Dornapal, Chattisgarh: Along the 250km national highway that connects Chhattisgarh with Andhra Pradesh, farmers shear paddy at the peak of the harvest season in the southern part of the state known as the “rice bowl” of India’s central plains.
But some 50km before the state border, the golden fields abruptly disappear.
Two years ago, residents of the 30 surrounding villages in Dantewada district stopped growing rice and set up camp on the highway to flee Naxalite terror. They abandoned farms, homes, even elderly parents.
On either side of the potholed highway, some 15,000 people have created the largest relief camp of the nearly two dozen in the terror-plagued districts of Dantewada and adjoining Bijapur. According to one estimate, 55,000 people live as refugees in such camps.
The refugees say they left to band together and combat the lawlessness that marked their home. Now, outside makeshift huts, they describe an existence on hold.
In 2005, villagers came together under the banner of Salwa Judum, which in the local Gondi dialect means “peace mission”. It’s led by Mahendra Karma, state assembly opposition leader of the Congress party.
Karma joined hands with the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled government to end violence by arming locals in camps and creating “special police officers” to fight Naxalites.
On a recent Sunday, a few women lazing in the shade of their huts felt unsure of their decision to leave. Jogi Mausam, a wiry woman from Argot village, 11km away, says it was a “mistake”, that life is difficult without an income.
About 40% of the people like her depend on farming seasonal forest-based products such as tamarind and tendu leaves. Others such as Karti Deve, also from the same village, says through an interpreter that Naxalites never attacked their village. She says she feared more being branded a Naxalite—and police reprisal. “Either way, we don’t feel safe,” she says.
Nearly 172 districts across the country are grappling with violence unleashed by Maoist rebels who see the government as the main enemy. In an interview, chief minister Raman Singh said: “It’s no longer a local law and order problem and we cannot solve the problem alone.” Chhattisgarh has some 17 police officers per 100 sq. km against the national average of 500, he said. About 136,000 sq. km of the state is affected by violence and in a camp such as Dornapal, the government has already spent more than Rs10 crore on resettling villagers, on daily food rations and vocation classes.
As people leave their villages, local businesses have been hit hard. Two years ago, Hitesh Chopra had to shut down his saw mill in Jagdalpur, a commercial hub more than 150km away, against a dwindling local wood supply; a chamber of commerce spokesman said half of the 40 saw mills have closed. “There has been no attack on businessmen,” Chopra says. “But there’s nothing you can do when you can’t get the raw material.”
Chopra, who later started trading in rice—which 80% of the state’s population cultivates—found the situation no better. Rice production in the Bastar region, he says, dropped from 100,000 quintals in 2005 to 20,000 this year. Jethmal Jain, who trades in mahua, said few enter the forest to pluck anymore. “Many of the villages have emptied out, so the fruits just rot on the trees,” he says.
Allegations abound saying the government is using these now-unemployed men and women as human shields and translators to hunt out rebels in a hard-to-navigate region.
This has led Pratap Narayan Aggarwal, a Jagdalpur advocate, to file three PILs, saying the killings have worsened since the Salwa Judum was formed: “I hold the government responsible... This is a case of custodial killing.”