access to a phone means being a part of the “new world”. “Now we can call the ambulance to our village, we can talk to our families, use it for work, to talk to friends. But most importantly, dil
se khushi hoti hai ki phone ke zamaane mein hum bhi shaamil hain (it warms our heart that we are a part of the phone age),” Pandit says.

ADG, Anti Naxal Operations, R K Vij also emphasises the human aspect of having a phone within reach, as much as its strategic value. “It is a big thing for our jawans, who fight in the harshest conditions, to be able to talk to families back home, to feel connected,” he says.

ASP Bijapur Kalyan Elsela points out the ease of transferring data via the Internet now. “This helps with important things such as salaries. For jawans who earn something like Rs 5,000 a month, money not coming in reliably is a very big problem. These are aspects to be looked at… prices of household goods like milk and vegetables are very high in Bijapur,” Elsela says.

The importance of phones in operations, as Kanker Superintendent of Police J S Meena says, can’t be stressed enough. “This gives us another line of communication with our troops who go out for operations. Earlier the only mode of communication was wireless sets, but it is possible for someone else to latch on to our frequency. Phones open up a secure network for us.”

Authorities realise the sword is two-edged, with communication becoming easier for the Naxals as well. A villager in Bijapur district, who did not want to be named, says “informers” can now easily pass on information about troop movements.

Ignatius Tirkey, the thana in-charge of the Durgkondal police station, fears this too, adding that often Naxals track them down by searching for their names in phones of villagers.

Dismissing these fears, an officer points out that this can hardly be an argument for keeping “development” out. “It is the government’s responsibility to reach out to the public. A bridge must be built between them. Besides, strategically, there are small things we can do. So for instance, we switch off mobile towers for five to 15 minutes when our parties are heading out. We try not to establish a pattern.”

Commander Bhanu Pratap Singh Chauhan of the BSF sees the phones as a “new start”. “We have been trying to do an outreach programme in our area, where we solve the everyday problems of villagers. Now we get calls from them saying something has gone wrong, like someone is ill, or a tap has stopped working, etc. We either fix it, or forward these to whoever concerned. Even if the network isn’t perfect, it is the start of trust being built,” he says.

It’s Tuesday now, and as constable Dev heads back to the road for that elusive phone call, Bhagyon Kawde of Kodapakha says the wait for that perfect network now feels longer and longer. “The jawans told us these towers only have the capacity to handle 30 phone calls at a time. There are 150 families in this village alone, and 120 jawans inside. The network is also busy. If they had to put up these towers, they should have done a better job.”

“Administration ne sapna dikhaya tower lagake,” he adds. “Par poora nahi kiya abhi tak (The administration showed us a dream, but hasn’t fulfilled it yet).”

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