The rickety Dantewada bus normally arrives almost empty at Bhadrachalam,the temple town in Khammam district close to the Chhattisgarh-Orissa border. That it has few commuters is not surprising considering it makes its way through the dangerous Maoist stronghold of Dantewada in Chhattisgarh and crosses the border into Andhra Pradeshs Khammam district,another Maoist hotspot. But for a month now,the bus from Dantewada has been arriving full.
Its packed with tribals fleeing Dantewada to escape being caught in the crossfire between securitymen and Maoists.
At least 300 tribals belonging to the Gothy Koya and Gond tribes from Dantewada arrive at Bhadrachalam every day. They dont want to get caught in the crossfire between the Maoists and security forces and Salwa Jadum,so they are fleeing to the nearest place that is safe. They come here. They either look for work here or they go towards Hyderabad since Bhadrachalam connects to the rest of Andhra, said Sub-Divisional Police Officer Raghuram Reddy.
While security forces struggle to seal the Andhra-Orissa border to prevent Maoists from crossing over,the Khammam front has become a cause for worry. In the past one month,about 8,500 tribals have come to Bhadrachalam.
If there is a police operation in which some Maoists are killed,their colleagues come and accuse us of having tipped them off. They go around the village,pick up a few people and execute them. On the other hand,the police accuse us of colluding with the Maoists. We dont want to live on the edge anymore. The situation has become very grim in Dantewada, said Sukhna Puchapa who came from Dantewada and is staying in a temporary shelter at Chintur,30 km from the Chhattisgarh border.
Those who managed to find work in the chilli fields along the Godavari have built camps for themselves in the forests. The camps provide shelter to friends and relatives until they find work and leave. Waves of people keep coming here and then disperse elsewhere. Some go to Hyderabad,others as far as Bangalore, said Sukhna.
Living in hastily-built huts in dismal conditions,the tribals are looked on with suspicion both by the police as well as local Maoists. Last week,the police arrested a former dalam leader from among the tribals who had arrived recently. It is difficult to scrutinise everybody. There could be Maoist sympathisers among them,we have to be careful, said Reddy.
Mention the word anna (Naxalites) and you can see the fear and suspicion in their eyes. No one will talk about them. We dont trust anyone, said 26-year-old Shodi Mallam who has waited three days at the bus depot for the arrival of his brothers family.
The women and children were traumatised by Maoists threats raids by security forces in the villages. At least they feel safe here, said Madkam Manga.
The main worry for security agencies is that Maoist sympathisers may help local Maoists strengthen their base again. The Maoists have the sympathy of tribals who not only provide shelter but also information about movement and deployment of security forces. Our worry is that sympathisers may help Maoists evading security forces by providing them shelter in the Khammam forests where they are camping. They may also pass on information on the whereabouts of anti-Naxal forces like the Greyhounds, an official said.
Worried that the Maoists,who have been either eliminated or driven out of Khammam area,may again rear their heads,the state government is planning to ask the tribals to return to Chhattisgarh.
But until that happens,the state government has asked the Khammam district administration to take care of them. District Collector V Usha Rani said,We have shifted all the children to anganwadis where they are provided meals and medical care. The elders are in makeshift camps where they cook their own food. The locals are also helping them by employing them as farm labourers. We may even give them jobs under the NREGS and retain them in temporary shelters to prevent them from occupying the forest.