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Inside the camps: "We have been left to die here"

Geetashree journeys through Dantewada district, Chhattisgarh, through deserted villages and into the government camps where the herded tribals are literally starving, with no healthcare, no sanitation and almost no way to earn a livelihood. This is Part 2 of a series on the tribals of Chhattisgarh caught between the Maoists and the Salwa Judum

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“Reaching this place is like crossing the border to reach Pakistan,” a journalist friend of mine comments as we arrive in Golapalli village of Dantewada district.

Golapalli is around 230 kilometers from Dantewada, the district headquarters. Heading straight for the taluka headquarters at Konta we then proceed to Mehta – passing through Lakshmipuram and then Singavaram in Andhra Pradesh – and from there another 15 km to Golapalli. We are in the heart of Maoist territory.

No, it’s not fair to call this a village. Though some three years ago around 400 people inhabited Golapalli, earning a living through subsistence farming and selling local forest produce.

In June 2005, when the Salwa Judum was formed and the villagers were told to vacate and move to a government-run camp, they tried to resist, but not for long. The Salwa Judum kept up the pressure, unleashing violence and destroying their houses.

Within a year-and-a-half, the majority of the village residents were compelled to move to the government relief camp at Maraiguda, some 18 km from their village.

Golapalli is now a desolate place. There are still about a dozen people, left behind because of old age.

villages are desolate with only old people
Many Bastar villages are desolate with only old people left behind

Hidma who has lived his entire life in Golapalli points to an empty postbox outside a house and says: “This was our post office. But no post is delivered here now.”

The land in front of the house looks barren. Nothing has been sown here for the last three years. But it feels like the land has been so for the last 60 years; barren and layered.

As we walk through the deserted streets of the village, we come across what was once a Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) Kendra. We peep inside the flapping windows and enter through the broken door to find some books still lying on a dusty table. The pages have been eaten by termites.

My journalist friend comments: “The entire system is affected by termites.”

After the residents of the village were forced to move into the Maraiguda government camp, all facilities provided by the government at the village -- anganwadi, health centre, ration shop, school -- were withdrawn. The local market was closed too.

Even if you want to, you cannot live in this village.

The tell-tale signs of dislocation and desolation are to be found all over the district.

There are hardly any signs of development -- roads, water, electricity, health, education – during the course of our journey. From Dantewada to Konta, be it Sukma or Injaram or Dornapal en route, the story is pretty much the same.

And why only this district, the conditions are similar in neighbouring Bijapur, a tehsil of undivided Dantewada till it was made a district on May 11, 2007.

Till 1998, Dantewada itself was part of the Bastar region which is bigger than some states like Delhi or Kerala. While still part of Madhya Pradesh, this predominantly tribal region was divided into three districts – Bastar, Kanker and Dantewada.

On November 1, 2000, Chhattisgarh was carved out of the 16 southeastern districts of Madhya Pradesh, ironically due to a sense of deprivation in the tribal region whose people – a third of Chhattisgarh's 21 million people are tribals, mostly Gonds – felt a separate state was imperative for their development.

Impoverished indigenous tribes make up 82% of undivided Dantewada’s population. Some 455 villages are 100% tribal, while another 458 villages have 90% tribal population. Only 76 villages have tribal populations of less than 50%.

The Naxalites have maintained a strong presence in these parts since the 1980s, thanks to support from the tribal communities which needed their intervention against economic exploitation. However, an escalating pattern of Naxalite abuses gradually alienated many villagers and popular protests against them in Bijapur sparked the creation of Salwa Judum in 2005.

Salwa Judum's activities quickly spread to many villages across Bijapur and Dantewada districts. But for the civilian population, seeking protection from one menace meant the risk of being abused by the others – the government and Salwa Judum.

Praveen Patel of Tribal Welfare Society says: “The government stopped providing infrastructural facilities and rations in around 800 villages after launching Salwa Judum. People had to sometimes travel more than 100 km to buy salt. Salt which was Rs 2 a kg began to sell at Rs 40 a kg.”

