As prime minister A B Vajpayee was reminding the nation about threats from across the border in his Independence Day speech from Delhi's Red Fort this year, a group of extreme Leftist outfits, popularly known as Naxalites, were redrawing the internal map of the country. At a secret meeting held in West Bengal's Siliguri, they declared sovereignty over India's forests. The meeting was significant as it brought the two dominant Naxalite groups -- Maoist Communist Centre (mcc) and the People's War Group (pwg) -- together for the first time to form a death ring in 10 states. A new era of terror was about to be unleashed and India's forests were to become the next battlefield for the war of hegemony.
It is showing up: 827 incidents and 423 deaths in the last nine months. In October, a little known Naxalite group abducted a relative of the Union minister of state for home affairs. Factories owned by the Union minister of state for defence and the Andhra Pradesh (ap) chief minister were blasted by pwg. In Orissa, a minister's house was burnt down. Each day in the first week of December saw police and government officials clash with Naxalites in ap, Jharkhand and Orissa. The renewed attacks have prompted the Union government to ban the pwg and the mcc under the recently-promulgated Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (poto).
Genesis of a conflict
Naxalites, the extreme leftist movement tracing their origin to a radical peasant uprising against landlords in West Bengal in 1967, today rule India's best forests. Some 40 groups control a region that stretches from the Indo-Nepal border to coastal ap -- an area two-and-half times the size of Bangladesh. And they are spreading faster than forest fires: from a small village to 10 states in just 35 years. Since then, more people have been killed by Naxalites-related violence than in the 10-year-old militancy in Kashmir. Despite the massive police operations, they have continued to spread to new areas. And there is a reason.By ensuring people's access to forest and distributing forestlands for cultivation, Naxalites have established parallel governments. Willingly or hesitantly, the people too have begun to trust them instead of the government -- more for livelihood than for Marx or Mao. The denser the forest, the more is the alienation -- tribal people are refused entry into forests; they cannot cultivate lands they believe is theirs. It is simple. People want livelihood, government wants control over forests and Naxalites want 'revolution' against this. "Naxalites have put their weapons at people's service in face of such dilemma," says K Balgopal, a civil rights activist in Hyderabad who recently wrote a book on the movement. On one side is the elected government, which with its misplaced regulations has never addressed people's needs. On the other, is a band of armed people knocking on people's doors to solve their problems instantly -- at gun point. Caught between the warring groups, the people prefer the latter. "The parallel government is fast, accessible and gives people access to their livelihood sources," admits a senior police official from Chattisgarh who did not want to be named. For example, courts in the Naxalite-affected areas of Jharkhand have witnessed a drop in the number of cases -- from 2,400 in 1996 to 1,600 in 1997.
Wrath of an 'unborn' revolution
In the Naxalite-infested areas, the government ceases to exist. An oral diktat from a Naxalite leader is enough to make government officials shiver. In ap's Telengana region, more than 50 local elected leaders of the ruling Telengu Desam Party (tdp) had to quit the party due to threats from the pwg during the last five years. And those who refuse to listen are killed. Around 2,077 people have been killed in ap by the pwg in the past decade -- politicians comprise 30 per cent of the victims. Governments too are at the mercy of the Naxalites.In Orissa, the government had to withdraw its police force in Malkangiri district when nine police officials were killed by the pwg in August this year. Ironically, over 60 per cent of the state's forces were deployed in this district alone to fight Naxalites. "It was a humiliating defeat," admits a senior state police officer involved anti-Naxal operations for the past 10 years.
In Chattisgarh's Bijapur village, one can't spot a police personnel -- they do not wear uniforms out of fear. "The police never come to our village. Naxalites solve our problems," says Sukaru Ram, an 18-year-old boy from Pengunda village, some 90 km from Bijapur.
Of Jharkhand's 18 districts, 12 are under the control of the mcc and the pwg. On November 2, the mcc gunned down 13 police personnel in Topchanchi block of Dhanbad district. Recent reports in the media suggest that Naxalites are planning to field candidates for the forthcoming panchayat elections. Out of 81 assembly constituencies in the state, the Naxalites could decide the winning candidates in 31 of them. The administration fears a 'total takeover' by the mcc.
In Bihar, the mcc and pwg are known to 'tax' even government programmes like Operation Siddharth, Jawahar Rojgar Yojna and Minimum Needs Programme. Government officials siphon off the funds as "protection money". An estimate by the Palamu Commissionary three years ago found mcc and the Party Unity (now merged with the pwg) had collected Rs 30 crore per month as levy.
