NO WILL TO VOTE: From Chhattisgarh’s real ‘Ground Zero’


Article appeared in the India Today magazine issue dated May 5, 2014

 

Like this electricity pole and the highway, the Maoists have either destroyed or made dysfunctional whatever was seen as an indication of the writ of the state. Photo: Jugal R Purohit

Time, they say, flies. But in Chintalnar, ever since the Salwa Judum movement began in 2005, it first froze and then turned backwards.

Situated in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district, Chintalnar has no roads, no hospitals, no electricity, no administration. But the village, which hit the headlines after one of the bloodiest Maoist attacks claimed 75 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) men and a policeman in 2010, is a cause of envy for its nearby villages which have the dubious distinction of polling zero votes for more than a decade now.

Flanked by more such Maoist “liberated” zones, it is nearly impossible to find people who have cast their votes once you step out of Chintalnar. “Liberated” zones are areas dominated by Maoists where the state’s writ doesn’t run. In 2011, Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh had admitted that such zones exist in south Chhattisgarh and west Jharkhand.

According to data collected during last year’s Assembly polls, 15 polling booths across villages which fall under the Konta Assembly constituency recorded zero polling percentage.

On April 10 as well, almost no one from these villages came out to cast their votes in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Mukram, which has 859 registered voters, recorded just one vote. In Bhimapuram, of 417 registered voters, only one vote was cast; in Poovarti, three out of 630; in Surpanguda, one of 430; in Chimlipenta, three of 364 and in Bainpalli just two of 972.

In Chintalnar, which stands out as a bigger centre among other hamlets, a rickety Jeep is the sole mode of connection with the outside world. It ferries everything from subsidised ration to people in desperate need of medical attention with slim chances of surviving the back-breaking journey. “It wasn’t this bad always. Passengers and traders from as far as Kanker district and Jagdalpur in Bastar district used this route to travel to Jagargunda in Sukma, which was a major trading hubs and then further on to Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh,” says Sartej Singh, who has been living in Chintalnar since the early 1980s. Pointing towards a derelict building inside the police and CRPF camp, Singh says, “We used to have a hospital here. But once the Maoists started attacking, hospital employees and other outsiders had to leave.”

Villagers say when Chief Minister Raman Singh visited Chintalnar three years ago, he asked them what they need the most. A mobile phone tower was the unanimous reply. But villagers still have to depend on the wind blowing from the north in the hope of getting mobile network coverage from the lone tower in Bacheli, 70 km away in neighbouring Dantewada district. A single solar panel, installed years ago, provides whatever little electricity Chintalnar gets. “Forget using a fan during day time, we save the electricity to cook in the evening. By the time we finish cooking, there is darkness all around,” says T. Sanjay Kumar, another villager. Adding to their woes, the State Highway 5-which starts from Dornapal and culminates at Jagargunda-exists only on paper.

But villagers in Mukram feel Chintalnar is in much better shape. “They at least have a solar panel. We have not seen electricity for a decade,” says Keshav Emla, 23, son of the village sarpanch.

Unlike Chintalnar, locals here do not want a mobile phone network. Their biggest need is water. “Dada log (Maoists) stopped us from building a dam under the employment guarantee scheme. They said no government money should come into this area,” says Emla, who has never voted. But there are others like Deva who has exercised the right to vote, albeit years ago. “Voting used to be a regular feature earlier. But that was when the Maoists used to roam around but never showed up,” he says. “Police and administration officials come here from time to time to urge us to vote. But just as they leave, the Maoists turn up from the other side. We can’t defy the Maoists even if we want to,” he adds.

Security forces, however, believe otherwise. “Most of the villagers are active Maoists. Before getting killed in 2010, the ill-fated team of securitymen had stopped in Mukram, cooked food and rested, using local assistance. Before leaving they even thanked the villagers. But within a few hours, they were killed. These people informed the Maoists,” a police officer says.

In the 46 km between Dornapal and Chintalnar, where bridges have been blown up, electricity poles uprooted and land mines laid under every square inch of the land, nine camps-Dornapal, Gorgunda, Pollampali, Kankerlanka, Puswada, Timilwada, Chintagufa, Burkapal and Chintalnar-have come up along the main road. “Despite floating tenders for this road, no contractor has ever responded. Providing security to them is the biggest issue,” says Kulbhushan Toppo, Sukma collector.

Villagers in Mukram. Photo: Jugal R Purohit
Villagers in Mukram. Photo: Jugal R Purohit

A senior police officer narrates how the region was allowed to slip away. “It was during the mid-1990s. The Maoists had just begun sneaking in from Andhra Pradesh to this region, which was a part of undivided Madhya Pradesh. I was leading a police battalion and remember sending reports, asking for reinforcement by means of improving roads, establishing police stations etc. But, I guess, Bhopal was too far removed from this region to understand the plight,” he says. “And when the newly born Chhattisgarh tried operationalising Salwa Judum, Maoists got enraged and it all blew up in our face, forcing this exit,” he points to Chintalnar on the map.

There are no signs that the state will be able to reassert its authority any time soon. Some say it will take many years and many more boots on the ground to bring the administration back to where it was along the bombed-out road.

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