Naxalites are spreading their influence across Orissa and there are reports that they have established a `corridor' through the State with Jharkhand at one end and Andhra Pradesh on the other.PRAFULLA DAS in Bhubaneswar
THE merger of the People's War and the Maoist Communist Centre culminating in the birth of the Communist Party of India (Maoists) last September, and the failure of the peace talks between the extremists and the Andhra Pradesh government appear to have contributed towards the growth of the naxalite movement in the remote districts of Orissa. The extremists are now extending their reach much faster than ever before.
Naxalites have increased their presence in the northern and southern regions of the State, where tribal people form the majority. Naxalite violence has also begun to be reported from parts of western Orissa and from the coastal belt. Three persons were gunned down by Maoists in Burda village of Sambalpur district in May.
The guerillas have stepped up their activities this year in Rayagada and Malkangiri bordering Andhra Pradesh. According to intelligence sources, naxalites have been able to establish a connecting route between Jharkhand on one side and Andhra Pradesh on the other. The corridor passes mostly through forest belts and crosses human habitats at a few patches. Currently, 10 of the 30 districts of Orissa are in the grip of naxalites.
However, Director-General of Police (DGP) B.B. Mishra claims that naxalites have not been able to establish any corridor between Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh so far. "We have been successful in preventing them from establishing a corridor through the State," he said. "We are tackling the naxalites by extensive combing operations. The districts where combing operations are going on now are Sambalpur, Sundargarh, Mayurbhanj, Keonjhar, Deogarh, Angul and Jajpur," he said.
Apart from the State police, as many as 16 companies of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) are deployed in the State to help the police take on the Maoists. The DGP said that instead of following the traditional approach of pushing the naxalites away from their strongholds, the police were now trying to trap them in their own homeground. By adopting this approach, the State police has been able to arrest 103 hardcore naxalites between December 2004 and June this year, Mishra said.
Besides, a total of 46 cases were registered against naxalites by June 10 as against the total of 24 cases registered last year. The police have also been able to destroy a big naxalite camp in Malkangiri district and five camps in Sambalpur this year, detect 22 landmines and seize 30 weapons. In a major haul, the police recently seized 150 kg of explosives from a naxalite hideout in Malkangiri in the Dandakaranya region.
Giving details of the steps being taken to prepare the police to tackle the growing left-wing extremism, Mishra said that the government would soon raise its second India Reserve Battalion to be deployed in the State's northern region. The first India Reserve Battalion, which was raised three years ago, is at present deployed in the districts of Malkangiri, Koraput, Rayagada and Gajapati where there is a strong naxalite presence.
After realising how the failure of intelligence had led to the large-scale looting of arms by naxalites from the government armoury at the district headquarters town of Koraput in February 2004, the State police formed a Special Intelligence Wing to keep track of naxalite activities. A Special Operation Group has also been formed to oversee the anti-naxalite operations, Mishra said.
Although the extremists have not killed any police personnel this year, there have been a series of cases of arson and kidnapping by the naxalites in several districts. Last year, five policemen fell victim to naxalite violence. Four civilians were killed between January and June this year; two extremists were killed by the police.
But the battle between the Maoists and the police seems to have entered a serious phase. With pressure mounting on them in Andhra Pradesh after the failure of the peace process and the subsequent combing operation by Andhra Pradesh Police, it is believed that many senior Maoist leaders have shifted base to areas in the Dandakaranya region in Orissa and Chhattisgarh. With the naxalites consolidating their presence in more and more areas, the Orissa police are now in constant touch with the police of the neighbouring States to tackle the problem in the region.
But the naxalites are proving to be smarter than the police. Apart from concentrating on the tribal heartlands, they have also started wooing different sections of people whose sources of livelihood are threatened. Fishermen and their families in and around Chilika, the bamboo cutters of Nayagarh and marginalised farmers have attended pro-naxalite rallies in Bhubaneswar.
A recent study, "Unquiet forests - a comprehensive look at how forest laws are triggering conflicts in India with a focus on naxalite movement'', indicates that after the formation of the CPI (Maoist), naxalites have been spreading their activities at the rate of two districts a week in the country. They extended their influence from just 55 districts in nine States in November 2003 to 155 districts in 15 States by February 2005. This group controls close to 19 per cent of India's forests.
Financially, the CPI(Maoist) is the richest and largest revolutionary group in India, the study showed. According to the year-long study conducted by Richard Mahapatra as part of his scholarship thesis for the Prem Bhatia Memorial Trust, Orissa is fast slipping into the hands of naxalites. With forest-related issues fast emerging as entry points for naxalites, they now plan to control 25 districts of the State by 2007.
Tribal alienation, displacement by large projects, and government failure to ensure food security have been the main reasons for the spread of naxalites' influence in Orissa and other States, the study said.
Although the Orissa police seem to continue to deal with the naxalite issue as a law-and-order problem, the politicians have changed their attitude. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has observed that the problem is essentially socio-economic in nature and not just one relating to law and order. He has also said that his government will focus on developmental and welfare projects to find a solution to the problem.
In fact, the problems facing the tribal people of Orissa had hardly attracted the government's attention over the years. A series of naxalite attacks, looting of arms and ammunition from the district armoury at Koraput, and a series of tribal rallies by organisations supporting the naxalite movement have made the Naveen Patnaik government show some concern about the problems of the tribal population.
Earlier this year, the Chief Minister also announced plans to implement a series of programmes to ameliorate the sufferings of the tribal people, who account for 22 per cent of the State's population. Patnaik directed that minor cases against tribal people should be withdrawn and landless tribal families should be provided with homestead land on a priority basis. It was also announced that the land disputes involving tribal people would be solved without delay. However, nothing substantial has been done at the grassroots so far.
There is scepticism about the implementation of the welfare programmes, primarily because a large number of tribal families displaced by various developmental projects in the past have not been rehabilitated so far. The tribal people are now up in arms against many proposed mega mining and industrial projects that are likely to cause large-scale loss of forest cover, thereby depriving them of their livelihood.
This is resulting in many tribal people joining hands with the Maoists. Given the past experience, the State government has to be cautious in implementing the developmental projects and must also ensure that the private companies that are setting up industrial units extend suitable rehabilitation packages to those affected by the projects.
It is not the issue of displacement alone that disturbs the tribal people. It is the failure of successive governments to implement the welfare measures announced from time to time that has aggravated the situation. The administration at the ground level continues to remain indifferent towards their problems.
The Chief Minister had expressed a willingness to hold talks with the extremists without any preconditions. But the talks have not taken off. In fact, the question of the Orissa government holding talks with the Maoists has not been discussed after the failure of the talks between the naxalites and the Andhra Pradesh government. This has created an impression that no discussion between the naxalites and the State government is on the cards now. Against this background, the naxal problem is likely to aggravate unless the rising unrest among the tribal people is addressed and the fruits of development are taken to the poorest of the poor.