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When sarkaar came to Amdeli

A month ago, this village deep inside Gadchiroli, in Maoist country, got electricity and a bus at its doorstep for the first time. As both remain elusive still, The Indian Express finds out all that rides on them.

amdeli, gadchiroli, electricity, power lines, power supply, bus stop innauguration, godavari river bridge, maharashtra village, maoist affected gadchiroli, indian express Chaitu waiting by the roadside after walking 8 km to fetch medicines for his ailing son. He has to walk 15 km more to Asaralli. (Express Photo by Dipankar Ghose)

Exhausted and worried, with the sun beating down on his head, Chaitu squats by the side of the road. His son has high fever, and the 30-year-old has come walking from his home in Amdeli, deep in Gadchiroli’s forests, for 8 km already. The medicine shop in Asaralli is another 15 km away. But, for the first time in his life, Chaitu measures distances differently. Two weeks ago, a bus came down this road by which Chaitu sits. When the minister aboard got down at Amdeli, he turned on a switch, and the village saw electricity.

In May 2016, the district administration in the Maoist-hit Gadchiroli identified electrification and a bus network as essential to development here. At the time, of the 1,688 villages in Gadchiroli, 271 had no electricity network. “These were unelectrified because of the access issue due to Maoist presence, or simply because of the difficulty of the terrain. Since then, 85 villages have been electrified, and work is on in 48 others. A total of Rs 12 crore is being spent in Gadchiroli on electrification alone. Similarly, it was seen that only around 1,200 villages were mapped on a road network. It was decided that where a road will go, a state transport bus will also go,” says Prashant Anant Daithankar, District Information Officer.

Amdeli, a village of 65 homes and 340 residents, was one of the routes through which Maoists entered Gadchiroli three decades ago and set up a base in the district. It has long strived to put that history behind it. September 28, “the day the bus came”, will help.

Two months ago, the administration started putting up electricity poles, two houses got new power meters, and 10 days ago, the villagers helped police build a patch of kuchcha road over a drain. Still, smiles Prakash Lingaya, a gram panchayat member, they had their doubts. He remembers wondering, for example, how big vehicles would come down the 15-km narrow path cutting through a dense forest. “But on the day, so many big white cars came, and then a bus. We couldn’t believe our eyes.”

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amdeli, gadchiroli, electricity, power lines, power supply, bus stop innauguration, godavari river bridge, maharashtra village, maoist affected gadchiroli, indian express Police and villagers pose after making this bridge over a drain, that stood in the way of the bus, with the help of two cement pipes. (Courtesy Gadchiroli police)

Pointing to a spot next to the first home on the path in Amdeli, Lingaya adds, “They put up a shamiana (tent) there. And when the bus came and stopped, the minister got out of it.”

Raje Ambrishrao Atram, the Minister for Tribal Affairs and the guardian minister for Gadchiroli district, came with many promises. Says a villager, “He told us that he was going to ensure that we get a bus service. He turned on the lights in two homes where new meters had been put up, and told us that every home would have one. He said our future was bright.”

Till a couple of years ago, the events of September 28 would have brought a sense of trepidation to the people of Amdeli. Located on the southeastern tip of Maharashtra, close to the Telangana border, and thickly forested, Amdeli was for long at the centre of Maoist violence. Old-timers in Sironcha, the block headquarters 30 km away, say villages like Amdeli were believed to have helped Maoists enter through then Andhra Pradesh and set up base. Villagers admit that three people from Amdeli ended up joining the Maoists, though they won’t name them. Two are now dead, while one woman returned to civilian life after falling ill. She married later and lives in another village.

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Things have changed since, says a villager. “The Maoists used to come at least once a week, stay, and ask us to prepare food for them, or take grains. But now they come once in six months. Even then, they are afraid that the people in the village will tell the police, so they stay in the jungles 5 km away and call us for a meeting. The last time they came was six months ago.”

amdeli, gadchiroli, electricity, power lines, power supply, bus stop innauguration, godavari river bridge, maharashtra village, maoist affected gadchiroli, indian express Photos of police personnel who died in the conflict with Maoists are put up at Gadchiroli traffic junctions. The ferocity of the attacks is on the wane. (Express Photo by Dipankar Ghose)

This shifting of power in the narrative between the government and Maoists is visible elsewhere in Gadchiroli too. While the reputation of the district as a Maoist hotbed still sustains, its police headquarters is a shrine to personnel who have lost their lives in the conflict. At traffic junctions, there are large posters of them, mostly garlanded. However, there is no denying the other signs: the new electronic shopping complex in the town, the inauguration of a new Hyundai showroom, even the number-plate MH 33, the series that belongs to Gadchiroli, on the many four-wheelers whizzing past streets.

