Nine months after the Saranda Development Plan to counter the Maoists was announced, villagers in the ‘liberated zone’ are yet to see its trickle-down effect, reports Soumik Mukherjee
WHENEVER THE villagers of Saranda hear the word ‘action’, it brings back grisly memories: the sudden appearance of heavily-armed paramilitary troopers, destroyed houses and slain family members. That’s what Gangaram Munda, 45, remembers of a month-long CRPF operation last September to purge Maoists from the region in the mineral-rich West Singhbhum district of Jharkhand.
In a bid to bring development to the region, which was considered an impenetrable bastion of the Maoists until last year’s Operation Anaconda, Union rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh announced the Saranda Action plan last October. It was a Rs 264 crore project aimed at building roads and houses for tribals in this 800 sq km patch of dense evergreen forest. However, some villagers believe that the real beneficiary of the plan will be mining companies who have been drooling over the area’s mineral riches.
Gangaram Munda, whose ageing parents were killed in the CRPF operation last September, and many of his neighbours in Thalkobad village will attest to the fact that Saranda Action plan was renamed Saranda Development plan after their concerns about using the word ‘action’. regardless, nine months later, the only work that has happened here indicates more ‘action’ and hardly any development.
“We were supposed to build 6,000 houses for BPL (below-poverty line) families under the Indira Aawas Yojana, but there are only around 2,500 or so families who have BPL cards. So technically, it’s impossible to spend all that money only on building houses,” says Sr Natesh, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) of Chaibasa, who is in charge of the Saranda Development Plan. That’s not the only hurdle. The state government is yet to make a list of BPL families in the region and no BPL survey has been conducted since 2001. “Almost 400 of the families are still not registered in the list, as the required identification papers are yet to be processed,” says Natesh.
A select few received an initial capital to build houses but the funds stopped soon. “We handed over Rs 24,000 to the people as the first installment, but we stopped because they did not produce proper identification papers in order to collect the money,” says Baidyanath Oraon, Block Development Officer (BDO) of Manoharpur. The villagers, on the other hand, claim that they didn’t receive the money despite having the necessary documents.
DFO Natesh rubbishes the BDO’s claims. “The only criterion to apply for the second installment is to show that substantial construction work has been done,” he says. “No identification papers are required as the paperwork has already been completed when the money was given the first time. It includes registering the bank account number of the villagers.” Now, the houses are lying half-built, and many fear them being washed away in the monsoon.
‘Development doesn’t come in a hurry,’ was the BDO’s retort when asked about the denial of NREGA payments
Irregularities in fund distribution is a recurring theme across all sectors of the plan. The MGNREGA jobs that were created under the plan have been a failure so far, as none of the workers have been paid. “even after almost one month of working, we didn’t receive any money. So we have stopped working,” says Jagamohan Munda, a resident of Thalkobad village. People from all the villages in the region echo this sentiment. Now, half-dug ponds are a common sight in the forest with the yellow MGNREGA signboards beside them. When the BDO was asked about the payment issue, he retorted: “Development doesn’t come in a hurry.”
The Saranda Development Plan had also envisioned the distribution of 7,000 bicycles, radios and solar-powered lamps to the villagers. West Singbhum Deputy Commissioner K Srinivasan admits that these “short-term goals” have been a major failure. The 7,000 bicycles have been rusting at the Manoharpur block office for the past six months. “We don’t have the necessary people to distribute them,” is the perplexing reason given by an official. The solar-powered lamps, in the words of Ranjit Guria from Baliba village, are just “an extra showpiece to keep at home”.
The only visible constructive effort that Saranda has seen since the project was announced are the brand-new CRPF camps and an 80-km long road from the Kiriburu Hills to Manoharpur that traverses through iron ore-rich areas like Chiria and Dhobil. Human rights and environment activists claim that this road is solely meant for facilitating mining work in the region.
Congress district secretary and human rights activist Sushil Barla alleges that the Saranda Development Plan is fast turning into a scheme to promote mining activities in the area, while also triggering a spike in police action and atrocities. Barla claims that “the quality of even the National Highways are not as good as this road”. At the same time, the proposed roads inside the forest that were to connect the villages are non-existent and there is no sign of any upcoming work. “Once the monsoon starts, these places will become impenetrable and no work will take place,” warns Barla.
Police action and mining inside the forest have drawn flak from different government departments, too. A forest department officer suggests that implementing a plan like this and increasing police presence every day is contradictory. “If you want to win over the people through good work, then remove the forces. Otherwise, the villagers will doubt the good faith of this project,” he says.
While Jharkhand DGP GS Rath recently said at a press conference that “the heavy presence of the police is needed to provide security to the operations of the development plan,” DFO Natesh says the CRPF presence has very little to do with the project and is more of a ploy “to regain territory”.
Some of the security forces’ activities have even provoked the ire of the district administration. Last week, the CRPF battalion headquarters in Chotanagra had organised a camp where they trained girls from the local villages. “We have given training to 75 girls from different villages,” says Vedpal Singh, CRPF commandant at Chotanagra.
Deputy Commissioner Srinivasan reacted with justifiable scepticism. “I don’t know what is the need to include the villagers in these security drills,” he says and adds that the open camaraderie between villagers and the paramilitary forces doesn’t bode well for the security of the villagers as they will now be vulnerable to Maoist rage.
But it seems Saranda’s ill-fortune will linger longer as the state police gears up for a new operation. A source in the police suggests that an armed operation is possible before the monsoons arrive. The DGP’s claims have strengthened this suspicion further, as he was quoted saying that two CRPF battalions and an Indian reserve battalion have already been posted in the new camps that are functioning inside the forest at Saidal, Jumbaibera and Thalkobad.
Soumik Mukherjee is a Photo Correspondent with Tehelka.