Red star over Malkangiri

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By Maoists control large swathes of Malkangiri district in Orissa. Debaashish Bhattacharya travels to the backward area and finds it caught between government apathy and the diktats of armed Naxalites
  • Published 27.02.11

Chitrakonda tehsildar D. Gopalakrishna reports to the district collector of Malkangiri but has a super boss — the Maoists. Whenever the ultras “order” him to “report”, the Orissa revenue officer lands up blindfolded on a motorcycle sent to pick him up.

“They call me to their hideouts now and then and tell me to do this or that. We officers have no choice but to listen to them,” says the 52-year-old Orissa Administrative Service officer, who also acts as an executive magistrate.

The Orissa government may have bought the release of Malkangiri district collector R. Vineel Krishna —freed on Thursday after eight days in Maoist captivity — in exchange for a suspension of anti-Naxalite operations and a promise to release an undisclosed number of jailed Maoist leaders in the state. But in some ways, the administration is still held hostage to the ultra left rebels who control large swathes of Malkangiri, a remote tribal-dominated district on the southern tip of Orissa bordering Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

Gopalakrishna knows that well. When the Malkangiri district administration launched a revenue collection drive, the tehsildar and his team imposed a fine on villagers growing paddy on government land. One day, a motorcyclist came to his house and handed him a note from a dalam (Maoist group) leader who summoned him. He was blindfolded and taken deep inside a jungle, where the black cloth over his eyes was removed.

The dalam leader — surrounded by 30-odd men and women, all in olive uniforms, some of them carrying automatics — was in front of him. He told him to reduce the fine from Rs 100 to Rs 50 per acre. He was also asked to avoid imposing fines wherever possible. The tehsildar agreed.

“What can you do? This is the only way to survive here,” he says.

Few disagree in Malkangiri, a hilly forested district nearly 600km from the state capital of Bhubaneswar, where the rule of the law has long been replaced by the diktats of the armed Maoists.

To be sure, Malkangiri — carved out of undivided Koraput district in October 1992 with a population consisting mainly of Bonda, Koya, Poraja and Didayi tribes, apart from Bengali settlers — has long been a synonym for government apathy and neglect.

Locals blame coastal leaders for their woes, saying that coastal districts have traditionally dominated Orissa politics. Successive governments, they hold, have largely ignored the underdeveloped regions of the state, a charge that the state government denies. “It may have been true earlier but not any more. The Naveen Patnaik government is pumping crores into Malkangiri and other Naxalite-affected districts in the state under different government schemes,” an Orissa government minister says.

Some argue that Naxalites, who clamour for tribal development, have actually contributed to Malkangiri’s underdevelopment. Roads may be the vehicle for development, but they also give access to security forces. So the rebels allow very few roads to be built or repaired across the 1,045-village district. The Maoists come in the way of building culverts and bridges too.

The 100-km-long Malkangiri-Jeypore road, the district’s only link to the rest of the state, is a case in point. The road is a never-ending stretch of craters, some of them deep enough to swallow a small car.

Officials acknowledge that connectivity is the main problem plaguing the district, once part of the Dandakaranya project set up in September 1958 to rehabilitate displaced Bengalis from what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh.

“We are floating tenders for the construction of roads and bridges but few contractors are willing to participate because of Maoist threats,” Malkangiri additional district magistrate Sunderlal Seal says. “Once you have roads, development follows.”

The Maoists have also foiled attempts to build a crucial bridge over the Gurupriya river, connecting villages cut off from the mainland because of a dam. Gammon India Ltd, the engineering and construction company, started preliminary work in 2007 after winning a tender. In 2008, the company withdrew from the project under Maoist threats.

But Naxalites are only half the story in Malkangiri, submerged in poverty with a literacy rate of only 31 per cent.

Take the Balimela hydroelectric project. It may well have electrified villages elsewhere but not the 151 villages severed from the mainland because of the dam created for the project. These villages — linked to Chitrakonda by an erratic launch service — were plunged in darkness until district collector Vineel Krishna, an IAS officer and an IIT Madras graduate, took it upon himself to “empower” the villages, as an official puts it.

