Takes a Few Good Men

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Lessons New Delhi can learn from one babu’s work in Orissa

MALKANGIRI, ORISSA -In the cutoff area across Gurupriya River in Orissa’s Malkangiri district, from where its district collector was taken hostage by Maoists, you come across several village shacks selling daily-use items like salt and oil. In forsaken corners, you will also find items that are clearly a luxury for the villagers—packets of Haldiram’s bhujia or Top Ramen noodles, left untouched for years. In an area where the State is conspicuously absent, where no administrative benefit has reached for decades, these small markers of a certain social mobility are laden with irony. A bridge, to be laid across the Gurupriya to connect 151 villages in the cutoff area to Chitrakonda tehsil, was inaugurated in the 1980s by then Chief Minister Janaki Ballabh Patnaik. The work never began. When it did finally, about five years ago, Maoists were already entrenched in the area.

The bridge was never built. Before the young RV Krishna took over as district collector on the first day of 2010, the people of these 151 villages did not even know what social schemes meant. It was after Krishna took over that the villagers began to benefit from these schemes, which he made sure would reach their doorsteps. On the morning of 16 February, the day he was kidnapped, Krishna had pressed a small button in one of the villages, bringing it electricity for the first time. It was ironic since the Balimela Dam that supplies electricity to the rest of Orissa stands here and thousands of people in the cutoff area were displaced by the floods the dam-building had caused.

According to a survey, only 7 per cent of villages in Malkangiri district have electricity. About 90 per cent of its people live below the poverty line. Malkangiri recorded the lowest average economic growth rate—at 2.6 per cent from 2000 to 2007—among Orissa’s 30 districts. So, while Haldiram’s snacks and Top Ramen noodles had reached these areas, a power cable or bridge had not.

Right from the beginning, it seems, Krishna had some sort of silent understanding with the area’s Maoists. Though he could not do anything about the bridge or absence of roads in the cutoff area, he concentrated on social schemes. So, money under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme was disbursed efficiently. Old people, especially widows, benefitted immensely from the pension he offered them. Krishna and a bunch of government officials would travel to this area and offer doorstep service to villagers.

The villagers loved Krishna. And it is his popularity that made it hard for Maoists to convince villagers of their decision to take him hostage. At one point, sensing their anger, and fearing they might stage a rescue operation, Krishna had to be shifted from a village where he was being kept in a Maoist camp. Eight days later when he was released, Maoists held a four-hour public meeting at Tentuliguda village, 3 km from Jantapai village where he was abducted. Here, they tried to explain to Adivasis why Krishna had to be taken hostage. Sitting on a pile of stones covered with black tarpaulin, Krishna appeared calm. He heard them out as if he were listening to the grievances of any other villager. There were grievances. Someone spoke about how they were not allowed a rally last September—protesting the arrest of innocent tribals arrested on allegations of being Maoists. Issues like mining also came up for discussion.

“I was surprised why they took me hostage,” Krishna said, right after he was released. At various points, villagers garlanded him amid celebratory drumbeats. Someone even put a garland of 10-rupee notes on him, which by itself speaks volumes about what he meant to the people of this impoverished area. “Let this (his kidnapping) now lead to a larger debate on development issues,” Krishna tells Open.

Though Krishna’s release could only be secured after promises of meeting Maoist demands, it is also true that local Maoists cannot afford to go against the wishes of the people in their areas of influence. It is not quite clear why Maoist guerillas chose to kill popular Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati in the state’s Kandhamal district in 2008; what is known  is that the man behind the killing, senior Maoist leader Sabyasachi Panda, was severely reprimanded by the Maoist leadership and had to reportedly tender an apology for his action.

So, instead of focusing on militarising the Maoist-affected areas, India needs to find more administrators like RV Krishna. He has demigod status in Malkangiri. That is what the government needs to replicate across Maoist-affected areas. Instead, it is pushing in more and more security personnel. Even the Army, as is clear now, will have a role to play—in Chhattisgarh at least. Though the Army is playing down its presence next to the Maoist base of Abujhmaad—insisting on calling it a ‘footprint’ instead of presence—it will inevitably get involved in fighting Maoists sooner or later. What Adivasis need is not a gun-toting soldier but a collector like Krishna; they need people with the gumption to change things. That is one thing that Maoists cannot counter. That garland of 10-rupee notes around Krishna’s neck is telling.