#India – Activist, PMRD fellow, being victimised in Gadchiroli mining row #TISS #WTFnews

Gadchiroli, June 25, 2013

Pavan Dahat, The Hindu 

The mining row, which saw a senior executive of a company and two others being killed by the Naxals last week, has taken a new twist with the police now targeting an activist and a Prime Minister Rural Development Fellow (PMRDF) for alleged links with the Naxals.

A team of the Gadchiroli police’s special anti-Naxal unit — C-60 — claimed to have raided a village, Kovunwarsi, in Etapalli tehsil of the district on June 20 and arrested Sunil Yeshu Hichami (27) and Paika Majhi Pungati (45) over the allegation of collecting funds for the Naxals.

Police also claimed that Mahesh Raut, a PMRDF, and Harshali Potdar, an activist from Mumbai, were present in the village when they arrested the Naxals.

A leading English newspaper on Sunday reported that Ms. Potdar and Mr. Raut had been booked under Sections 13, 39 and 40 of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).

But Aheri Additional Superintendent of Police Rahul Shreerame said that both of them were just questioned for some time and let off. Mr. Shreerame denied having registered any offence against Ms. Potdar and Mr. Raut.

Contrastingly, Superintendent of Police (SP) Suvez Haque said the police had, in fact, booked them under various offences “because they were found in the same village from where other two Naxals were arrested.”

However, Gadchiroli police PRO Dharmendra Joshi told The Hindu that both Ms. Potdar and Mr. Raut had been let off after some “preliminary questioning.”

A top district official of Gadchiroli told The Hindu on the condition of anonymity that the police had not registered any offence as reported by the English newspaper and as claimed by the SP.

This district official also questioned as to why both Ms. Potdar and Mr. Raut had not been taken into custody if the police booked them for such serious offences.

But Ms. Potdar and Mr. Raut (both alumni of Tata Institute of Social Sciences) and the villagers of Kowanwarsi had an entire different chain of events to narrate.

“As a PMRD Fellow, I often visit these interior areas. On June 20 also, I went to visit these villages one by one. Harshali, who is studying the environmental threat caused by the proposed mining projects in this area, also accompanied me to these villages. At around 9.00 a.m., we reached Kovunwarsi and decided to take a nap at the house of the village Patil. At 10.00 a.m., a team of C-60 came to the village and arrested some people. They asked for our identity cards and told us to proceed with our work,” Mr. Raut told The Hindu .

“When we were returning to Allapalli in the evening, the police stopped us and took us to the Pranhita Police Headquarters where they questioned us for more than 30 hours,” he added.

Police alleged that Ms. Potdar and Mr. Rauthad gone to Kovunwarsi village to meet senior Naxal leader Narmada Akka.

But Ms. Potdar, Mr. Raut and the villagers have denied these claims.

“They came to inspect village infrastructure. They were sleeping in my house when the police arrested some Naxals from another house,” said Joga Buklu Hedau, the village Patil.

Even the District Collector of Gadchiroli, Abhishekh Krishna, said that Mr. Raut often visited interior areas in the Aheri division for his work.

“His work has been the best among all other PMRD fellows who work under me,” said Mr. Krishna.

According to Amol Marakwar, a Zila Parishad member of Gadchiroli, Ms. Potdar and Mr. Raut were being targeted for their “visible opposition” to the proposed mining projects in Surajagad Gatta range.

“Harshali had very strongly raised objections to these projects in a public hearing in Allapalli last month. Now she has been harassed for publicly opposing it” said Mr. Marakwar.

Mr. Haque did question Ms. Potdar and Mr. Raut’s open opposition to the proposed mining projects in this area.

“How can they oppose the government’s projects despite being a part of the government?” asked the SP.

Ms. Potdar confirmed that the majority of questions addressed to her were related to mining.

“They even asked me why we had two CDs of Kabira Kala Manch and why I saved some of the contacts in my mobile phone as ‘Comrades’. They even had problem with some people greeting me with Lal Salam and Jai Bhim . They searched our house and our laptop is with them now,” said Ms. Potdar.

Presently, the police at Aheri headquarters calls the duo for questioning on a regular basis. Some times Ms. Potdar is asked to come to the police station even after 6.00 p.m.

The duo has not been told if they have been booked or not.

“They asked us to sign on a blank paper, but we refused” said Mr. Raut.