The shift has been a long time coming, says Gajanand Rathore, the Sub Divisional Police Officer, based in Sironcha, which is the block headquarters under which Amdeli falls. Tracing the influx and growth of Maoists in Gadchiroli, starting with the late 80s, he says, “The first party congress took place in Kamlapur (in Aheri), and they continued to recruit after that. Till the CPI (Maoist) came together in 2004, there was presence but very little active violence. Their modus operandi was the same. In many places like Sironcha, the people are Telugu speakers. They would get involved in people’s festivals, and turn them against the State. There was a development vacuum as well, and the extremely hilly and forested terrain helped. After 2004, they began to show their strength actively.”

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In one of the worst years, 2009, police lost 52 personnel to Maoist violence. Since then, though exchanges of fire have largely remained the same, the ferocity has come down. In 2016, three policemen were killed; this year, one has lost his life so far.

Says Dr Maheshwar Reddy, ASP (Operations), Gadchiroli, “After 2009, we have had continued successes against Maoists. The most important part is that people are turning away from them, coming closer to the police. That is the most essential change, through the efforts of the police and the administration.”

Another official says that the number of Maoist cadres present in Gadchiroli has come down to under 250, with only one Local Operational Squad, consisting of 10 cadres, operational in Sironcha division.

amdeli, gadchiroli, electricity, power lines, power supply, amdeli village bus stop, godavari river bridge, maharashtra village, maoist affected gadchiroli, indian express The 1.62-km bridge across the Godavari, between Sironcha and Kaleshwaram in Telangana, built at a cost of Rs 292 crore, has changed lives in the region. (Express Photo by Dipankar Ghose)

The infrastructure push, focusing on electricity and a bus network, includes a 1.62-km bridge across the river Godavari, between Sironcha and Kaleshwaram in Telangana at a cost of Rs 292 crore. Both Maharashtra Governor C Vidyasagar Rao and Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis attended the inauguration of the bridge in December last year.

Sanjeev Reddy, a trader in Sironcha, lists all that the bridge has done for them. “Until last year, a vegetable that would cost Rs 10 in Telangana or other parts of Maharashtra would cost Rs 50 here. Now we can stock things that we didn’t have access to, and people needed.” Reddy opens his refrigerator to show the change in the products he sells. Inside are cartons of pasteurised milk.

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The Gadchiroli police claim a change in the relationship between people and the security forces too, and say now there is “no black spot” for the police in the district and it has “access everywhere”. Officers admit that apart from the infrastructure work, increased sensitisation has helped, with the realisation that it is ordinary people who will sway the struggle between the State and Maoists. “Let’s use the example of chickens. Earlier there were cases where personnel would take away chickens from a house when they were on an exercise in the forests, and cook it, and the villagers would be left angry. Now, there are specific instructions to always buy at high rates. So the villagers look forward to selling their produce to us. Of course there are still cases where after we get information, we have to pick people up, and sometimes mistakes are committed. But largely our attitude has changed,” a senior officer says.

Activists say that is not entirely true. Nihal Singh Rathod of the Human Rights Law Network says, “There are still cases of alleged rape, fake encounters etc. Yes, perhaps they are lesser than in, say, Chhattisgarh, but that is also because generally gram panchayats and activists have a strong network in Maharashtra. When there is a case of excess, there is an immediate response. It’s not that police don’t intend to, but there is a kind of check and balance.”

amdeli, gadchiroli, electricity, power lines, power supply, bus stop innauguration, godavari river bridge, maharashtra village, maoist affected gadchiroli, indian express

amdeli, gadchiroli, electricity, power lines, power supply, amdeli village bus stop, godavari river bridge, maharashtra village, maoist affected gadchiroli, indian express

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The Amdeli bus was the result of a village outreach programme called “gram bhent (village interaction)”, Gajanand Rathore says. Under it, the Sironcha police visits an interior village every week. “Apart from visiting villages during short-range and long-range patrolling, we do these gram bhents where villagers tell us their problems and we forward these issues to relevant government departments. In Amdeli, they told us about lack of electricity, and how they had no transport. The electricity poles were already being put up, so we took up the issue of the road and the bus,” Rathore says.