Inside the camps there are days when the people have to go hungry for more than three days. When the relief camps started functioning, the tribals were provided free food. But slowly the quantity was reduced and in some places the free meals were stopped altogether.

The Chhattisgarh government claims that “free rations for all are being distributed only at certain camps like Dornapal, which is the largest, while in the rest, free rations are given only to old and disabled persons. For the remaining residents, employment centres have been opened near the camps and they are being given daily employment.”

The government also claims that ration cards are issued by the concerned gram panchayats to those residing at the camps to buy daily food supplies at reasonable rates. But in reality, a corrupt government machinery has ensured that the tribals have little option but to starve at regular intervals.

people go hungry for days
Inside the relief camps people go hungry for days

We hear in Sukma that people in Dornapal relief camp were not getting their free rice supplies. Discreet enquiries by the people revealed that the rice was in fact hidden inside a house on Dornapal river road, to be sold to a trader in Orissa later.

Bijje of Dornapal camp said, “We passed on this information to the police and they seized 100 bags of rice from the house. This shows what is happening in the name of relief at the Salwa Judum camps.”

At the Jagarguda relief camp, ration supplies have finally reached after three months delay. There is still no sign of salt. The camp’s inmates have been eating their food without salt for months now.

The lack of food is compounded by the Chhattisgarh government's failure to provide sustainable livelihood options at the camps. The Chhattisgarh government acknowledges that "those in camps have no source of income", and claims to have provided daily-wage jobs and vocational training.

Apparently the tribals were provided with looms for making hand-woven cloth. But these looms were of very poor quality and investigations were on into their procurement, confirmed the office of the deputy director of the State Handloom Department.

Dantewada collector S P Shourie, however, maintains that all’s well at the camps, where all basic facilities and supplies are provided. But the ground realities across the region belie such official claims.

The tribals say that malaria, skin diseases and diarrhoea are common occurrences, as the state and district administrations have failed to supply clean water or provide healthcare facilities at the camps.

At Jagarguda, Sundam Vijay who has been ill for the past one week, says: “We have been left to die here.” Others like Kartam Lakhkhe, Uika Sanju, Kunjami Hungi have been sick for over a month without a doctor at the camp.

An arrangement was made for teams of doctors to visit and stay alternately for 15 days each inside the camps. The first group of doctors came and left, never to return. The other groups never turned up. The official excuse is non-availability of helicopters to transport doctors.

Shourie concedes that health services are badly hit. “Conditions in Jagarguda are very difficult because the Naxalites have dug up all paths leading to the relief camps. And it is difficult to requisition helicopters every fortnight.”

An April 2008 report by the Planning Commission’s Expert Committee titled “Development Challenges in Extremist Affected Areas”, has said: “Encouragement of vigilante groups such as Salwa Judum and herding of hapless tribals in makeshift camps with dismal living conditions, removed from their habitat and deprived of livelihood, as a strategy to counter the influence of the radical left is not desirable. It delegitimises politics, dehumanises people, degenerates those engaged in their ‘security’, and above all represents abdication of the State itself.”

According to official records, some 19,766 families with 56,925 people are sheltered inside 23 relief camps since the launch of the Salwa Judum campaign in southern Bastar region. A chapter on Maoism included recently in the sociology syllabus for class ten students in the state’s schools says 70,000 people live in such relief centres.

But police officers posted at various camps say it is difficult to tell the exact number of people at any given time because they keep coming and going, while human rights organisations active in the region challenge the official figures, which they allege are being cooked up by lower functionaries to claim relief materials.

The fact is that many villagers are missing from the official records. A National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) investigation team says: “There are many villagers missing. It is not clear whether they have joined the Maoists, or are hiding in the jungles or have moved out of Chhattisgarh, or have since been killed.”

