Tribals in this forest region of Jharkhand are used to a life between coal mines and land mines. In the state’s struggle to flush out Maoist guerrillas and make its presence felt – with an eye on exploiting mineral reserves, development is the latest weapon. Will it succeed? Will people truly benefit?
Ajay Singh | June 11, 2012
Manoharpur is a township situated in the middle of the Saranda forest area in West Singhbhum district of Jharkhand. It is the epicentre of the struggle between the state and Maoists. It came on to our radar early this year. After decades of complete absence of the state and any modicum of governance, the government finally wrested control of Saranda from the Maoists. Rural development minister Jairam Ramesh was gung-ho about this rare opportunity to win back the confidence of the people of Saranda by accelerated short-term and calibrated long-term development initiatives that could re-establish the credentials of the Indian state.
He made numerous trips to Saranda, announced a special fast-relief central package and drummed up support of the state government to come up with a comprehensive Saranda Action Plan. If the plan succeeds, Saranda could well be the laboratory that threw up the model to remove the reasons for the very existence of Maoists across the country. It makes sense. Left-wing radicals have taken advantage of the absence of the state and lack of development to spread their violent ideology in large swathes of the country and to flush them out the state will need to rely as much (if not more) on bijli, sadak and pani as on arms and ammunition.
Such are the stakes of this development offensive and such is the significance of Saranda and Manoharpur.
I arrived in Manoharpur on May 5 after a rather reluctant train journey from Kolkata. My initial plan was to reach Ranchi from Kolkata on May 6 and then drive down to Manoharpur. Back in Delhi when we heard of Saranda Action Plan we decided to depute a reporter on a fellowship programme to carry out an in-depth research about the issues affecting local people, mostly poor tribals, and report on the unfolding development initiative. Sarthak Ray, a young journalist with a feel for the issues (he’s a TISS scholar), volunteered to take up the project (though there is word in office that the editor “volunteered” Sarthak!).
It was more than a month since Sarthak landed in Saranda on April 2 and I was eager to understand the circumstances in which we had placed him.
That was the reason for my Manoharpur tour. The reluctance on my part to do the train journey was not because of any aversion to the train as a mode of transport. It was the result of the advice from some senior journalists, including the highly-respected editor of Prabhat Khabar, Harivansh, to avoid travel by road. “Take a train from Kolkata, I will arrange the ticket,” he told me on phone.
All this while, our idea of Saranda was of a “liberated” zone, safe and secure. This was the first hint that normality was still some distance away. I have travelled to main conflict zones across the country, be it Kashmir or the northeast, but was never faced with this dilemma. “Is the situation that bad?” I asked Harivansh-ji in an expression of my preference for the road. “No, it is not that bad but still I will advise you to take the train.” His cryptic remark closed my options. So I got on to the train a day earlier than planned because I wanted to spend as much time in Saranda as possible. It worried me a little that we had deployed a young colleague in what still seemed like a troubled area.
At Manoharpur railway station, I was pleasantly surprised to find Sarthak in his usual humorous spirit. He had not only adapted himself to the local culture but was also conversing with people in a local dialect with flair. He took me to a guesthouse owned by a Bengali gentleman called Abhijit Ganguly whose father, an eminent doctor, settled in Manoharpur in the late 1960s. Ganguly’s love for the forest and its animals would easily qualify him to be the Ruskin Bond of Saranda (More about him in the days to come). He is a quintessential naturalist who is an eyewitness to degradation, destruction and depredation of the Saranda forests. I gained immense insights into Saranda from this walking encyclopaedia.
The next day Sarthak and I travelled to the interiors of Saranda known as Chiria mines owned by Steel Authority of India Ltd (SAIL), a PSU whose journey to the commanding heights of economy begins from here. SAIL has been extracting iron ore from these mines to feed its plants in Rourkela, Bokaro and Bhilai. Few would stop to think that SAIL’s famous campaign tagline “There’s a little bit of SAIL in everybody’s life” owes primarily to iron ore of Saranda. “There’s a little bit of Saranda in everybody’s life” would perhaps be more appropriate because Saranda has been killing itself bit by bit to feed the factories of PSUs and private steep companies alike.
