India sets out on a fight for the forest

The Indian government hopes a combination of security and development can help counter the threat from Maoist rebels, but it's a daunting challenge.

Paramedics rush an injured policeman to hospital in Nagpur on Tuesday. A roadside bomb triggered by suspected Maoist guerrillas killed 11 policemen and injured 29 in a remote part of the western Indian state of Maharashtra, police said.
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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 for 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.

"They come when we are working in the fields and make us work as guides for them," said Kalus Mundri, a resident of Chewalor, echoing a complaint heard in several villages.

This tactic, says Sonu Sirka, an activist from the nearby town of Meghahatuburu, puts the villages at risk of reprisals. "If the Maoists think they are helping the police, they will come to punish them. By doing this, the CRPF are forcing the villagers to take their side."

For all the show of force, the results have been limited.

The month-long operation that kick-started the campaign last August led to the arrest of just 33 Maoists. The rest are thought to have retreated deeper into the foest, skipped into neighbouring states or simply blended in with the local population.

Meanwhile, the scale of the challenge in improving governance is huge. Children show signs of severe malnutrition, schools and health centres are several hours' walk away and there are few jobs on offer.

"The government hasn't reached here at all," said Kalus Mundri. "All we have are security forces who come and ask us if we have seen the Maoists."

Last year, he was picked up and interrogated overnight in a CRPF camp until a local activist intervened.

"They gave me a sewing machine and a blanket to keep my mouth shut," he said.

Some improvements - such as the job cards, and the distribution of land deeds under the Forest Rights Act - have started to emerge. But these are often the work of individual, dedicated officials, who say they receive little support from the state government.

"I am the only official who bothers to travel and work in these areas," said one local development officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

He believes the real reason for the security operations has more to do with opening the area to mining companies than providing help.

Saranda holds a quarter of India's proven iron ore reserves. Twelve mining companies operate 50 mines in the region, including Tata Steel and the Steel Authority of India, but many have been turned off by the presence of the Maoists, who demand extortion payments and carry out raids on their premises for explosives.

"There is no reason to have all these troops for such a small population if all you want is to improve their condition," said the official. "They are trying to establish a corridor for security operations so that mining can begin."

The government denies this, saying security is a necessary to improve the situation for the community.

"The Maoists capitalise on the grievances of the people. We are trying to give the civilians in these areas the confidence to come forward and make political demands of the administration," said PM Nair, the additional director-general of operations for the CRPF. "Then they trust you to come forward with information."