Saturday, April 10, 2010

The buck starts and stops with a Jawan

Bastar, Chhattisgarh:

If he was not injured last month, Aman Singh says he could well be among the martyrs in the Chintalnar attack.

Recuperating from a bullet wound in his leg at a Jagdalpur hospital, the CRPF trooper wonders if the two previous encounters at the same spot were a training drill for the rebels ahead of the April 6 attack that wiped out his entire company.

“They ambushed us on March 1,” Singh recounts. They struck again on March 10, in which he suffered bullet injury. “On both the occasions the rebel fighters were not in big numbers.” In the third assault, Maoists struck in big formation when the CRPF Company – divided in five sections – was returning after a long search operation to Chintalnar camp, which serves as a launch pad for the forces to carry out area domination exercise in the heartland of Dantewada.

Caught in the plains with thin tree cover amid two small hillocks about 500 metres off the kuccha road to Chintalnar from Chintagupha, the CRPF jawans could not break the Maoist cordon from any side, even as they faced a rain of bullets fired from temporary bunkers tucked atop the hillocks. The only way left open was a pathway toward the road to Chintalnar, but it was blocked with pressure mines that, injured jawans say, blew off as they tried to run for a cover.

The attack that claimed 76 security personnel has a stamp of precision planning of several months. The paramilitary forces knew they were watched; the rebels avoided major confrontation with the troopers for three months – a deliberate lull that, as a police officer in Dantewada put it, was disturbingly misleading.

The outlawed ambushed the security men twice in the same area, but not with big intensity or strength. A small error in calculations and the troopers walked into the trap third time following a false alarm pertaining to the movement of a large number of Maoists in the vicinity. The rebels had merely thrown the bait.

“The troopers failed to read a multi-layered ambush point,” Chhattisgarh DGP Vishwa Ranjan said in Jagdalpur on Thursday, even as he vowed to hit back in the heart of the Maoists. Scanning the ambush points is one of the major aims of the ongoing operations in both south Bastar and north Bastar regions.

While this was not the first and won’t be the last incident in a protracted fight to regain control over the 40,000 square km territory of the size of Kerala, the major multi-state anti-Maoist operations are being reviewed after Chintalnar in the face of challenges.

“We’ll intensify the area domination exercise, carry out more surgical strikes and launch more complex formation operations,” Ranjan says. “It’s going to be a long haul,” he says, sounding resolute in cracking the backbone of rebels.

Green hunt and joint ops

After he took over in 2008, Ranjan changed the training modules, raised new forces and gave state-of-the-art equipment to his men, even as the Raman Singh-government launched operation Green Hunt in Bastar after a series of setbacks.

Serving and retired army personnel trained and reoriented the troops in guerilla warfare strategies and special operations, like Andhra’s Grey Hounds force.

The idea of the new strategy in south Bastar, a strategic stronghold of Maoists, is to search, study, hit and come back. “Surprise is the best element; don’t follow the routine,” is what he says he has told his men after a series of earlier setbacks.

Ranjan says the state police operation’s objectives are four-pronged: Large scale removal of land mines; identifying ambush points where troops were frequently attacked; intelligence-based operations to dismantle the camps where Maoists train new recruits; and hold Jan-Jagran or public awareness drives to reach out to the villagers. The strategy saw a nearly 80 percent drop in police casualties in 2009 and a steep rise in the arrest of a lot of Maoist cadres and leaders.

The Centre-sponsored multi-state joint operations are in the peripheral areas of Bastar, while Green Hunt operations are in the areas like Chintalnar, the tribal hinterland of Dantewada-Bijapur, bordering Andhra, Orissa and Maharashtra.

The seven-phase central offensive launched in November 2009 on the Maharashtra-Chhattisgarh border has now spread almost in seven states. OA-1 involves moving along a north-south axis from Kanker and Rajnandgaon in Chhattisgarh, and on an east-west axis from Gadchiroli in Maharashtra along the periphery of Abujh Marh. Aim is to squeeze the naxal territory and their area of domination, Ranjan says.

The joint operations in north Bastar aims to pack small areas with large-scale deployment to clear those areas of Maoists and create a secure environment for the administration to start development process.

