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Rice to win over tribals
A family returns home from the block office after learning that there is no more rice to be distributed. (Amit Datta)

Lalgarh, June 23: Bullets cannot isolate Maoists, bowls of rice can.

Realising the importance of delivering basic necessities to wean the villagers who had joined in the Lalgarh rebellion away from the guerrillas, the state government is trying to revive development projects in the region.

At the Binpur I block office this afternoon, the administrative heads of West Midnapore — district magistrate S.N. Nigam and his assistant Ashwini Yadav — and block development officer Saurav Barik drew up a short-term relief and rehabilitation blueprint for the region.

“There are 54 ration shops in the area but they have not been functioning properly for months. We will revive them to ensure food,” said Barik.

After being shut for over a fortnight, the block office op- ened yesterday and people queued up to collect rice.

“We had got 10 tonnes of rice as special relief from the government and we distributed a significant part of it yesterday. We are getting another consignment and will distribute it in consultation with the panchayats starting tomorrow,” said the BDO, adding that children and the old would be provided with oatmeal.

Reviving the panchayats, defunct since last November, is the other challenge.

Although the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities and its Maoist collaborators are active in the villages inside Lalgarh, the local administration is optimistic about involving the panchayats in the revival programme.

According to a block official, the involvement of some prominent members of the committee in yesterday’s rice distribution will help restore faith in the administration. “If we can stand by the people and provide them with basic necessities, we can win their confidence and normality will return soon,” said a senior district official.

According to him, another immediate priority is recasting the list of people below the poverty line.

Government records show around 30,000 people in Lalgarh, which has a population of over 1.5 lakh, live below the poverty line. But a block official said the figure was a “gross underestimation”.

“More people will be included in the list to ensure the benefits trickle down.”

As the tribal community depends on sal leaves for their sustenance, the block office has finalised a plan to distribute sewing machines to families to help them stitch up sal-leaf plates, cups and bowls. For the woodcutter Lodha community, the block office will procure saws and axes.

But the most important task facing the administration is income generation. Only 20 to 25 per cent people in Lalgarh have cultivable land. Although the local administration had distributed job cards among villagers to involve them in the national rural employment guarantee scheme, very few got the benefits of the country’s biggest rural development project.

“We’ll revive the job scheme within a week and engage people in projects,” said Barik.

With the government keen to ensure return of normality, funds are certain to flow for short-term relief but the real challenge lies in preparing a long-term development plan for the region.

Data from the block office revealed that for over 1.5 lakh people in Lalgarh, there are only three primary health centres. There are 35 primary schools but the Lalgarh gram panchayat area doesn’t even have a secondary institution, leave alone a college.

“Development means ensuring better quality of life for people. The government had neglected this for so long. If it fails again, the consequences will be grave,” said a professor of development economics in Calcutta.

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