In and around Chiria mines, we visited villages which fall under the government’s Saranda Action Plan. The development offensive to neutralise the influence of Maoists covers six panchayats and 56 villages. On paper, the package envisages best road connectivity, perfect security cover by deploying paramilitary forces and improvement of economy and education for tribals. At first glance, the order of priority seems to be heavily skewed in favour of making roads and setting up security posts while welfare of tribals and region has fallen wayside.
This bias, even if a practical necessity, has already roused the suspicion of the tribals about the real intentions of the government. The road-building activity is seen as a move to facilitate the mining companies’ access to the forests rather than help the tribals. The trust deficit is deep. The abject poverty and absence of governance in these villages and the saga of betrayal by corporate houses – which Sarthak has been unravelling in his despatches for the magazine as well as the website – have made the tribals see everything with a cynic’s eye.
In villages around Chiria mines, works undertaken by companies in the name of corporate social responsibility (CSR) have become a sort of joke. The school buildings are either bereft of teachers or basic facilities. Those responsible for looking after the welfare projects are keeping themselves away from these places under the pretext of the fear of Maoists which is often played up to mythical proportions to evade accountability. Similarly, officials of the state government are not keen to implement the projects conceived under the action plan.
Sarthak had first-hand experience of vacillation by the state authorities who balked at the mention of the villages falling under the disturbed areas. They don’t want to talk about the villages or the action plan. Jairam Ramesh might not be just the most vocal proponent of Saranda Action Plan. He could be its only proponent too.
That the people have lost faith in the state institutions was revealed to us when we visited Dubli village falling under Chota Nagra. This is the same village where an SPO was killed by Maoists after holding a jan adalat (the kangaroo court in which radicals hold a people’s meeting to give a stamp of popular approval to their diktats). Villagers here are attuned to getting doles from visiting officials to keep their mouth shut. In the collective psyche of the villagers, the arrival of a vehicle with outsiders raises hopes of doles which will enable them to enjoy a hearty meal of mutton with the locally brewed rice drink called hadiya. Of course, it is the aggressive and lumpen lot among them who corner such benefits. Our arrival in the village also raised such expectations. After the initial pleasantries when they found out we were journalists and brought no doles, they turned palpably hostile. “Why do you people spend so much fuel to know about our plight? What are we getting from your visit?”
The incident was an eye-opener. It made us realise how an insensitive state has colluded with greedy corporates to pollute the collective psyche of the tribals.
The following day we drove deeper into the interiors of the forest. We reached a village called Digha where Jairam Ramesh announced the grand Saranda Action Plan on January 30. A site was chosen to build an integrated development centre (IDC) within three months. More than three months have elapsed and there is nothing except the inauguration stone which stands in splendid isolation. Of course, it is not easy, because the road leading to the village is full of potholes and is often mined by the radicals to impede the movement of forces. But there is no visible attempt to implement the much-touted initiative.
Once again it was realisation that this was far from a liberated zone and that Jairam Ramesh will soon be forced to rework the definition of the “medium term”. And that Sarthak might be here for the long haul.
By all accounts, the story of Saranda and its action plan will be a conundrum which will have many complex facets unravelling of which would be indeed a herculean task. As I concluded my three-day visit, I was convinced that Sarthak would not only do justice to his assignment but also bring out interesting stories from the place considered to be the world’s richest reserve of minerals, ahead of Ruhr in Germany.
Yet stark poverty and illiteracy are Saranda’s harsh reality. Who is to be blamed? There are many such questions that need to be answered. Like tribals, I have also lost faith in ingenuity of a system headed by a chief minister who is more interested in playing golf than addressing to his political handicaps.
There is no doubt that Saranda would offer riveting and often sad tales of mis-governance even as we hope that Jairam’s gamble succeeds.
Over to Sarthak, over the next few months.
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