The new ploy, Ranjan says, aims at keeping the Maoists on the move, rarely give them time to settle down in one area. It expects the forces to penetrate deeper in big formations. “We are living off the bases now for two to three days on the trot,” Sanjay Sharma, DSP (Operations), Dantewada, says. This was never the case earlier. The special police forces would patrol areas in isolation; now they say they do it in coordination with both, the troops from other districts and the newly deployed paramilitary forces, hunting for top rebel cadres.

Ground Challenges:

Ground challenges are massive though: One it’s a territory of 40,000 square km, which includes Abujh Marh, an uncharted territory considered to be a Maoist rest zone where the police and administration never venture. Two, forces face local hostility that stems from years of oppression and poverty. And three, difficulty in transporting supplies.

The current deployments are in accordance with the state police strategy and in places that are beyond the administrative and police control.

Ranjan says it’s mandatory for every trooper to get training at the Kanker-based counter-terrorism and jungle warfare school to increase endurance before being deployed. Serving junior commandant officers of the army train all personnel.

The adoption of the army’s platoon and company level tactics was initially slow but has made some difference, Ranjan says. But experts say all these strategies grossly undermine the Maoists’ tactics and intent, as the April 6 attack showed, and the odds faced by security forces, particularly paramilitary not used to local conditions.

“Weapons are not the problem,” a CRPF deputy commandant in Dantewada says. “We face shortages of medicines and ration in our base camps; we are yet to fix how to treat our men who fall sick in the camps from malaria or diarrhea; we get no doctors here.”

Chintalnar camp, like many other base camps tucked inside the forests in the densely forested Bastar region faces water scarcity and ration shortages. In the scorching summer in the forests, scarcity of food and water means half the battle lost, he says.

For all the television strategists sitting in New Delhi and Raipur, says a senior officer in Dantewada after the Chintalnar attack with sarcasm, ground realities are beyond any comprehension. A CRPF deputy commandant on ground zero echoes that. “Give us medicines, water and food,” he says. “We have enough weaponry.”

The Maoists and their highly spirited local militia groups know these weaknesses of the security forces. They hammer at those at their will.

A CRPF Jawan explains: “They mine the forests to restrict our movement; they poison the water bodies so that we do not get to drink water.” That, in turn restricts, their living off the bases in the unfamiliar forest territory for longer periods, he says.

On top of all this, with no medical aid anywhere in Bastar, the troopers are shifted first to Jagdalpur and then to Raipur in case of emergencies.

The latest attack also bared the big hole in intelligence gathering, without which the infantry can’t fight a faceless guerilla. The police considered the silence in Bastar as a retreat by the rebel commanders. That construct proved wrong. The Maoists were very much holding the ground, waiting and studying to surprise the forces to turn their own ploy on its heat. And they did it with lethal precision in their chosen area.

In the aftermath of Chintalnar, an angry force is hunting for Maoists vowing revenge, but the faces of all those who executed the assault remain elusive.

“Now the forces will pick local villagers and beat them, and Maoists will later exploit that as an anti-people oppression; it’s the same old story,” says a Jagdalpur-based reporter with years of experience in covering the naxal-insurgency.

No dialogue with locals

Central and state troopers say identifying naxalites in villages is a major operational challenge, particularly when the charges of fake encounters and SPOs killing innocent villagers fly against them even more vociferously. The line they tread is thin. Chances of mistaking an innocent impoverished tribal for a naxalite or sympathizer are high, as some cases pending before the Supreme Court point out. Several human rights organizations have brought to light the rising cases of individual killings what they call “genocide,” a charge both the state police and central paramilitary forces deny.

With the accounts of recently arrested and surrendered Maoist cadres all over the country, the security agencies have pieced together sketches of senior Maoist leaders for the ground-level forces with the help of professional artists.

The forces are relying heavily on ex-Maoists and SPOs to crack the Sangam and Jan Militia members, PLGA’s two external cordons that protect the core groups and their movement in the tribal hamlets and villages scattered over a vast expanse.

“Unless we break their militia network, we won’t get the quality kills,” Dantewada SP, Amresh Mishra, said. “So far,” he says, “we could not lay our hands on top leaders.”

In fact, police officials admit that the Maoist information network is far superior to that of the forces and it stems from the trust that the tribal villagers have in them.