Salwa Judum denies the killings, claiming it merely holds rounds of preparatory meetings before marching into villages, then exhorts people to stand up to Maoists and persuades them to shift to government camps. The Chhattisgarh government maintains Salwa Judum is a "voluntary and peaceful initiative by local people against Naxalites".

International watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) however found overwhelming evidence of atrocities committed by Salwa Judum and the direct involvement of the State. “Over a period of approximately two-and-a-half years, between June 2005 and the monsoon season of 2007 (June to September), government security forces joined Salwa Judum members on village raids, which were designed to identify suspected Naxalite sympathisers and evacuate residents from villages believed to be providing support to Naxalites,” HRW says in its July 2008 report Being Neutral is Our Biggest Crime.

The NHRC too has documented cases that show the involvement of paramilitary and police forces in the forcible dislocation of villagers. For example, some Nelasnar residents “left the village due to atrocities committed by the …police….Not all tribals came to these camps willingly.…..though some villagers had been forcibly taken to the camps in 2005-06, they subsequently came back,” according to the NHRC.

The villagers are caught between the devil and the deep sea -- those who join the Salwa Judum become targets of Maoists, who will kill them, while those who resist joining invite the ire of Salwa Judum, which will destroy their houses.

Take the case of Dornapal camp where about 17,000 people reportedly shifted when Salwa Judum was set up. Many were soon forced to leave due to the pathetic conditions. But they were unable to return to their villages after the Maoists attacked Tettrai village a few kilometres from the camp. The Maoists burnt around 40 houses and also blasted the infrastructure facilities to ensure that the people were too scared to return to their villages.

Or the Maraiguda camp where the residents of Golapalli shifted in February 2007 to find it was already crowded with some 2,500 people from nearby villages. But two years down the line only half the population is left in the camp, they say.

Where did the other half go?

Aaite, a resident of Maraiguda government relief camp, simply points southwards: “There!”

There?

Andhra Pradesh.

massive internal displacement
Human rights abuses have resulted in massive internal displacement

The human rights abuses in the villages and camps across southern Bastar have resulted in a massive internal displacement crisis that is yet to be addressed by the Centre or state governments, according to HRW, which estimates 65,000 villagers have fled to adjoining states of Maharashtra, Orissa, and Andhra Pradesh to escape the conflict.

Roughly 30,000-50,000 have fled to Andhra Pradesh and live in dire circumstances. HRW says: “Many had no financial resources… and thus settled in forested areas. Saying that these settlements are illegal, Andhra Pradesh forest officials have repeatedly evicted villagers… One hamlet that Human Rights Watch visited has been destroyed nine or ten times since January 2007….As a matter of policy, the Andhra Pradesh government denies to these displaced persons the benefit of government welfare schemes such as food subsidies and rural employment guarantees on several grounds, including that they are not "local residents."

The Chhattisgarh government claims to have made available all basic facilities at the camp, then why were people going to an unknown place?

A worker of Vanvasi Chetna Ashram says government camps are like hell for the tribals. There is not enough food, nor employment opportunities. They are somehow managing to survive. But this isn’t living, they’re dying everyday.

The camps typically consist of huts constructed by the tribals themselves, with little help from the government. Even after three years, many camps do not have proper bathrooms, toilets, or sanitation facilities. The camps are so cramped that villagers have had to abandon their livestock. It has only got worse over the years.

But the people living inside the camps at the mercy of police and Salwa Judum avoid talking about it.

Madvi Unga, who is busy making baskets from bamboo strips, doesn’t even look up despite being questioned again and again. When compelled to respond, he just murmurs: “Here everything is good. And even if it is bad what can you do?”

Those words from Madvi Unga signal the death of the human spirit.

(Geetashree is a Delhi-based journalist who writes mainly on social issues and women’s rights. She is currently Features Editor of Outlook Hindi. This is the second in her series on the tribals of Chhattisgarh researched as part of the Infochange Media Fellowships 2008)

Infochange News & Features, April 2009