Malkangiri: A Really Dark Corner
Posted by Admin on April 18, 2010
Malkangiri district, in Orissa, is back of the beyond. It borders both Andhra Pradesh and the Dandakaranya region of Chhattisgarh. Of its six lakh population, 80 per cent belong to the Bonda, Bidai, Gadwa, Poraja, Kumbhar, Kamaar, Kondh and Karia tribes, and live on the margins—no roads, no electricity, no hospitals, no drinking water supply, and a very poor public distribution system. No wonder this hilly, forested region has been a Maoist hotbed for decades. The police and the special forces call this forbidding area the AOB (Andhra-Orissa border) with the sense of a place they’d rather not be in. The locals have never seen any government working for them; and therefore, the Maoists are both their government and their police. A senior police officer says at least 30,000 tribals of the district openly support the Maoists; the rest do so tacitly.
The hardship is all too evident in villages like Guntawada. Many young men, like Kanakaraju and Indrakarama, work as casual labourers at APGenco’s Upper Sileru power project. When they come home, they bring kerosene the supervisor hands out and use it to light lamps. His generosity means the world to them: the village has never had electricity.
In village after village in this district, this dark irony repeats itself. Inaccessibility and deprivation are the norm.
Ragi-jowar flour for her child; transport, Malkangiri style.
In Kankaraipoda village, Lobo Khilo, Undartai Khilo and Dhalai Khara complain that few among them have ration cards. They grow some paddy but mostly work as labourers with private contractors, who never pay on time. “Malaria is a constant companion in summer and we lose many workdays,” says Lobo. “The nearest hospital is in Chitrakonda, about 15 km away. When we fall ill, it is better to stay put than walk that far.”
A crumbling two-room house serves as an anganwadi and school in a village of Korukonda block. ‘Sabhiye padhantu, sabhiye badhantu (Let’s all study, let’s all grow)’, it says on the wall. But this Oriya-medium school with classes till Std V has only one teacher. His teaching methods are as erratic as his schedule. Not a single child can elaborate on what has been taught in school. Any question, and they lapse into their tribal speech.
In village No. 9 of Korukonda block (many villages are known by just numbers), Boloma Khilo nurses a newborn boy as her daughter Rosmita, aged three, clings to her. Anganwadi workers supply a kilo of ragi-jowar powder per month for the child, but that has stopped of late. In Bhongur resettlement colony, Ordiba Khara says he gets rice and kerosene on a ration card, but the sugar is taken away. “They ask us why you need sugar when you don’t drink tea?” he says.
In the 1960s, the Balimela dam was built in this remote region, further cutting off the area from parts bordering what is now Chhattisgarh. It is here the Maoists have found a natural fortress. The 150-odd villages here, home to some 25,000 adivasis, are accessible only by boat. Officials avoid these “narako (hellish) islands”. “Obviously, the government doesn’t want to do anything for the tribals,” says Videshi Goud, coordinator of the Malkangiri Adivasi Sangh. “Nor does it want to give them their rights.”
Passing through Doraguda village, one notices a huge poster put up by the Adivasi Mahila Viplava Sangham near a small memorial to a ‘martyred’ Maoist. Intelligence officials say that in 2009-10, the maximum Maoist recruitments took place in Malkangiri. Most of those who joined up were Bondas.
Vineet Brijlal, SP, Visakhapatnam, who earlier served with the Greyhound special troops in Malkangiri, says there must be 300-400 armed cadres in this Maoist bastion. Some 200, he says, could be called “semi-underground” cadres—those who lead normal lives till called upon to “do duty” or fight. The support network, of course, runs into thousands.
It’s not as if there’s nothing being done. In Badpada block, for instance, there is unusual activity: Joyaram Khara, a sarpanch, is supervising the laying of electricity lines in Pabliguda village. The tribals are ecstatic. Land pattas are also being prepared by officials. Next on the villagers’ wish list is ration cards for all. Khara says only eight of the 108 sarpanches in the district do any work. Evidently, he counts himself among them.
Even so, he says, there’s only so much the sarpanches can do, given Malkangiri’s invisibility to the Orissa government. “Chief minister Naveen Patnaik last visited the district in 2008, to inaugurate a bridge,” Khara says. “I’ve never seen an MP, MLA or minister touring this area. Projects under NREGA are implemented poorly, if at all.”
Funds allocated for the region remain on paper, says Simhadri Jhansi, state president of the Rythu Coolie Sangham, an NGO working for tribal rights. “The reason tribals here tend to be sympathetic to the Maoists is because there is no governance here,” he says.
The backwardness of Malkangiri and the constant alienation of the tribals from government serves the Maoists well. It brings them considerable support. No wonder they were able to ambush and kill 33 well-trained Greyhound troops on the Sileru river near Balimela in June 2009. The remoter parts of the district, where the Maoists operate, are heavily mined. Policemen steer clear of combing operations—it’s too dangerous, and best left to trained troops like the Greyhounds. But even they can’t do much without local intelligence, which the hostility of the tribals to government officials and police denies them. “Most of the villagers are Maoist supporters. People see the Maoists regularly, so it is them they trust,” says a top police officer. “We can’t risk lives by sending our force into these villages.” Outlook