Mr. Marakwar called the police exercise “an attempt to destroy roadblocks against the proposed mining projects in the area” and a “blatant violation of Human Rights.”


Maharashtra- Protest brewing in Red zone as another project proposed in the tribal land

Gatta (Gadchiroli), May 18, 2013



  • Tribals of the project affected villages. No one wants the Jindal project here. Photo: Pavan Dahat
    The Hindu Tribals of the project affected villages. No one wants the Jindal project here. Photo: Pavan Dahat
  • Tribals of the project affected villages. No one wants the Jindal project here. Photo: Pavan Dahat
    The Hindu Tribals of the project affected villages. No one wants the Jindal project here. Photo: Pavan Dahat
  • Tribals of the project affected villages. No one wants the Jindal project here. Photo: Pavan Dahat
    The Hindu Tribals of the project affected villages. No one wants the Jindal project here. Photo: Pavan Dahat

Suklal Baldir Topo, a Tribal of Jhajawandi village in Etapalli tehsil of Gadchiroli district, is a concerned man these days.

Suklal is concerned about the proposed JSW ISPAT Iron Ore Mining project in Damkodvadavi hills, hardly a few kilometers from his village.

“I have seen my son grow up here and then his sons and daughters. Where would we go if this project comes here” asks Suklal.

Almost all the villagers of 17 villages in Gatta and Gardewada Gram Panchayats in Etapalli tehsil of Gadchiroli district share Suklal’s concern.

The JSW ISPAT Steel Limited has proposed an iron ore mining unit over 751.04 hectares of land on Damkodvadavi hills to produce 5.5 MTPA (Maximum Rated Capacity) of Iron Ore for which crushing and screening plant (3 x 250 TPH) will be installed in the mine lease area.

The JSW has been given mining lease for a period of 20 years. The produce of this unit will be used to meet the iron ore requirements of JSW Steel plant in Dolvi, Maharashtra.

A public hearing related to the environment impact of this iron ore mine project was held in Allapalli town on May 8 in the absence of the villagers from all 17 villages.

The Public hearing took place despite the Gatta Gram Sabha passing a resolution against the proposed project on May 1.

“The company or the government officials did not make available any information about the effects of this project directly or indirectly to all 17 villages in Madia language. The company carried out study of the area from the census document of 2001.But the proposed project requires approval of the concerned villages Gram Sabhas which was never taken. Forest is the mainstay of Adivasis living near the proposed project site and mining will badly damage water, soil, forest and air resulting in danger to our lives. Which measures will the company take to prevent this damage? The project will endanger the lives of birds and animals in this area and destruction of forest will result in the imbalance of environment. This area does not have skilled people to be given employment in this project. We don’t trust the company and the government to keep their promises. This Gram Sabha passes a resolution that we oppose the proposed public hearing of the project and the government should not give permission for this project and if it has given the permission, then it should be cancelled ” reads the resolution passed by Gatta Gram Sabha, a copy of which is available with The Hindu.

Etapalli and Gatta are known to be Naxal zone and the Naxal’s writ runs large in the area after Gatta village.

The public hearing of the project was conducted 70 km away in Allapalli town for “security reasons”, according to Gadchiroli District Collector Abhishek Krishna.

But Mr. Krishna refused to comment when asked how the project will be put up if even a public hearing has to be conducted 70 km away.

“The District administration’s job was to help the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board in conducting the public hearing and to send the proceedings to the government. The government will decide on the next course of action” said the Collector.

Hardly anyone in these villages knew about the proposed project until May 1, says Ravi Atram of Gatta village.

“There is something that this government is trying to hide. The advertisement of the public hearing was published in one English and one Marathi newspaper which hardly come to these interior areas” says activist Anand Dahagavkar.

“But the district authorities ignored the pleas of activists to postpone the public hearing in the absence of project affected people” said Amol Marakwar, the Zilla Parishad member of Gadchiroli who was present in the public hearing.

“The tribals depend on forest for their livelihood and this project, if granted permission, will destroy the tribal culture and life here. Everyone knows how much pollution an iron ore mine project causes” added Mr. Marakwar.

The Naxals have also jumped into the bandwagon and have made their opposition to the project clear.

