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MORALE MURDERED
- Khunti now a dustbin district

Khunti, Sept. 22: Saranda, on the upswing, seems to have lent its robes of fear to Khunti, Jharkhand’s newest bloody turf. Yet, there is something deeply tragic in the catchy media coinage “killing fields of Khunti” that blots out hopes of over 5.3 lakh people of the young district carved out of Ranchi five years ago.

The birthplace of two genuine Jharkhand greats — freedom fighter Birsa Munda and hockey legend-turned-tribal leader Jaipal Singh Munda — it now symbolises everything that can go wrong in a district, from rebel violence to bureaucratic sloth to poor development.

Khunti celebrated five years as a district on September 10. Even now, the district abounds with marks of what can euphemistically be called teething troubles. The district transport office is ready but not functional. The district record room is ready, but Khunti raiyat land records are still in Ranchi. There is no district judge, Ranchi’s judicial commissioner continues to oversee Khunti. A new collectorate building at a cost of Rs 3.5 crore is still in the process of coming up on a road in Anigarha, Khunti.

When The Telegraph went for a visit, hushed whispers of “77 murders till August 19 by rebels” were doing the rounds. The small district with six police stations can rival many metros with its murder statistics — 112 in 2011, 91 in 2010, 73 in 2009 and 60 in 2008. It is a copybook northward climb.

The Telegraph could not meet police chief Amarnath Mishra, who was busy holding meetings with officers. Deputy commissioner Rakesh Kumar was away, too. Deputy development commissioner (DDC) Puskar Singh Munda, however, admitted “peace is lost”.

When asked why the pace of work was slow, he said Khunti’s reputation preceded it.

“Contractors aren’t interested in bidding for projects. If 15 tenders are issued, we get bids only for three or four. This is the biggest stumbling block,” the DDC said. “It is with great difficulty that we managed to build some schools buildings and panchayat offices.”

Residents of the district aren’t buying that fully. They feel that it was better off as a subdivision of Ranchi till five years back. “We continue to stay very poor. The district administration has made very little effort to improve our standard of life in the last five years,” said farmer Ram Swarup Prasad of village Hutupdag.

“There is no discipline among district officials,” said Gopal Ram Gonjhu, a senior advocate in the court of the deputy commissioner, his view seconded by many.

“Many officials stay in Ranchi, instead of at the district headquarters,” said advocate Shakil Pasa.

People wear their ancestry with pride — the Mundas were among the politically conscious tribals in South Chotanagpur belt. They remember Bhagvan Birsa, Marang Gomke (literally, great leader) Jaipal Singh and statehood leader N.E. Horo with reverence.

Coincidentally, both the Mundas were young achievers — Birsa fought against the British in his early 20s and died in 1900 behind bars at 25; Jaipal Singh captained the Indian hockey team which won gold in the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam when he was also 25.

Khunti, more than a 100 years later, ironically has nothing to offer its youths.

“By 7pm, we have to be indoors. If someone isn’t, family members worry,” said young lawyer Sushant Kumar Gonjhu of Hutupdag.

“Forget about night-life. We fear the streets after sunset,” concurs Om Prakash Gupta, who owns a departmental store at the local market.

If the residents are to be believed, the police don’t patrol after sunset.

“We are peace-loving. We are hardworking and want to prosper. I don’t know how we came to be tagged as a violent district,” mourns Khunti MP, Deputy Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the district’s most famous living son Karia Munda.

The veteran Parliamentarian, born in Anigarha, said during the past five years, they had managed to link every panchayat of the district with roads, installed drinking water facilities, but admitted that crime rates had surged.

He really didn’t need to say that people’s morale had taken a huge dip.

Of the 77 murders this year, only 19 have Maoist links, indicating that disputes, mostly over land, are leading to a crime spurt. It’s obvious that tolerance levels have plummeted.

“Khunti has always been politically conscious and its people have assumed leadership to assert tribal identity. But the present rise in anger and decrease in tolerance levels have to be examined,” said Karma Oraon, Ranchi University professor of anthropology.