Caught between the government and the Naxalites, the common people are the worst affected. Both doubt them as informers and this often results in blind deaths. For the police such deaths are the regular fake encounters and for the Naxalites 'execution of the people's enemy'.
Kings of forests
, Andhra Pradesh, there is only one black Ambassador car in the official circle and it belongs to the conservator of forests. Painting the car black some 15 years ago was a conscious decision to evade attacks. The black Ambassador drives home the fear psychosis that has gripped the forest officials. "There is always a risk of an attack," says P Raghuveer, the conservator of forests.
million hectares (mha) of forests in the country are under the control of Naxalites (see map: Rapid red spread
). Being primarily a tribal dominated areas, the presence of the armed cadres and the police have affected people's lives. Government officials hardly venture into villages inside the forests. The result: little signs of governance. Exploiting this vacuum, poachers are on a rampage and the timber mafia is eating into the forests. Besides, the Naxalites' campaign to grab forestland and clear them for cultivation has become a new problem for state forest departments. Says a deputy inspector-general of forests in the Union ministry of environment and forests (mef
), "The encroachment has become so widespread that we had to shelve a plan to regularise encroachments prior to 1980. If we do so there will be pressures from these groups to regularise all the forests under their control."
According to mef
data, over 0.4 mha of forests in the country are under encroachment -- 60 per cent of which are in the Naxalite-affected areas. During a case in the Supreme Court regarding encounter killings of Naxalites, even the ap
government admitted that around 0.2 mha of forestlands are controlled by the Naxalites. According to the 1999 Forest Survey Report
, in almost all the Naxalite-affected districts, forest loss has been attributed to encroachment due to 'local disturbances'.
"The forest department is not needed. We will take care to protect the forests," says Dilip, a young member of the mcc
speaking to Down To Earth
. The forest officials are more than willing. "They tell us not to disturb land use. And we just adhere to that," says a senior forest official in Visakhapatnam district. "Large forest areas remain out of bounds as they virtually control those as liberated zones," says K D R Jayakumar, Visakhapatnam's conservator of forest.
Even the pwg
in its report titled Political and Organisational Overview
prepared after its conclave in February 1995 has admitted that its land grabbing campaigns have contributed to forest loss . "Our nationalised treasury is being emptied," wrote wildlife expert Valmik Thapar in a recent Planning Commission paper. "The mef
informed the Planning Commission that an estimated Rs 50,000 crore is being stolen from India's poorly protected forests. The real fear is not from the Naxalites who have agreed for conservation, but from smugglers and poachers who enter these forest exploiting the Naxals presence."
The pwg controls the entire Dandakaryanya region comprising Khammam, Nizamabad and Warangal in Andhra Pradesh, Bastar, Dantewada and Rajnandgaon in Chattisgarh, some parts of western Orissa, Gadchiroli and Bhandara of Maharashtra and Balaghat district of Madhya Pradesh. Once believed to be no more than a hideout, the southwest part of Bastar region is now a bastion. Most parts of the Bastar and Sarguja regions are now under the control of the Naxalites.
Even forest areas in Jharkhand, especially in the districts of Palamu, Gumla, Latehar, Chatra, Garwa, Lohardaga, Koderma, Hazaribagh, Giridih, Santhal Pargana and Dhanbad are under the grip of the Naxalites. An Intelligence Bureau report has marked some of these districts as 'obliterated'. This has resulted in the loss of revenue for the forest department. Admits a divisional forest officer, "One cannot deny that there is loss of revenue." "The price bidding in Warangal and Adilabad districts is the lowest in the state as very few contractors come forward because they have to not only pay an additional price to the people and also give money to the Naxalites." This is reflected in the forest department's revenue collection. Out of 90 units of beedi leaf collection centres, only 58 could be sold in Warangal district . In Jharkhand's Naxalite-affected districts, revenue from forests has gone down by 60 per cent, according to top forest officials.
In Chattisgarh, more than 40 forest employees have been killed in the last seven years. Vajpayee's first tour to Bastar was called off after pwg blasted a police convoy killing 16 policepersons on October 16, 1998. In the Indravati Tiger Reserve, forest officials hardly enter the deep forest. Says superintendent of the reserve, D N Netam, "We cannot go deep inside the forest." As a result, poachers have killed half of the tigers in the reserve in the past six years. For forest officials, there is no estimate as to how many groups of poachers and smugglers are in operation as they are yet to make any serious foray into the forest in the last five years. The last tiger census indicates that while there are some tigers on the southeast bank of the Krishna river, there are virtually none left in the Nallamalla Range. It is said that villagers poisoned tigers at the behest of Naxalites groups.
