Polling for the second phase of the assembly election in Chhattisgarh has ended. Naxalism had emerged as one of the key poll issues. While opposition parties targeted the Raman Singh-led government, which has held office in the state for 15 years, for its ineffective handling of the Naxalite challenge, the Bharatiya Janata Party leaders did not leave any opportunity to publicise success stories on this front.
At an election campaign in Bastar earlier this month, the prime minister made it a point to highlight the BJP-led government’s successful developmental programmes in the state’s Naxal-affected regions. One claim — the state government’s commitment to ensure that all children in these regions attend schools — caught my attention.
About a year ago, I visited Narayanpur, one of the worst Maoist-hit districts of Chhattisgarh, for field-research. A major part of this district is covered by the Abujhmarh forest areas. With hilly terrain and dense forests, Abujhmarh is largely un-surveyed. It is home to a tribal population, which has very little interaction with the outside world. Over the years, this region has also been providing safe sanctuary to Maoist insurgents.
The fear of insurgency in this district is such that every year, the civil administration assesses its success based on how many more kilometres away from the headquarters its officials can go freely to implement state schemes. Review and monitoring of programmes has taken a back seat. Many state welfare schemes are, in fact, carried out by the Ramakrishna Mission Ashram that has been working in the Abujhmarh region for more than three decades.
Nevertheless, the state’s eagerness to penetrate the region in order to include the excluded tribal population of the area under its welfare programmes and wipe out insurgency in the area is reflected in the district administration’s plans and programmes. Until a few years ago, all state interventions were confined to the district headquarters but in recent times, some of the remote areas of Narayanpur have seen the functioning of the government machinery to improve healthcare, education and transport.
I travelled to some remote areas of the districts and documented people’s reactions to government’s claims about its programmes. I also visited government-run centres — some of them were newly opened — several times to gauge the acceptability of the programmes. The most telling picture was of a state-run school in Madhonar village. Reaching this village was not very easy because of poor connectivity.
The local people described the village as a Maoist stronghold. It was surprising to see a good government school building in that area. There were posters on educational awareness on its walls. I was happy to see about 40 to 50 children in school uniform playing inside the school campus. The willingness of parents — most of them had never attended any school — to educate their children was evident. The children attended school everyday and their excitement was discernible. They had come to realise that education would provide them better opportunities.
But it did not take me long to realise that the school was actually locked and no teacher or school staff was present. Interactions with the children revealed that this was par for the course. The teachers came only once in a month, sometimes, once in two months, to maintain records, they said. The situation was more or less the same in some of the other government schools I visited, in nearby villages. The district officials ascribed the low attendance to the fear of the Naxals. But the locals could not recollect an incident of a schoolteacher being attacked by the Naxals. In fact, the Naxals fear a backlash if they harass teachers and doctors.
Even though the administration is serious about children’s enrolment in schools and the Naxal-affected areas get more focus and funds, it hasn’t given adequate importance to the presence of teachers in schools. One district collector told me that changing this state-of-affairs will take time.
For a very long time, the Maoists found it easy to get local support in Abujhmarh. In recent times, the Adivasis of this region have witnessed the increasing presence of security forces in their villages. But the schools of Narayanpur’s remote villages speak of a missed opportunity for the administration to win the hearts and minds of the people. Such missed opportunities benefit the Maoists. A mere increase in enrolment carries no value, if the enrolled children do not get education.