According to some reliable sources, three days before the public hearing in Allapalli, the Naxals called a meeting of all the project affected villages and assured them the “CPI(Maoist)’s complete support against the Jindal project”.

Almost all the affected villages visited by this reporter in this area, do not want this project to come.

“We are happy with our life now. We will not leave this place even if they offer us Rs. 10 lakhs” says Madi Danu Hido of Kowanvarsi village.

According to activists, the JSW and the government have not said anything about the number villagers to be rehabilitated due to this project.

Rajan Malani of the JSW Ispat said “No village will be relocated. Everything is at an initial stage now. Just a public hearing has happened. And the public hearing was the administration’s lookout. They could have taken it in Nagpur. Our company is very strict about its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and we will do everything that can be done to help all these villages”.

“Mining does not cause much pollution. Our company and the government is very strict regarding this and all the environmental regulations will be followed strictly. And as far as security is concerned, again it’s administration’s responsibility. The government’s help will be taken for security” added Mr. Malani.

But Mr. Malani refused to comment on the resolution passed by Gatta Gram Sabha against the project.

The local MLA Deepak Atram who staged a token protest in Etapalli in protest of public hearing taking place in Allapalli says, “Whether we want it or not this project will come because the Jindal group is a strong group and they have government with them. They will put up CRPF camps if they decide to go ahead with the project”.

Mr. Atram does not have objection to the project but he expressed his displeasure over the way it is being brought.

“It will provide job opportunities to the educated youth of our region” says the MLA but has no answer when asked about the possible destruction of Tribal livelihood dependent on forest in this area.

But Mr. Atram as well as activists working in this area, are concerned about the possibility of an intensified conflict between the Naxals and security forces if the government remains adamant on bringing the project here “because the project’s proposed location is almost a Liberated Zone”.


Public hearing sans public for Jindal plant in Gadchiroli

Aparna Pallavi
Issue Date:

Affected people stage boycott, administration carries on nevertheless

Additional collector  
Sanjay Dhivre, who chaired the public hearing, argues with activists  
protesting that the hearing was illegal (photos by Aparna Pallavi)Additional collector Sanjay Dhivre, who chaired the public hearing, argues with activists who were protesting that the hearing was illegal (Photos by Aparna Pallavi)

Despite a boycott staged by 17 villages affected by a proposed iron mine project, a public hearing for it was held at Alapalli in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district on May 8.

Additional collector Sanjay Dhivre, who chaired the hearing, and Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) regional officer Nilkanth Nigul, who was part of the panel, ignored repeated pleas of activists and public to cancel the proceedings in view of the absence of the affected people and various illegalities committed by the Jindal group company and the administration in holding the hearing. They also pointed out that the panel of the public hearing was incomplete as per regulations since the sarpanch and gram sevaks of the two affected gram panchayats (Gardewada and Gatta) were not included on the panel.

Activist Harshali Poddar brought to the panel’s attention a gram sabha resolution drawn up by the residents of village Damkondwahi in the Gatta gram panchayat where the project by JSW Ispat Steel Limited has been proposed. The resolution, drawn on May 1, this year stated clearly the residents were against the project and directed the administration not to grant permission to the project. The resolution was submitted to the Etapalli tehsildar on the same day for appropriate action, but no cognisance was taken, she pointed out.

Activists and residents of Dhanora and Sironcha tehsils in the district who were attending the hearing in solidarity with the project-affected people raised slogans demanding the cancellation of the hearing. However, instead of taking cognizance of the grievances, Dhivre called the police to force the activists into silence.

Harsha Poddar and her colleague Anand are forced into silence by police  
personnel Harsha Poddar and her colleague Anand are forced into silence by police personnel

During the rest of the hearing, which lasted about three hours, repeated arguments broke out between Dhivre and the activists, resulting in several rounds of police intervention, and the speakers were forced to speak while being surrounded by police personnel.

EIA lies, procedural violations

During the hearing, Poddar and Anand from the Bharat Jan Andolan pointed out that MPCB had not displayed the notice of the public hearing at the Gadrewada and Gatta panchayat offices, and that only a single copy of the executive summary of the environment impact assessment (EIA) had been made available. What is more, JSW steel had not even submitted a Marathi EIA, as required by regulations. They also trashed the claims of MPCB of having issued public notices in a local English and Marathi newspaper, saying the affected people were highly vulnerable Madia tribals whose literacy rate was extremely low and no newspaper was available in the project area.

