There are no roads here. There is no pond in the village. No wells. No drinking water. What does the government want us to do?” laments Era Madkamy, 37, a small-time farmer who grows paddy, groundnuts and vegetables for a living. His wife Mamata Kobasi, 25, has recently resigned from her post as an elected village head. Kobasi is not alone. In the past two months, frustration over the State’s apathy towards the tribal dominated region has made 72 local body representatives quit their posts in a remote corner of Odisha, one of the poorest of the 28 states in India. Though the district collector refused to accept the resignations, the despair runs so deep that no one is willing to relent.
Malkangiri district, 600 km to the south-west of the state capital Bhubaneswar, has always been in the news for the wrong reasons. This is one of the 60 districts in central and eastern India that the government considers to be ‘most affected’ by the Maoist insurgency.
Malkangiri hit the headlines in February 2011 when the Maoists abducted the then district collector Vineel Krishna. One of the rebels’ demands was the construction of a canal that would ensure drinking water to people across a large part of the district. Nearly two-and-a-half years following the release of Krishna — who currently works in the Union Ministry of Rural Development — there is no sign of the canal yet.
While pressure from the Maoists may have left little choice for the local body representatives but to follow their diktat, many of them say they are so fed up with the State’s apathy towards the tribals that they decided to quit.
The resignation of local body members at all levels — from wards (a part of a village) to blocks (a bunch of villages) — means more than just stagnancy in the local administration. It almost suggests a rejection of everything that the government has to offer.
People in every village that TEHELKA visited in the district seemed to share this sense of alienation.
Among those who have resigned are the chairperson and 21 village heads of Kalimela block. In Koyimetla, one of the villages in this block, it is a hot Sunday morning and the village head Kobasi tends to her kids while her husband Madkamy has breakfast. With no irrigation facilities, it is a tough task for the household to sustain their crops. Even collecting drinking water is a big problem.
This village was once connected by the main road that passes through Kalimela block. It was a pucca road once, but that is difficult to believe by the look of what remains of it. In fact, pucca roads cannot be seen in most parts of the district.
“What’s the point of being a village head when there is little you can do to improve the lot of the villagers?” asks Madkamy. Village head Kobasi and the other villagers too share the same view. But lest you thought it is a village that has been influenced by Maoists, the villagers are quick to clarify that it is not. No one claimed to support the Maoists in any way.
Indeed, it is difficult to reduce the villagers’ views on the Maoists to a binary of ‘support’ and ‘opposition’. So, at the same time as they insist they have nothing to do with the Maoists, some of them say they agree with a few of the rebels’ demands.
“The Maoists were right when they demanded the canal during the Vineel Krishna kidnapping episode… The government does not seem to understand our appeals,” says a villager on the condition of anonymity. Many villages do not seem to have been particularly shaken by the killing of an SPO by the Maoists in a nearby village just a day earlier, or by the killing of Bhagwan Kirsani, the elected head of Kurmannur village, in the same area a month earlier. However, in hushed voices, many villagers admit that Maoist pressure has worked in several villages. But not theirs, they point out immediately.
In another remote village, Undrukonda, where there is absolutely no support for Maoists, the frustration reaches another decibel. Most residents are Koya tribals, and they suffer from the usual problems of lack of drinking water, electricity and roads, besides little access to education and healthcare.
“Every time we have a medical emergency, it takes nearly four-five hours for the ambulance to reach us. There have been a number of miscarriages because of this,” says 24-year-old Wagi Kartami, the elected village head, who has studied up to Class XII. “How can we develop this village? There is no Primary Health Centre here, no high school, and no roads too.”
Twenty-eight-year-old Debe Madhi, who resigned as head of Kalimela block and is a supporter of the Congress party, articulates the problems of the villagers more vividly. “The nearest hospital is more than 25-30 km away from my village, Murbanpally,” she says. “It’s worse for the people in villages like Manyamkonda, Chintalvada, Bejangiwada and Bodigetta, which are in the hills.”
Madhi also points out that social welfare schemes like the MGNREGS — an ambitious Central government scheme that guarantees 100 days of wage employment to every household in rural India — have not been implemented effectively in the entire region. “Unless the government expedites implementation of the welfare programmes that we have demanded, we will stay away from office,” she says. “Though our resignation has not been accepted, we will not relent.”
Ambivalence in the attitude towards the Maoists is a common feature in several villages that TEHELKA visited. Most residents also shared similar views on the failure of the political parties to deliver good governance.
Many villagers point out that the PDS system in Malkangiri has been of little use to the locals. “The Adivasis here do not consume the rice provided through the PDS as they prefer other locally grown cereals. Also, most of them don’t use sugar and use firewood instead of kerosene,” says a volunteer in one of the biggest NGOs operating in the district. “No political party is keen to pursue the issues that matter, as it is not in their interest.” Among such crucial issues, the volunteer adds, is the implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) — a key legislation that recognises the Adivasis’ rights to forestland.
“Just two months ago, there was not even a status-quo report on the FRA. Now, perhaps with the 2014 Assembly polls in mind, the officials have suddenly woken up and are handing out pattas (land deeds) to Adivasis,” says an activist. “But there is no effort to recognise community claims over forestland, which would give Adivasi villages complete control over the nearby forests. Nobody wants that.”
This idea of community rights is fuelling the rebellion elsewhere in Malkangiri too. Nilapari village in Kudumulu Gumma block is inhabited by the Didai tribe (classified as a ‘Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group’). The elected head, Naka Mamudi, recently managed to stop the paramilitary Border Security Force (BSF) from setting up a camp in the village. He did this by citing the rules for tribal areas under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, which gives the village council the right to decide how community resources are to be used. He had learnt from the experience of villages like Chitapari-3 of the neighbouring Korukonda block, where the BSF has occupied the panchayat building.
While calls for further militarisation of Maoist-affected regions have become louder following the shocking Naxal attack on a Congress convoy in Chhattisgarh on 25 May, Malkangiri is a case study in why that alone may not end the problem. Unless it comes with a simultaneous campaign to strengthen institutions of local governance, so that local body representatives feel safe and are empowered to address the grievances of villagers.
Else we might end up with more Malkangiri-like situations. Already in neighbouring Koraput district, local body representatives in Narayanpatna block are readying to resign en masse to protest the arrest of over 500 innocent Adivasis.