CHHATTISGARH HOSTAGE CRISIS
“The brightest officers are posted in the toughest districts”
Life of a collector in the red terror zone is full of risks. It isn’t easy being a collector in Maoist-affected areas, but the real challenge lies in improving the quality of life of the poor and needy, says Sarguja District Collector R Prasanna
At the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA), Mussoorie, newly recruited officers are trained to work for betterment of weaker sections and downtrodden. The officers are trained to lead from the front. We are expected to keep the country above everything else even if it requires sacrificing your life. It is said that the brightest officers are posted in the toughest and most backward districts. If you get a posting there, it is a godsend opportunity.
When posting orders are issued and one gets posted in backward districts like Dantewada, suddenly things change. People will console you: “It should not have happened to you; did you study that hard to land up in such a place. Why don’t you speak to someone and get your posting changed; or, join and work for a few months and get out as early as possible”. A sombre atmosphere is created and people look at you with sympathy and console you. However, you still reach the district brimming with confidence and highly motivated.
The first shock you get is when you reach your new residence. Since most Naxal-affected districts are newly created, you can never find a cook. Once I asked my cook to make me bread toast and after some time when I sat down to eat, there was nothing on the plate. When I asked him what happened, in his reply, he asked me, “What is a bread?” Another time, when I asked him to heat the items kept in the hot box, he kept the hot box on the tawa and started heating it.
In Maoist-affected Bijapur, where I was the district collector, for half the week there would be no electricity, BSNL did not work most of the times. No proper health or education facilities are available. You cannot go on family outings, as the town ends after a kilometer or so and the Naxal-area starts. We cannot venture after dark. However, even in the face of such adversities, collectors, SPs, DFOs, and other officers try to work for the welfare of the people and restore normalcy whenever there is conflict. The first task is to win the confidence of the people by good governance.
This part of the country is very sparsely populated and full of forests. All major roads leading to the district headquarters of Bijapur, Sukma, Narayanpur and Dantewada have land mines. Block headquarters and other villages are located far away. Most roads are dug up by the Maoists as after the police, road construction is the second biggest enemy for Naxalites. So many places, including a few national and state highways, do not have roads. Whatever road is available is cut and dug up, most of the roads in this part of the country have landmines.
I will tell you briefly how the Naxals operate. Naxalites, including the Sangham members, wait in the forest 50-200m away from where the land mines are planted. And whenever there is any vehicular movement, they detonate the mines. Even in villages they are present and pretend to be like any other villager though they are all armed.
Now if a collector wants to visit any village he has very few options. Either announce in advance or make a surprise visit. He can travel without any security or with full security. He can go by car, two-wheeler or just walk.
Now, whenever there is an attack, people blame it on lack of security. To ensure proper security, two to three hours before our departure, a minimum of 150 policemen, divided into smaller groups, are deployed at certain locations on the road. They walk both sides of the road looking for wires. Bomb disposal squads check for land mines on the road. When we move we move in a convoy with a minimum of 25 odd policemen. This type of security can be provided very few times in a month.
Also, the movement of the collector is different from police and other VVIPs. The collector has to interact with villagers to understand ground realities. He has to tour twice a week if not more. If there are too many policemen, then villagers are not very comfortable with coming out of their homes and talk. So generally we ask the police to stay at a distance of 100m. Different collectors adopt different security measures. As CEO, zilla panchayat, Bastar, I never took any security, including my personal guard. I traveled alone as there was no threat to CEOs unlike collectors.
As collector of Bijapur and Dantewada (including Sukma) it was different. For pre-informed visits, I always took full security. For unscheduled visits, depending upon the village, I used to take only my gunmen. A few times I have gone without any security. However, whenever I went without security, I used to have reliable local people with me. Once I reach a particular village, I interact with teachers, health workers, local staff and the media.
Inspite of such measures, there are attacks. Once we were going to Orchha, there were three explosions that took place in front of our pilot vehicle. I was in the car right behind the pilot vehicle. Then once on a pre-planned visit to Basaguda, the security personnel detected landmines. Only after they defused the landmines, did we go ahead. Many times we have seen armed men running for cover. This is part of our routine travel.
Inspite of all these obstacles, we are able to deliver results. The government of Chhattisgarh and the district administrations has not left any stone unturned for the development of this backward region.
The State Government has constituted the Bastar Development Authority and the Surguja Development Authority. Once in every quarter, the Cabinet meets in one of the district headquarters and decides on local issues. This has fastened development and removed many technical obstacles. These districts are among the best performers under IAP, MNREGA, etc.
One of the finest examples is our achievement in Bijapur district. It was a newly created district which had seen many Naxal attacks. In a year, through our efforts, we were able to re-establish the administration in 17 gram panchayats, reopen 35 schools, 79 anganwadis and 22 ration shops. Roads were constructed where Naxalites were opposing tooth and nail. Electricity and medical facilities were restored at many places. Earlier no one used to come to government offices, but now people have started coming. This shows the change in attitude of villagers and the impact the district administration has made with improved governance. This was possible through community participation, people-friendly administration, cluster development, immediate execution of their demands.
In the case of the latest abduction, Alex Paul Menon is one of the finest officers. He was my sub-collector at Bijapur. He changed the Bhairamgarh hospital, ensured proper functioning of schools, prepared plans for livelihoods of the tribals. Rajat Kumar, collector of Bijapur, was able to construct roads in the most toughest areas; he changed the landscape of Bijapur, completed works, which were pending for years together. All this was possible because of their commitment and they always kept the nation ahead of their personal safety.
Intelligence inputs and the police have warned us several times of planned abduction. However, in the line of duty we need to take risks. Based on local conditions, day to day decisions have to be taken. You need to take that extra risk if development has to happen. Without taking risks you cannot make a difference. Knowing this very well, we have accepted the challenge and we are doing our duty as per Constitution and conscience. Such abductions are definitely a set back, but it does not bog us down. Collectors like Rajat, OP Chaudhary, collector of Dantewada, P Anbalagan, collector of Bastar and Alex will strive hard to ensure government welfare schemes reach the remotest Naxal-affected areas and tribals are able to lead a happy and prosperous life.