That’s where the role of local politicians and administration is important. Across Bastar the Raman Singh-government seems to have handed over every single responsibility to the police. Even the routine dialogue between the administration-polity and the locals has been long broken, says a former legislator from Konta, who’s a tribal himself.

After the latest incident, top police and paramilitary officials went to the spot for an inspection and meeting with demoralized personnel, but not a single political leader from across the state even attempted to reach there. Police officials say they haven’t seen any administration or political effort to open a dialogue with villagers.

No one is asking what’s happening to the villagers in and around that area. Twelve families have left Chintalnar in last one year, according to one of the villagers. “I am also thinking of leaving,” he says. “There is no point in living here in constant fear.”

The state says winning regaining control is a top priority. Control over what -- land or an impoverished people? Will only the gun-trotting troops hunting for elusive Maoist cadres who are killing them with an audacious frequency be able to do that alone? One doubts. In Chintalnar, the security personnel from far away states did not seem to have any rapport with local villagers, a key to get intelligence through trust-building.

The state has little room for error and any silly mistake would only distance itself from the impoverished tribals, who are frankly not on their side in this vexed battle.

A strong political and bureaucratic will is a precursor to conflict resolution. Idea of India can’t be left only to the forces to defend.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Women Up and Rising in Bihar

Bodh-Gaya, Bihar:

“Self-respect” – that’s her most important earning in two years, quips Sanju Devi Jadhab, 33, after a studied pause, standing in the middle of her two-bigha wheat farm. “We now have an identity.”

Holding her two-year-old daughter Sneha in her arms, the marginal farm woman basks in her new-found confidence that dwarfs the odds confronting poor villagers like her: poverty is just one among plenty.

A lower caste poor, whose husband works as a daily wager, Sanju Devi is member of a village self-help-group (SHG) and resource person (VRP) in Jeevika, a popular name for the World Bank-aided Bihar Rural Livelihoods Project (BRLP) that is steering a slow but certain change in eight impoverished districts. It’ll be a while before her village Navadih, she says, realized that the change was there to stay. By the time her daughter grows up, she believes, her village would have a future. Her optimism, itself, is the change.

“Jeevika is generating self respecting and confident women from the villages,” Budhabhatti Kartikeya, an IAS probationer and assistant collector of Gaya district, said. “The project is creating space for the poor.’

Implemented through an autonomous society – Bihar Rural Livelihoods Promotion Society, Jeevika had by February 2010 formed 17,044 SHGs with 196,000 members spanned across the eight pilot districts of Muzaffarpur, Madhubani, Supaul, Madhepura, Purnia, Khagaria, Nalanda and Gaya. By 2012, when it is over, the project would have reached 600,000 poorest of poor families living in 4000 villages through a range of livelihood interventions. The Rs 306 crore-project, first to be funded in Bihar by the World Bank after a gap of 20 years, would eventually be scaled up to 18 districts, the officials of the Society say.

The 2009-12 strategy document of the Bank says it would devote more resources – primarily low-interest International Development Association (IDA) credits among other things -- for low-income states including Bihar, with focus on poverty reduction.

The aim is to enhance the income standards and livelihood options for the poor. Bihar’s average annual per capita income is about Rs 7500, or a fourth of the national average. Eighty-nine per cent of its 83 million people live in rural areas with poor service delivery, rigid caste hierarchy and limited economic opportunities. Of the 36 million poor marginal farming households, nearly 2.3 million have large debts.

Two years ago, Sanju Devi learnt about Jeevika being implemented in Sekhwara village, a few km from her own, and decided to volunteer for it. “I sensed an opportunity,” she says, “to come out of poverty.” All she needed was to take initiative with some courage, the short but hard-working woman says. In a feudal and rabidly male-dominated society, she says, it wasn’t easy to break free from the veil.

More than 500 VRCs like Sanju Devi, Jeevika officials in Patna say, are today steering the project that aims on the one hand to augment farm productivity in this rain-fed area through a roots intensification system, and on the other create SHGs (or micro-enterprises) that get access to institutional finance.

Sanju Devi is both, user and expert trainer, a job that fetches her monthly honorarium of Rs 1000. All that you need is a drive and initiative to become a village resource person, Jeevika officials say.