The district police then scouted the two paths leading to Amreli from Sironcha. While one was 15 km long, the other was double the distance and had more problems on the way but was more suitable for a bus to travel on. A major problem with the shorter route was also that it went over a drain that narrowed down too much for a four-wheeler to pass, and threatened to go under in monsoons. “So, as a gesture to the people of Amdeli, we decided to build a small bridge ourselves. I spoke to my seniors and got money sanctioned for two cement pipes that we could put (over the drain) as a bridge. We also got the tehsildar to come with us, and brought a JCB,” Rathore says.

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Keeping the Maoist threat in mind, the element of surprise was crucial. And so police came in and camped near the drain quietly on the night of September 16. The next morning, they approached Amdeli villagers for help to build the bridge. By 5 pm, the construction was complete. Police sent a truck over it for reassurance.

amdeli, gadchiroli, electricity, power lines, power supply, amdeli village bus stop, godavari river bridge, maharashtra village, maoist affected gadchiroli, indian express Deva, sitting under a dim solar light, says being Telugu speakers, they have long felt ignored by Maharashtra. “For the first time, it felt like we matter”. (Express Photo by Dipankar Ghose)

Deva, an elderly Amdeli villager, who struggles to put a number to his age, points out why the power and bus matter. It was only the second time ever — the first being in 2014 when the same minister had paid a visit — did anybody from the “sarkaar” pay Amdeli any attention, he says. The village lies in Maharashtra, but everyone here speaks Telugu. “We would have been in Telangana had we been that side of the Godavari. We have always felt like outcasts, caught between Maharashtra and Telangana, caught between the government and Maoists. For the first time, it felt like we matter,” he says.

It has been difficult to sustain the enthusiasm. Since that September 28 day, the bus has not returned to Amdeli, and residents like Chaitu continue to walk everywhere, including to find doctors. Nor have any new electricity meter boxes come up. Even in the two homes with meters, the supply is erratic.

District officials say the issues will be sorted out. District Information Officer Daithankar says the construction of the road down which buses would come will begin soon, and that applications for meters in all houses would be processed now that Diwali was over.

In private, police officials urge the local administration to not let their efforts be squandered. “Police can only do so much, and the pace has to be matched by the local administration. We built the bridge, but now they say it has become weak because of some rains. Of course it would have weakened if no solidification work took place, and the local PWD has to do that. On electricity, if the administration is serious, they can do it within a week. But there is a distinct lethargy. And generally that is dangerous. People must feel that what we do is not just tokenism, that we actually care. Otherwise, it is not difficult for the Maoists again to point to a development vacuum and return with a vengeance. This can be a strategic retreat for them. It is for us to take advantage and win faith,” a senior police officer says, on condition of anonymity.

amdeli, gadchiroli, electricity, power lines, power supply, amdeli village bus stop, godavari river bridge, maharashtra village, maoist affected gadchiroli, indian express Since September 28, the bus has not returned to Amdeli, and residents continue to walk everywhere. Nor have any new electricity meter boxes come up, but villagers are hopeful. (Express Photo by Dipankar Ghose)

In Amdeli, the same conversations are playing out among villagers. The rains have been poor, and there is little to do in the fields. So every morning, mostly in one of the two homes with electricity meters, they gather and talk of their fate, next to a light bulb connected to the meter which stays off due to lack of power supply. It’s the dim solar power bulb that has to suffice.

Satya often talks about the water from the handpumps in the village. “We drink water from the wells, and even that is dirty. But look at this water from the handpump. We can’t use it for anything,” he says, dipping his hand into a pale yellow opaque liquid.

But the talk also veers around often to September 28. Gadchiroli is a dry district, where the consumption of alcohol is banned by the state government, except for its Scheduled Tribes, who comprise a majority here. That night, after the minister and his officer left, no rule mattered. There was local toddy, desi chicken, dancing and much conversation everywhere. The villagers talked about what the road, bus and electricity would bring. “We have had solar panels for over a year, but they emit little light. Just one small light per home, and that too only if the sun has shone all day,” Lingaya pointed out.

The villagers also spoke of the borewells they could dig if they had power, and about turning one crop cycle into two. They spoke of the trips they could make to shops daily, instead of waiting for a Monday or Tuesday, when a private taxi owner comes around to take them. They talked of the snakes that would stay away at night if the village was lit up. They talked of fans, and dreamt even of televisions, like the ones in towns some of them had seen.

That day, what they didn’t speak of was the Maoists.

First published on: 22-10-2017 at 02:16:21 am
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