During Krishna’s 13-month tenure, 11 villages were provided with electricity under a central scheme. Work is on to electrify another 27 villages in that area.

In fact, on February 16, the day he was abducted, the collector had inaugurated the electrification of a village before leaving for a jan sampark programme at Badapada. That was when a group of Maoists, posing as locals, persuaded him to visit Papermetla on a motorcycle. On his way back, Maoist rebels stopped the vehicle and abducted him and the motorcyclist, junior engineer Pabitra Majhi.

As was his wont, Krishna was travelling without his personal security officer or any armed escort that usually accompany senior officials visiting Naxalite areas. But the collector thought he was safe because he was working for the people of region.

The list of all that he has done is a long one. But prominent among them is the distribution of land rights to nearly 5,000 tribal families living in forests in the cut-off area and elsewhere in the district.

He set the clock of progress ticking in Malkangiri, where Biju Janata Dal member and former sarpanch Ganesh Chandra Mondal says nothing moves without bribes. If locals are to be believed, 30 per cent of the cost of a construction project goes to a section of officials who are corrupt. About 5 per cent goes to the Maoists. “Who will carry out a project here,” asks a Malkangiri civil contractor.

Malkangiri has no industry worth speaking of. The banking sector has been hit too. Bad loans are mounting at the State Bank of India’s Chitrakonda branch. “We have now more than Rs 25 lakh in non-performing assets, as no bank employee wants to go to villages to recover loans,” branch manager R.K. Behera says.

After Maoists ambushed an SBI van carrying cash and looted Rs 99 lakh last April, the branch has been facing a serious funds crunch. “The insurance claim has not been settled yet and we have stopped bringing cash from Malkangiri,” he says.

The fear is palpable. Intelligence source say at least 250 armed Maoist cadre members, who belong to the CPI (Maoist)’s Andhra-Orissa border special zone committee, are operating in the district. They are split into different groups, named after places.

In their fiercest attack yet, they killed 38 jawans of the anti-Naxal Greyhounds force in June 2008. Officials say they blew up several panchayat offices and schools last year, forcing security forces staying there to move to camps.

The Maoists have left their telltale signs all over Malkangiri. A 40-foot cemented memorial, painted red with an iron hammer and sickle perched atop, presides over Janbai Ghat, another gateway to the cut-off area barely 20km from Chitrakonda. It is dedicated to fallen Maoist leaders Patel Sudhakar Rao and Venkatiah. “The blood of the martyrs will not go to waste. Let the young men and women join the movement in hundreds,” a plaque reads.

Seventeen people were killed last year, police stations attacked and their guns and ammunition looted. To counter the Naxals, three battalions of the Border Security Force (BSF) and six units of the special operation group of the state police have been deployed in the district. “We are now in a better position because of the reinforcements but the cut-off area remains a major problem mainly because of poor communications,” says Malkangiri superintendent of police Anirudh Kumar Singh, who has asked for three more battalion of paramilitary forces.

The Chitrakonda police station, guarded by BSF jawans, looks like a fortress, with barbed wires and sandbags thrown around it. “The fear of the BSF is keeping away both the Naxalites and the locals,” says a policeman.

Shaking off years of inertia, the district administration is making efforts to develop the backward district. It is constructing 100 hostels for tribal students and has asked the state government to turn five high schools into junior colleges. An archery institute has been set up to train tribal boys. It has also proposed that the mobile health units for tribals be doubled from five to 10.

Nearly 22,500 tribal families living inside forests have been given land pattas (deeds), a tribal rights issue often cashed in on by the Maoists.

But for local government officials, life in the district is full of danger.

The Chitrakonda tehsildar, for one, wants out. “I have given representations to the government twice for transfer since I have completed more than three years here but no one is willing to come here to replace me,” says Gopalakrishna.

After all, who’d be willing to serve the super bosses of Malkangiri?