The National, Mar 28 2012
SARANDA FOREST, INDIA // The Indian government hopes a combination of security and development can help counter the threat from Maoist rebels, but its attempt to implement the plan in the Saranda forest of eastern India reveals a daunting challenge.
The village of Jambaiburu does not officially exist. It has never been surveyed, and its residents – members of the Ho tribe – have never been able to vote or receive rations cards.
Recently, an activist there managed to secure job cards for the villagers, theoretically entitling them to 100 days’ paid work from the government. But the section that lists their district, province and administrative block are still blank.
“I do not know where to go to get this work,” said Tupra Surin, a 30-year-old man from the village.
For decades, the Saranda forest, 800 square kilometres of dense woodland that straddle the states of Odisha and Jharkhand, have been largely off-limits to the government.
Instead, they have provided the headquarters for the eastern regional bureau of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), a rebel group waging a war against the government in a string of central and eastern states with an army numbering between 10,000 and 20,000.
The Maoists have returned to the international spotlight in the past two weeks after kidnapping two Italian tourists and a local politician in Odisha.
On Tuesday, they set off a landmine in the state of Maharashtra that killed 15 policemen, part of a steady stream of violence that has claimed more than 5,600 lives since 2005, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, a Delhi-based think tank.
The government is hoping the Saranda forest will become a showcase in its latest attempt to combine paramilitary operations against the rebels with development programmes designed to win the support of the population.
Jairam Ramesh, the rural development minister, has made this a pet project, promising new houses and roads in a 2.5 billion rupee (Dh179m) development plan, as well as the distribution of bicycles and solar lamps.
But for now, the area is a war zone.
To open the way for development, the government sent 60 companies of Central Reserve Paramilitary Forces (CRPF) to bolster state forces in Saranda last summer. Troops patrol narrow forest footpaths on foot and motorbike, and bursts of gunfire regularly crackle over the trees.
The sound is so routine that it no longer draws a response from local villagers, but they live in fear of the huge security presence that has suddenly descended on their home.