After a sustained battle in the Supreme Court, the mef, in 1997, agreed to give separate security forces for counter insurgency operation in six of the 23 project tiger reserves -- Manas, Palamu, Valmiki, Nagarjunasagar, Indravati and Bandipur. All these reserves are affected by armed struggles. But the move backfired after some organisations operating in these areas protested against such forces alleging harassment of local people.
"Only 30 per cent of forest reserves in the country are monitored by forest officials," says a forest department official wishing to remain anonymous. The movement of officials has been restricted to such an extent that no official dares to leave the tarred road. "In the 1980s, they could travel without arms for 10-12 km, but now only 3-5 km is possible," he adds. This has had its impact on the people too. On June 15, some mcc activists burnt a few houses in the village of Pahar Panari in the Gumla district in Jharkhand. But the police could not reach there even by June 20, in spite of a police station located within a radius of 10 km. "Even ministers cannot go into the forest," says Ramesh Sharan, an economist with the Ranchi University.
It is alleged that mcc and pwg cadres with support from the Katha mafia are threatening the tiger population. The pwg in north Telengana have killed many tigers between 1990-95 to demonstrate that "wildlife is not as important as people".
Slowly, the Naxalites are stepping into the forest department's shoes. There is a growing nexus between them and the timber mafia and traders. The contractors used to earlier bribe the forest department officials for trading in forest produce like timber. Now they pay a levy to the Naxalites. In Jharkhand, police sources say that about Rs 1.20 crore has been deposited by the Naxalites in various banks using fake names. The contractors are happy. Earlier they had to bribe forest officials, police and local criminals. Now they pay only to Naxalites. In ap, a leading paper mill company reportedly pays Rs 50 lakh per month as "protection money" to Naxalite groups.
The presence of Naxalites has also discouraged many ngos working with tribal people. The Jharkhand government's World Bank-aided India Eco-Development Project (iedp) to generate employment had to be abandoned. Similarly in ap, two ngos were driven out (see box: Looking back). The Naxalites are against ngos as they tend to 'eat away funds'. Says sociologist Jaya Roy, says, "They don't want ngos to organise people."
Although the history of Bastar is punctuated with strong rebellions for land, water and forest rights, the gains have been limited for people. Some experts feel that the support to Naxalites in the rural Bastar may be seen as the extension of the fight for land and forest. "Large tracts are virtually under their control where they run a parallel government," reports a finding of the Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. The reasons: poor implementation of land reforms, bad governance and ineffective police forces.
Law of no returns
As people lose hold over forests, Naxalites gain ground
Naxalite vs state is a contest of claims over natural resources," says Jannardan Rao, a professor at Kakatiya University, Warangal. Take the case of the Nallamalai range in ap's east Goodavari district. The 40,000-strong Chenchu tribes, who neither cultivate nor construct houses, are being evicted from the forests as the government has declared the range a national park. So Nallamalai is now the new battleground for Naxalites and the police.
The forest regulations are such that they do not allow developmental work inside forests. This is alienating a large chunk of the tribal population. Naxalites exploit this. In Chattisgarh, people have been demanding renovation of their traditional ponds for the past three decades."Naxalites construct talabs in forest areas where the government can't even attempt due to the Forest Conservation Act (fca)," says Ramchandra Singh Deo, finance minister, Chattisgarh. Naxalites have seized the initiative to renovate old ponds in several villages in ap and Chattisgarh. Under the fca, the state government has to secure the permission of the Union government before diverting forestland to non-forest areas. While large projects are passed by the state with mef, permisson for small projects like pond renovation are not taken up. This fuels people's anger. According to a pwg report, in the face of the second consecutive drought, extensive water tanks renovation in forests was taken up. This strategy has swayed people's support towards them.
Law of no returns
Left helpless, the affected states have started demanding amendments to the fca
. About a year ago, Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh wrote to the prime minster requesting changes in the act. When the coordination committee of the Union home ministry met in April 2000, one of the main issues discussed was the amendment. Former Union minister of state for environment and forests and Jharkhand cm B
abulal Marandi, supported this. However, the Union home minister has referred the matter to the mef.
