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Caught in the Middle
What will it take to defeat the Maoists? Commanders on the ground have been pleading for more men and matériel, and after a July 14 meeting on anti-Naxal strategy the central government allocated funds for 34 new battalions of paramilitary forces, 20 helicopters, 20 new counterinsurgency training institutes and $214 million for better roads and bridges in 34 districts hit by Maoist violence.
That commitment has renewed an intense debate within the ruling Congress Party and its allies over anti-Naxal strategy. India's security-vs.-development dilemma is similar to the "hearts and minds" debate that the U.S. has struggled with in Iraq and Afghanistan: Could adding schools and health clinics be more effective than increasing the number of troops in reducing the local support of Maoists? "We can't solve this problem by ignoring the hopes and aspirations of the people living in these areas," Digvijay Singh, a longtime Congress Party leader, wrote in a recent article.
The prevailing view, however, is that India cannot deliver services without first restoring civil authority in areas that Home Secretary G.K. Pillai has called "lawless, a free-for-all." Upon announcing the anti-Naxal offensive in October 2009, Pillai optimistically predicted, "We hope that literally within 30 days of security forces moving in and dominating the area, we should be able to restore civil administration there." But Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi and a leading security expert, concludes that this strategy "has produced neither security nor development."
The official image of Dantewada as a vacuum of governance is not entirely correct. Outside of the Dandakaranya forest, in villages in Dantewada along the edge of the Maoists' so-called liberated zone, there is an uneasy coexistence between the state and the rebels. By day, people tend their paddy fields or gather produce from the forest while the police make occasional patrols; by night, the Maoists rule. Ram Kunjam, head of the local village council in Chingawaram, site of the May 17 bus blast, says that Maoists visit regularly in the evenings, intimidating people to make sure they go to propaganda meetings. But he says he is equally scared of the police, who rounded up a few people from the village as suspects after the blast. "During the day, it's the police," he says. "During the night, it's them."
On this tense front line, security measures are impeding the few government services that are available. State health workers, for example, reach even the most remote, Maoist-controlled areas. Every 15 days, a medical helicopter goes from Dantewada into the forests, ferrying health workers who travel without security. On May 28, they delivered medicine to Jagargunda, the same place where the state police travel with no fewer than 1,000 men. Over the past year, health workers have immunized more than 11,000 children; given prenatal care to some 13,000 women; distributed antimalarial bed nets, iron and vitamin A tablets; and screened children for malnutrition.
Their work has never been more difficult. "Things have collapsed in the last five years, not just changed," says Vishwas Tripathi, district program manager at the National Rural Health Mission in Dantewada. The Maoists don't interfere with their scheduled duties, he says, although they do sometimes ask for medicine "at the point of a gun." When asked if they are getting any government services, most of the villagers in Gumiyapal laugh. But one man points out that health workers go regularly to the Saturday market. "They give vaccinations," he says. "You can get medicine for an animal. They come with a vehicle, so if anyone is very sick, they will take them to get help."
More qualified staff this district of 478,000 people has only 12 doctors would help. But the more urgent issue, say Tripathi and his colleagues, is the new security focus on Dantewada, which has made their work more dangerous. The police have been traveling in what look like ambulances, for example, because the Maoists have never targeted the health mission's vehicles. If the decoys are discovered, they too will become targets, Tripathi says. "Some government policies are against us."
Schools, too, have become battlegrounds. Maoists have destroyed 80 school buildings since 2009, while security forces have occupied hundreds of schools, according to India's Ministry of Education. The bombings and occupation of schools led the U.N., for the first time, to include the Maoist insurgency in its most recent report on the impact of children from armed conflict. The Indian government responded by asserting that this fight was "not an armed conflict."
India's war against the Maoists is indeed an armed conflict and more. It is also a war of ideas, about who can better provide for the poor. That is a fight that India should win easily. For all their eloquent criticism of India's failure to address the needs of the poor, the Maoists have hardly done better. In the areas under their control, they collect taxes from villagers and royalties from contractors. They are even planning their own mining policy, with royalties much higher than the going government rates. But the Maoists spend most of the money defending that territory; they have made little progress in improving health or education in Dantewada, which according to local health authorities has just 22% literacy, the lowest of any district in the country, and high rates of malaria and cholera. "They have meetings and then they go back to the jungle," says Lakma Kunjam, a Gumiyapal villager. "They don't give anything to the common people."