Poddar pointed out that the EIA itself contained many lacunae. For instance, while the June 26, 2009 notification of the Ministry of Environment and Forests mentioned allotting 995 hectares (ha) to the project, the EIA mentioned an additional 213 ha of which no account was given.

The EIA also did not provide the mandatory methodology and study details used to arrive at conclusions regarding various environmental aspects like flora and fauna, drainage patterns and so on. Several groups objected to the hearing being held at Allapalli, 80 km away from the project area, and demanded it be cancelled and rescheduled to be held where the affected people could attend. Others raised objections regarding the fact that the mine was not accompanied by industry which could generate local employment.

Anand exhibits evidence showing people in Gatta and Gadrewala had no  
notice of the public hearing   Anand exhibits evidence showing people in Gatta and Gadrewala had no notice of the public hearing

Irfan Khan, a resident of Etapalli tehsil where the project area is located, said the project should not be justified on grounds of corporate responsibility promises made by the Jindal group, “Government should organise for education and welfare on its own, not depend on corporate,” he said.

Some 100 bogus speakers recruited by the company, comprising rural women from Gadchiroli who were not sure why they had been brought there, and company employees were not allowed to speak at the hearing by the activists.

Administration ‘unaware’ of procedural lapses

Talking to Down To Earth after the hearing, additional collector Dhivre made a surprising statement. Whether the hearing was legal or not was none of his business, he said. “I had been asked to chair the proceedings, and I have done that,” he said.

MPCB regional officer Nigul said he had received no objections regarding procedural violations since the public hearing notice was put up. “We cannot entertain objections at the last moment,” he said. He also denied knowledge of the gram sabha resolution opposing the project.

The brazen manner in which the hearing was conducted has led to widespread public discontent in the area. MLA Namdeo Usendi of Gadchiroli has issued an objection letter to the administration regarding the issue. Local MLA Deepak Atram, who had demanded that the protest be held at Etapalli, and held a protest during the hearing itself, has also extended support to the protest against the hearing. Vidarbha Environment Action Group, which was instrumental in forcing Wardha district administration to organise a repeat public hearing for Lanco Infratech’s coal fired power plant, is preparing to challenge the hearing in court, informed Sudhir Paliwal of the group.


Source URL: http://www.downtoearth.org.in/content/public-hearing-sans-public-jindal-plant-gadchiroli


#India- Gadchiroli where 16 panchayat leaders killed, and over 200 others forced to quit

Inside the republic of fear

With at least 16 panchayat leaders killed, and over 200 others forced to quit this year, TEHELKA travels to Gadchiroli to gauge the stranglehold of the Naxals on the region
Revati Laul

December 13, 2012, Issue 51 Volume 9

Where is the government? Less than 10 km from Jimalgatta police station, panchayat leaders were shamed at a Naxal-led Jan SunwaiWhere is the government? Less than 10 km from Jimalgatta police station, panchayat leaders were shamed at a Naxal-led Jan Sunwai

“If they say it’s 4 o’clock, you can’t argue and tell them it’s 5. If they say the sun rises from the west, you have to say it does.”

PULLAYA ERRA Veladi knew exactly what he was talking about. He had spent five days and nights in captivity, a blindfold around his eyes. Kidnapped by the Naxals from his village — Jimalgatta in Aheri, a tiny block in the south of Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra, the heart of Naxal country. Flanked by the Naxal ‘headquarters’ in Chhattisgarh on one side and their stronghold in Andhra Pradesh on the other. Veladi was kidnapped for being the sarpanch of the Jimalgatta gram panchayat for 20 years. It was part of the Naxal’s new game plan for Gadchiroli in 2012. A year when local elections were to be held in the district was a chance for the Naxals to turn what had been their ‘safe zone’ into a ‘liberated zone’. An extension of their own Jantana sarkar from one side of the Dandakaranya forest in Chhattisgarh, to the other side in Maharashtra. By capturing and killing some panchayat and zila parishad leaders so that the rest resign in fear.

It has been a bad year for Gadchiroli. The killing of sarpanches and other panchayat leaders had begun in January. On the 28th of the month, in Bhamragarh block, three members of the CPI(Maoist)’s quick action team shot dead Panchayat Samiti Chairman Bahadurshah Alam while he was sipping his morning chai at a tea stall in the town square. Eyewitnesses told the local media that they shouted “Alam Murdabad, Lal Salaam Zindabad” as they fled.

