“No roads lead into Naxal-affected areas” screamed a headline recently in a national daily. An internal review the other day at the Planning Commission revealed what has been known all these years. Among the 34 districts reviewed by the Plan Panel, Dantewada in the Bastar region of the Chhattisgarh State had the poorest record on road connectivity. The district was the scene of a recent carnage when Maoists, aka Naxalites, killed as many as 76 police personnel in a well planned ambush near Chintalnar village. According to the Panel member secretary, road connectivity is a big issue in Maoists-affected districts. While district officials cannot be easily deployed in these districts, those who are available do the work of village development out of the district headquarters for want of roads.
Virtually, like rediscovering the wheel, the Planning Commission, with the help of the National Informatics Centre (NIC), has stumbled upon the fact that the country’s worst developed districts include its most Naxal-hit ones. It sounds somewhat strange that this realisation has dawned upon the Planning Commission now when the Maoists have carved out an extensive “red corridor” for themselves covering eight states of the Union, pushing the Indian State out of the territories occupied by them. That there was a strong correlation between the lack of development and rise of Naxalism has been known all these years, though the recent revelations at the Commission may have been backed up by more solid data collected by the NIC.
In order to overcome the problems born out of lack of development the Commission plans to launch an Integrated Action Plan which seeks to speed up the process of filling up of the developmental gaps in the 34 districts spanning 8 states. Looks like, the Commission is serious this time as it proposes to convince the states to focus on these gaps and provide feedback on expenditure on centrally funded schemes. Perhaps, the recent massacre of police personnel has prompted the urgency.
Likewise, around the same time the Home Minister, P Chidambaram, while speaking at the national conference of the Confederation of Indian Industry, felt there couldn’t be any end to the Naxal problem without winning people’s trust. In the prevailing conflict-situation people were in deep distress and the “government model was unable to deliver”. He said that Maoists were destroying with a design schools and anything symbolic of the government. In the process, according to him, they are happy as people cannot read (for lack of schools), people cannot communicate (for lack of telephones) and nothing can move in or out (for want of roads). “We have a formidable adversary whereas we have a weak administration (State governments)” said the Minister. By the admission of the state governments, the Minister said, one-third of the funds for developmental work could not be spent in the affected areas for a variety of reasons.
Wondering whether development should precede police action, Chidambaram underscored the difficulties of delivery in areas where the government could not even enter. He said “we have to be practical. In some areas it is possible, in some areas it is not ... The government would continue with its two pronged strategy of carrying forward its development effort and a calibrated and controlled police action in order to assert civilian authority in the affected areas.”
Neither the Planning Commission nor the Home Minister seemed to have been aware of how under the leadership of a gritty collector Maoists were pushed back in the badly affected Balaghat district of Madhya Pradesh. For his extraordinary achievements the collector, Gulshan Bhamra, was also bestowed with the Prime Minister’s Excellence Award in April 2010. Bhamra’s is a singular example of winning the trust of the people and bringing them back into the mainstream. Sheer inspired leadership, teamwork and grit won him spectacular results.
Balaghat district in Madhya Pradesh bordering on Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra was one of the 223 districts in the country that were severely affected by Naxalism. Infiltrating from Rajnandgaon district of Chhattigarh and Bhandara district of Maharashtra in the early 1990s, the Naxals quickly consolidated their hold in the largely forested district. Many of its villages, estimated to be around 400, were “liberated” and the State’s writ did not run in them. Killings and destruction of government property were commonplace events. A cabinet minister of the then Digvijay Singh government, LR Kavre, was killed in his house in his own village and the chief minister was not very sure whether he should take the risk of attending the funeral.
Things were so bad. Even Bhamra, after he was posted as collector, is reported to have assumed charge only after good deal of procrastination. However, once he joined, he gave to the job whatever he had and during his three-year tenure achieved results that were amazing and should have been trumpeted all over the country. Road connectivity in the district shot up from 520 km to 2,228 km. With roads rapidly coming up, telecom companies started installing cell-phone towers improving the connectivity with the wider world. About 28000 hectares of new lands were brought under irrigation. Harvesting of forest produce that had been suspended was resumed and the works of collection of tendu leaves and bamboo felling was re-started. The revenue from forest produce doubled from 28 crore in 2006-07 to 55 crore in 2008-09. As people got jobs closer home, migrations out of villages dropped from 4217 in 2005-06 to 2840 in 2008-09. The result of all these activities was progressive fall in Naxal activities. The number of attacks fell from 21 in 2005 to 7 in 2006 and, amazingly, none in 2009.
It is not that the government model failed everywhere, as Chidambaram lamented. It works but it depends on the genius of the district-head. In Balaghat, Bhamra went only after what was hurting the people most and resultantly exploited by the Maoists – non-availability of healthcare and medicines, lack of jobs, lack of roads and connectivity. He got it all from the people whom he would meet at the village “haats”. Besides, Bhamra adopted the integrated approach that Planning Commission has decided upon only now. For instance, instead of using the funds received under the NREGS in isolation, he integrated the developmental funds available under various central and state schemes and pumped them into the process of development. The works progressed fast and were further speeded up as the powers to monitor and supervise them were given to the people through the panchayats. More importantly, he led by example and the entire district administration lined up behind him to contribute to the common cause – the welfare of the people in order to defeat the Maoists. And, true enough they were beaten back, not by force but by the sheer will of an increasingly happier and contented people.
Balaghat’s is a model that is a welcome change for a nation so bedevilled by the Maoist violence. It should be tried elsewhere in the State where many districts offer fertile grounds for rise of Naxalism. It can even be replicated in other affected states, though maybe, it will not work in areas where the state has no presence. Elsewhere, however, similar approaches, founded on local needs, could be attempted to gradually wrest as many districts as possible from the hold of the Maoist’s. What is required is a firm political will at the top and, at the district level, an inspired leadership with commitment to the wellbeing of the people