Except an informal acknowledgement, nothing has happened.Inside Chattisgarh's Indravati Tiger Reserve, 56 villages were served an eviction notice when the reserve was proposed as a national park. Protests from villagers didn't make much difference until the Naxalites intervened. "We had to change the map of the tiger reserve to exclude the villages from the reserve," says a forest official. "Naxalites have always used people's movement as a strategic way to mobilise people," says Kodandaram Reddy, a professor of political science in Nizam College, Hyderabad who has written a book on 30 years of Naxalite movement. Growing chasm
The Naxalite movement has also gained ground due to protests against discrimination over non-timber forest produce (ntfp
) and land rights. There are many ways tribal people are exploited: forest officials deny them access to forest areas, non-tribal people take over their lands through a torturous money lending process and traders cheat them while buying ntfp
. This has left a large section of forest dwellers without any livelihood sources. "There is a deadly chasm between people and government. The Naxalites are cleverly exploiting this chasm," says Reddy. "While trade in ntfp
is limited, timber remains a government source of revenue. This has led to an imbalance of power at the grassroots." Tendu
leaf is a major source of income for the tribal residents for six months of the year. But curbs imposed by forest officials have spawned resentment. The Srikakulam uprising in the 1960s, which laid the foundation for the movement in the ap
, was based on the rights of the local hill tribes over forests (see box: Looking back
In Maharashtra too, the movement owes its origin to ntfp
. Before 1980, the tribal people got as little as Rs 5 for 100 bundles of tendu
leaf. But threats from Naxalites forced the government to increase the price -- it is now Rs 90. This made Naxalites popular: they made their way into Chandrapur and Gadchiroli. Now forest committees set up by Naxalites monitor the forest and its produce in these two districts.
Likewise in ap
Orissa and Chattisgarh, tendu
leaf is used as an instrument for popular mobilisation.Two years ago in Chattisgarh, Naxalites set fire to the forest department's depot containing tendu
leaf. 'Trials' were held and the 'guilty' officers were punished in the Jan Adalats
(people's court). Now, the villagers get 60 paise per gaddi
(pack of 50 leaves) as against the minimum support price of 45 paise fixed by the government. Villagers believe that the Naxalites ensured this. "Often the presence of Naxalites works as a social audit," says K Subba Rao, principal chief conservators of forests, ap
with the onset of the tendu
season, a representative of the tendu
leaf contractors enters the forest for 'talks' to bargain for the minimum price for tendu
leaf. The bargain is always dictated by the Naxalites. It is no wonder that the price of the tendu
leaf has increased from 7.5 paise for 50 leaves in 1986 to Rs 1 in 2001. Officially in ap
it is 54 paise for 50 leaves, but in Naxalite-affected areas contractors give the 'additional' 46 paise.
In Orissa's Koraput and Ganjam districts, Naxalites have spread due to stringent ntfp
regulations. The case of bamboo is a fine example. Bamboo forests in these districts were leased to the paper mills and local residents became daily wage earners. Even then they end up earning just 50 per cent of the official minimum wage as forest officials collect a heavy booty from the contractors. "Naxalites now not only ensure the minimum wage, but also that it is paid regularly," says Anadi Sahu, Ganjam's representative in Lok Sabha. The pwg,
in turn, collects Rs 5 everyday from the labourers to ensure a minimum wage. "The people earn more money and are spared of the hassles of government machinery," he says. "Wherever governance fails, Naxalites step in," says Sahu, also a member of the Union home ministry's parliamentary consultative committee. "In Bihar, the Naxalite movement entered in the wake of the 1967 famine. As governance collapsed, the people had less access to livelihood sources," says Bela Bhatia who has done a study on the movement for Cambridge University. Agrees Ram Prasad, director, Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal: "The problem is to do with people's alienation from resources." A land too far
Taking away tribal land just makes alienation complete and inteste. In all the affected states, land alienation among the tribal population is a major issue. In states like Chattisgarh, Jharkhand and ap,
this has caused many rebellions starting from late 19th century to mid-20th century. After Independence also there has been a consistent effort to take away tribal lands even though the constitution guarantees rights over it. Starting from giving tribal lands for industries in Andhra Pradesh to the recent move to amend the Fifth Schedule provisions. These provisions give total control to the tribal people on their lands. Exploiting this situation, Naxalite groups like pwg
recently started a campaign to pressurise the government for adhering to the Fifth Schedule. Eastern Ghats, a hot bed of Naxalites spreading over nine districts of Andhra Pradesh, for example, is no longer a safe haven for nearly 33 tribal communities, including seven primitive tribes, inhabiting these highlands.
