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FOREST LAW

Lawless elements have a field day when the government abdicates its responsibility. That seems to be increasingly the case in large parts of Jharkhand where the writ of the Naxalites, rather than that of the government, runs. Officials of the Steel Authority of India Limited faced this bitter truth when they went to undertake a survey of two iron-ore mines in the West Singbhum district. The survey, necessary for the expansion of the mines that supply iron ore to the Bokaro Steel Plant, has been abandoned after four SAIL officials were abducted last month by rebels belonging to the Maoist Communist Centre. This, however, is no isolated incident in a state where Maoist extremists have long defied the law with impunity. But it once again shows how the rebels can disrupt the supply of raw materials and thereby hold industrial units to ransom. A joint operation by the Central reserve police force and the Jharkhand armed police in the Jhumra hills in Bokaro last week found something even more ominous. While Operation Hilltop, as it was called, busted some MCC camps in the forests, it found stacks of gelatine which had the markings of the Indian Explosives Limited factory at Gomia nearby. This suggested that the rebels and their accomplices had access to the high-security defence production unit or to the adjacent coalmines which used such explosives.

The operation encountered yet another harsh reality that the government never reached these forests or the lives of the poor people there. The Naxalites, and not any government agency, dug the wells which were the only source of drinking water in the area. There were no roads, no electricity or even the rudiments of an infrastructure for education or healthcare. The utter indifference of the administration made these forested hills a happy hunting ground for the MCC. Busting the rebel camps during an operation is at best a partial victory. The government needs a two-pronged strategy to permanently weed the Naxalites out. There can be no let-up in the pressure to flush the rebels out. At the same time, the administration must earnestly reach out to the people with welfare schemes to make a difference to their lives. Much of the economic prosperity of Jharkhand has been confined for far too long to industrial towns and other urban centres. The government cannot afford to lose any more time to bring the backyards of Hazaribagh or Palamau into the ambit of its development projects. For the abject poverty of the backward regions remains a drag on the overall economy of the state. The Naxalite threat only makes the prospect grimmer.

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