| Union minister Jairam Ramesh, local officials and villagers in tow, negotiates a slushy road in Saranda’s Digha on Wednesday. Picture by Gautam Dey
Manoharpur (Saranda), Sept. 12: Union minister Jairam Ramesh travelled 410km by road, walked a few kilometres and visited a number of households in the forests of Saranda today, content with the knowledge that fear was no longer the key in this former Maoist stronghold.
“Phone to nahi ata hai unka (Are you still getting calls from them),” the rural development minister asked villagers, referring to calls from local Naxalite leaders, a regular feature in the lives of people of Manoharpur block, 56 villages of which the Saranda development plan hopes to transform.
The answer to that poser was overwhelmingly “no”, something that made it worthwhile for Ramesh, who was on his fourth visit to the region as the prime architect of the Centre’s Rs 249 crore plan for the once inaccessible region.
Ramesh looked happier this time. “I know the pace of development is a bit slow. It is because it takes time to do the right thing the right way in government departments,” he told The Telegraph.
The families he spoke to sounded satisfied about the security environment, a far cry from last few decades when Maoists ruled the forests. Although challenges were many — access to proper roads, healthcare, livelihood, irrigation facilities — the biggest takeaway for the minister was that the people of Saranda were speaking out.
“There was a time when people feared to even shake hands with me here. But, such has been the change that people have started to speak out. For example, today, I have collected almost 250 complaints which I am taking along with myself for early redressal,” he said after inaugurating a Rs 43.57-lakh watershed management project that will help irrigate over 90,000 acre — one-third of the total agricultural land in the Saranda area.
“We are hopeful this project will provide benefits in the next five years, wherein we have envisaged drinking water access for nearly 6,000 people and multi-crop facility in certain areas,” he explained.
Soon, over 2,400 CRPF jawans living at a nearby camp would buy their vegetables from villages, the minister hoped.
Ramesh also recognised that problems did exist at the ground level, in reference to a report carried by The Telegraph today about villagers complaining that the solar lamps gifted by him during earlier visits had stopped working.
“But overall, the air seems to be changing,” he said even as he noted grievances about poor medical facilities and lack of employment opportunities.
Elaborating on the future of the Saranda development plan that will serve as a benchmark for other Maoist-hit states, Ramesh said the West Singhbhum region would have as many as 11 village roads.
Work on two of these roads were nearly complete, while contractors had been chosen for the remaining projects.
“Saranda will be home to the country’s longest road, of 80km, under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojna. It is between Chotanagara near Manoharpur and Digha in Saranda via Thalkobad. It is a Rs 30-crore project,” he said.