“It’s effective when villagers talk to other villagers about the project benefits,” says Mukesh Chandra Sharan, Jeevika state project manager (Micro Finance). “It removes any doubts villagers may have.”

After the initial skepticism among the targeted villagers faded (like what if you fled with our money or how can we spare ten rupees when we don’t have anything to eat), Jeevika took roots.

“The project is about to take off, now that the institutional structures are really solid,” says the World Bank consultant on the project Vinay Kumar. “The next level is about economic integration.”

Navadih adopted the system of rice and wheat intensification – called as SRI and SWI – in 2008 and the marginal farmers have got an enhanced yield – and income -- even in this year’s drought, officials say.

The roots intensification technique, adopted from Madagascar in Mexico, focuses on better root growth as it feeds the plant, according to Jeevika’s Debaraj Behera. He boasts of dramatic rise in the yields with this technique on the 22,000-plus paddy and wheat farmers in the pilot districts across the state.

Farmers, according to Jeevika officials, have clocked an average yield of 7-10 tons per hectare over two years – that’s roughly twice the yield before the introduction of this technology.

“If we take care of the roots,” Behera says, “the roots take care of the plant.”

The pitfall is that the system though not input-intensive requires more labour than in traditional way. It needs farmers to rinse the seeds in warm water before treating it with vermin-compost, cow urine and jaggery in a bucket. The germinated seeds are then transplanted maintaining the specified space.

“Though the technique is giving excellent results on the small holdings in Bihar, we will need to evaluate and assess the technique before scaling it up,” says Biswajit Sen, Senior Rural Development Specialist at the World Bank. The WB, he says, would in few months be doing a mid-term assessment of Jeevika.

Jeevika’s soul is the women’s groups. Ten to 15 individuals form a self help group; around 8-15 SHGs form a village organization; around 25-35 VOs form a Block Level Federation. There are currently a hundred such federations in eight districts. Alongside, the SHG members form a producers group as first step of building institutional capacity for an economic activity. A critical number of producer groups form a cluster; clusters join hands for producers’ organization that are then integrated with commercial sector, cooperatives, banks and service sector. The principle is that the community takes decisions and prioritizes its needs for lending and borrowing. The pyramid structure forges unity and individual skills.

Baijayanti Devi, a vocal resource person, and others burst into giggles and a sense of pride when they recount how their unity forced a local muscleman-cum-contractor to build a village road as per the locals’ instruction – a road that had been sanctioned seven years ago but remained un-constructed.

Jeevika is steering other interventions too; such as a play-school for the children of the lower caste Musahars in Marha village, about 20 km from the sacred city of Bodh Gaya. Languishing at the bottom of the caste hierarchy, the landless Musahar community had no access to education. This is the first time that the 40-odd children attend a pre-school under the drum-stick tree around one corner of the village.

Others, like Bank Mitra Rinki Kumar, 20, helps the Sahdeokhap villagers do banking – she fills out forms to withdraw or deposit money, apply for loans or explain the various schemes the bank runs.

“She’s an important interface between the illiterate villagers and the bank,” says Sunil Narain, the manager of the Sahdeokhap branch of the Bank of India. All praise for the project, he says, Jeevika made a major difference in the lives of poor villagers. “Its major achievement,” he says, “has been that people now have access to institutional finance which has in turn broken the stranglehold of moneylenders.”

Jeevika members echo his sentiment. Kunti Devi of Sekhwara village, for instance, managed to pay the mortgage money to an upper-caste money lender to free her one-acre land after coming into the formal credit net. In the first two years, says Vinay Kumar, much of the lending borrowing business within the SHGs has been to free the mortgaged lands and pay the health bills; two very pressing urgencies.

Typically, private loans come at a monthly 10 percent interest, while the bank loans at nine percent per annum with no collateral. Narain says SHGs’ repayments are very good and timely. The SHGs are using the money to buy livestock, agricultural inputs or setting up small shops, all income generating.

An increased access to bank has seen a decline in the number of money-lenders, says Baijayanti Devi. “The Sahukars are now a dying breed,” she says, as her SHG colleagues sing the Jeevika song. One of the women, Ramrati Devi, butts in to say with a chuckle: “We have now learnt to speak for ourselves.”