Since Independence, tribal people have steadily lost their hold over much of this area. While many have lost their sources of livelihood, others have sought refuge in deep forests. According to the 1991 census, the region's tribal-non-tribal ratio had dropped from 6:1 in 1950 to 2:1 in 2000. Due to various amendments made to the land transfer regulations in the tribal belt by the government, the non-tribal people are holding almost 55 per cent of tribal lands either benami
or through clandestine means.In Bihar, upper caste landlords had snatched lands of poor farmers and monopolised common property resources like ponds and fisheries. "The alienation of land was so high that when the Naxalite movement started, there was never a single protest against violent attacks on the landlords," says Bhatia. Even now groups like mcc
distribute lands to the poor and have ensured that dalits get fishing rights in village ponds. This has sustained the popularity of these groups despite massive retaliatory attacks from private armies of the landlords like the Ranvir Sena.
Retaliatory attacks by Naxalites may have stopped landlords for occupying tribal lands, but now governments have taken the initiative. In 1989, the N T Rama Rao government had passed a resolution to denotify 314 villages from the list of areas earmarked for tribal people to legalise the benami
holding of the non-tribal people. The resolution -- the third such attempt since 1965 -- was, however, rejected by the then state governor, Kumudben Joshi.
In 1976 too, the then Congress chief minister, P V Narasimha Rao, moved a cabinet resolution to delete 123 villages in Warangal, Karimnagar and Khammam from the list. When environmentalists and ngo
s opposed such attempts, tribal people were harassed by the administration on the grounds that they were hand-in-glove with Naxalites belonging to the pwg
. In its earlier stint (1985-89), the ntr g
overnment had burnt down nearly 1,200 Khoya, Khond and Konda-Dora hamlets in the eastern Ghats for their suspected links with the pwg
. The operation conducted by the then director general of police, P S Mohan Rao, affected nearly 60,000 tribal families. The displaced, resettled in plains, had to eke a living by working as farm labourers and many women were forced into prostitution to augment earnings. BYLAWS: AMENDMENTS FOR RESPITE
Is there a way to reverse the trend of the spread of Naxalites? The experience of 46 villages in east Goodavari
district and a stronghold of pwg
may have an answer. These villages managed to stop the Naxalites from entering their areas. Their weapon: a movement based on minor forest produces co-operatives. In 1998, when the Naxalites blasted the storehouse of the state's Girijan Cooperative Society that buys ntfp
s from the village cooperatives in Peddamallapuram village, the women came forward and spearheaded the anti-Naxalite movement. "Women are the worst suffers of deforestation and all the curbs on access to forests as they collect these ntfp
," says Bodeti Lakshmi, a resident of the village.
"Forest rights must be used as a weapon for tackling the problem," says Ravi Rebbapragada of Samata, a Hyderabad-based ngo
, who has been a victim of Naxalite threats. History has taught us that Naxalites wouldn't have spread had successive governments learnt from their mistakes: in all the worst affected states, there were massive people's movements for asserting their rights over forest and lands. Governments, instead of addressing the real issue, crushed these movements. As a result, when Naxalites stepped in, they faced little opposition from the people.
Even when governments reacted positively to such an uprising, their commitment never lasted beyond a few years. In the Fourth Plan, area specific development schemes like small farmer's development agency, tribal development projects, forestry schemes were launched for the first time. But in the Ninth Plan, corruption and bureaucracy made such programmes ineffective. Forestry still remains a state monopoly. The Planning Commission in its observation of the Naxalites problem noted: "The forest departments in Naxalites-affected states do not seem to have any coherent policy." It cites the example of Bastar district where 55 per cent area has been declared as a forest. This has led to the spread of Naxalites.
A meeting called by the Union home ministry on April 4, 2000 debated the possible causes of the spread and it was realised that the socio-economic factors were primarily alienating the people from the government and thus there was a need to go for major tribal welfare programmes. Though state governments were given financial assistance for police jobs, no real tribal welfare works have been taken up. Arvind Kumar, chief forest conservator of Jharkhand, warns, "An in-depth study of the forest policy and acts with corrective steps should be undertaken or there is a high risk of the movement spreading further."