At least 16 other district- and village-level leaders were killed across Gadchiroli this year. By 15 July, over 200 elected members had resigned from panchayat and zila parishad posts. The last to be killed was a former sarpanch — Narayan Srirangi from the Sironcha taluka. Killed on 20 November, just a few days before TEHELKA visited the district.

“Thirty years ago, the first incident of Naxal violence took place in Gadchiroli when they chopped off the hands of a schoolteacher named Raju. Now they chop off heads,” says our guide Arvind Sovani, who teaches at Nagpur University and has surveyed the gram panchayats in Gadchiroli for the Central government’s Backward Regions Grant Fund programme. Sovani has a keen academic interest in issues of tribal rights, violence and the State.

ZOOMING OUT from the villages racked with fear, Gadchiroli’s violence may look like a small blip on the Naxal radar. But it represents a paralysis at the local level, spread over eight of the 12 blocks of the district, affecting 4 lakh people for whom the weakening of the local administration is a tangible loss. A sharp spike in Naxal violence in one of India’s most prosperous states is alarming even if its geographical extent seems small. That’s why the state’s Home Minister RR Patil and Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan have made frequent statements about attempts to contain Naxal violence. Most of those statements refer to this hotbed — Gadchiroli. That’s also why this district alone has 15,000 troops on patrol — CRPF, state police and Special Forces working on the ground to fight the Naxals. In March this year, the Naxals blew up a bus carrying a group of CRPF jawans, killing 12. But to tell that part of the story just yet would be to jump too far ahead.

First, it’s important to see how the kidnapping of former sarpanch Veladi finally unfolded. He and his other companions-in-captivity were released as part of a grand and very public ceremony by the Naxals in Jimalgatta village. More than 100 Naxals, including senior cadre and a charismatic leader with the code name ‘Madhu’, called their own kangaroo court — a Jan Sunwai at a public gathering of a clutch of villages. Many sarpanches — both former and current — were invited and made to stand in front of the gathering. It was a political show that went on for eight hours in broad daylight, less than 10 km from the Jimalgatta police station. The media, too, was invited. More than 2,000 villagers gathered to hear the Naxal leaders speak. One of them told TEHELKA, “It was a riveting experience. I took my wife along. People had even brought their kids. Their leader Madhu was a brilliant speaker. We wish our elected leaders were even half as charismatic.”

Before Veladi and his companions were released at the meeting, all the panchayat leaders present were asked to line up in front of the crowd and a Naxal leader asked them: “Tell us, as local representatives of the people, can you say, hands to your hearts, that you can wipe out the scourge of corruption in this country? Swear to your people that you can do that, or step down from your posts.”

It was a political masterstroke. Fear had forced many leaders to resign anyway. But to shame them in front of a crowd was to mop up massive political capital that the Naxals had been losing in other states.

A spate of resignations by local leaders followed. In Korchi block, nearly 60 officials resigned in one day. So great was the fear that not even one dared admit why they resigned; instead, they stated reasons like their demands not being met by the State.

Except for one panchayat leader, Rushi Portet, who in one brave and indignant act, turned his resignation into a political counter-manoeuvre. He wrote a letter that ended up cleverly to win him back his approval with the people. Portet, a tribal leader, had been working as the sarpanch of Dechli Petha for 10 years. He wrote: “A Jan Adalat was conducted where the Naxals asked all the assembled leaders if they could stop corruption… I said it is impossible for me to stop corruption as I belong to the smallest rung in the system. Therefore, I promised I would resign.” In so doing, Portet had admitted publicly what the other leaders had been too scared to do. That it was under fear of the Naxals that the resignations had taken place and that there had been a mass kangaroo court were now part of official lexicon. It was his way of fighting back.

In the neighbouring Etapalli block, however, a sarpanch who had quit, requested TEHELKA not to reveal his name or the village he was from. There was fear in his eyes as he listed the many ways in which the Naxals exercised control. “We cannot avail of insurance when someone dies, we can’t have roads built, and we can’t avail of agricultural or other government schemes.” In his village, the Naxals have replaced government schemes with some of their own. For a local pond to be dug, they gave the village some money. “But they don’t give as much as the equivalent government scheme,” he says. In Bhamragarh block, the Naxals had even held a cricket tournament in 2011 for school children with one of their commanders giving away prizes.

In Etapalli block, we also met Rama Raoji Naroti as she sifted some very lowgrade rice in her field. The rice looked more like a brownish gruel. It came from a farm that, our source informed us, was part of a scheme devised by the Naxals. Farming in the village was organised as if it were a commune. One part of the week is dedicated to tending to your own crop. The second part, to working your neighbour’s crop, and a third part, to looking after a patch reserved exclusively for the Naxals. In the block where Naroti’s village practised the Naxal way of farming, several local leaders had been killed. In April, a sarpanch, Chamru Kulle Joi, was kidnapped and killed by the Naxals. Two days later, the deputy sarpanch, and then a zila parishad member, were also killed.

As we entered Etapalli, we saw evidence of Naxal violence that had taken place just the previous night. Two large yellow JCB earth-moving machines had been burnt down to stop a road from being built.

On a signboard we passed in the block was emblazoned in red a message from the Naxals urging everyone to support the “people’s war” for Telangana — a clear indication that this was their turf.

GADCHIROLI HAS been on the Naxal radar since at least 1982. Thirty years on, the ‘people’s war’ is less and less about the people. But its sympathisers in universities in Nagpur and Mumbai still draw on the original idealism embodied by its leaders like Kobad Ghandy and his wife Anuradha, who had moved to Nagpur in 1982 to expand the Naxal movement in Maharashtra. Kobad, a Doon school and St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, alumnus, and Anuradha, an Elphinstone College, Mumbai, graduate with an MPhil in sociology, were magnets that attracted many to Naxalism. Two people who dropped out of their comfortable, city lives for a punishingly harsh guerrilla life in the forest.

With Kobad now in Tihar jail in Delhi and Anuradha having died of cerebral malaria contracted in the jungles, the next generation of intellectuals is far less mesmerised by ideas of forming a dictatorship of the people. But, in some loose sense, those ideas still drive an older generation of tribals, mainly because of local-level corruption and the indifference of the State.

“Most of the panchayat leaders in Gadchiroli operate as contractors,” says Sovani. With Gadchiroli listed as one of the 29 “most affected Naxal zones” in the country, for the local government, it’s raining money. The Centre pumps Rs 25 crore every year into the district. But this money goes into a peculiar loop that Devendra Gawande, the writer of a Marathi book Naxalwaadache Aahvaan, describes. He writes: “The total population of Gadchiroli is 9 lakh. Of that, one half — 4 lakh people — are in the Naxal zone. But whatever government funds come in, it all ends up benefiting the other half because no one dares to go into the Naxal areas.”

‘Because of Naxals, we can’t have roads built, or avail of government schemes,’ says a sarpanch who quit

If the local government is lining its pockets with money, so are the Naxals, whose tall speeches against local-level corruption come completely unstuck when we look at their track record. Gawande claims that after scaring sarpanches into resigning, the Naxals turned into extortionists. He describes how they knocked on the doors of scared local leaders, asking them to pay a fine for having contested elections. The fines collected this year alone amounted to Rs 4 crore, he says.

To make matters worse, the Naxals’ claim of being the protectors of the forests also has its sinister flip side. They have a tacit understanding with paper mills in the area, allowing them to cut bamboo from the forest for as much as 3 crore in a year. In return, the locals are terrorised by the Naxals into not cutting the bamboo. It’s a reality the local administration corroborated for TEHELKA, albeit off the record. Such is the fear of the Naxals in Gadchiroli that even the administration is guarded about the official statements they make.

Typifying the pathetic irony of a war zone, in Gadchiroli there is now an abundance of wealth. And it’s all being collected in the name of the impoverished, forgotten tribals. The local arm of the State collects it and spends some of it on itself, and so do the Naxal leaders. While the tribals remain ‘backward’ and poor.

THE NAXAL’s own record of protecting the tribals in these parts has a somewhat mixed legacy. On the one hand, they have traditionally supported tribals in all their agitations against mining companies that have displaced them. Such as a large mine proposed in the Surajgarh area. Things are somewhat blurred, however, in the mobilisation around another, much smaller mine of 65 hectares – in the Korchi block. People like Sovani claim that there is only sketchy evidence on the ground of potential tribal displacement in this case. However, the State’s track record in protecting the forests has been so poor that the Naxals are seen as the alternative force supporting the tribal agitations against displacement.

The Naxals knocked on the doors of scared local leaders, asking them to pay a fine for having contested elections

At least two sarpanches, in strict confidence, confessed to TEHELKA that they believe “if the Naxals go, the forests in these parts will disappear completely”. This is what had prompted the Gadchiroli Deputy Collector Rajendra Kanphade to make a rare admission during his visit to a Naxal-affected village. He said, “There is legalised violence committed by the State and illegal violence committed by the Maoists. I do not agree with the violence of any party, especially the Maoists, but I personally feel that the legalised violence of the State is far more destructive.”

Anecdotal evidence of State repression can be found all over the district.

Danshul Hallami from Dholdongri village in Korchi had just finished watching an exhilarating kabaddi match in his village. But the blood-rush soon turned to anger when he described how he is fighting as many as nine cases against the State, where he is accused of being a Naxal. Three years ago, he was picked up by the police for allegedly putting up Naxal posters and banners in his village. He spent eight months in jail and has since then fallen into a disturbingly familiar pattern. Where an accused in one case is also charged in many other cases, since s/he now appears on the State’s Naxal radar.

“If the Naxals come to your house asking for food and water, we are hardly in a position to refuse them,” Hallami pleaded. “The police come with their weapons and the Naxals, with theirs,” he says emphatically. He was arrested briefly again in April this year.

And then again, repression runs the other side as well. It’s perhaps the reason why the next generation of tribals isn’t buying into the Naxals’ Robin Hood rhetoric. After much coaxing, a frank opinion emerged from Bhimpur village in Korchi block. “Neither the government nor the Naxals have done anything for us,” said a brave girl from the village dressed in a black t-shirt and rolled up half pants. “The tribals want roads, factories, jobs and cellphones,” she continued. It was a lone voice in a crowd where, we were later informed, the Naxals were also present, watching. But it underlined the analysis that this is indeed the land of diminishing support and expanding fear.

We drove through Korchi on the first day of a bandh declared by the Naxals. Not a single shop was open in the three blocks we visited. On the way to a Naxal hideout in Tipagarh village, we saw a large red memorial dedicated to “Comrade Shrikant”. Signposting the fact that we were deep in Naxal-controlled territory. In Tipagarh, it was as if we were suddenly enveloped by a sheet of glass. Not a single villager was willing to speak to us. Or even show us the way up the hill. Finally, 17- year-old Ripesh Mangal Singh Durve admitted they had strict instructions from the Naxals not to talk to any outsiders.

Gadchiroli has been on the Naxal radar since at least 1982. Thirty years on, the ‘people’s war’ is less and less about the people

For the district administration, working a way into this closed circle of fear is a daunting task. But District Collector Abhishek Krishna believes that “you cannot just sit back and let fear dictate you”. As sarpanch after sarpanch resigned, he and the district police went in and got quite a few of the local leaders to take their resignations back. The CRPF also had their share of successes, the attack on their convoy in March notwithstanding; several Naxal commanders were caught by them this year, and many cadres made to surrender.

Turning Gadchiroli around has also become the pet project of Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh, attracting much attention in the national media. Ramesh has zoned in on a village called Lekha Mendha that he is promoting as a model. The Naxal presence in this village is said to have become very weak. Many in the district administration, however, feel this village has been able to turn its economy around because it has access to an unusually large tract of forest — 1,800 hectares. And, crucially, the villagers are led by an able leader — Devaji Tofa. Either way, the results have been staggering. The village earned Rs 1 crore in sales of bamboo last year, Rs 2 crore this year, and is aiming for Rs 3 crore next year. Observers and state officials have used this to argue that Ramesh’s model village is more of an exception that proves the rule. Other villages do not have Devaji Tofas or access to large tracts of forest or the intensive attention from the Centre to protect them from the Naxals so they can go into the forests and cut bamboo.

For the rest of Gadchiroli, there may be no overarching solutions. Much will depend on small, sure-footed and bold steps taken by individuals in villages. For now, large parts of the district have slid out of the State’s control as the Naxals’ twin approach of violence and patronage has worked. Caught in its red hot snare are inhabitants of a growing republic of fear.

Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.



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September 2022
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