Jammu and Kashmir and Chhattisgarh may be 1300 miles apart. But one thing that binds them together is decades old insurgency and almost similar state response. However, unlike Kashmir where the mobile phone service is massively used to track and hunt down rebels, large swathes of Chhattisgarh and portions of almost eight other Naxal-hit states have so far remained untouched by these operations, which is no longer a case on wards.
Buoyed by the results of Kashmir experiment besides recent massacre of Congress party members in Chattisgarh offering a favorable time, the central government is now looking to erect about 3,000 mobile towers across nine central Indian states in the areas without any mobile network coverage “in a bid to tackle Maoists (or Naxals) insurgents.”
The key benefit of the entire project, Home Ministry sources here say “is to offer operational advantage to soldiers and police who are finding it hard to track down Maoists in the jungles and suburbs of almost 80 Left-Wing Extremism (LWE)-hit districts in nine States.”
In 2003, one of the peak years of Kashmir militancy, the introduction of mobile phone service in restive Jammu and Kashmir by the central government was resisted by several security and intelligence agencies warning mobile phones would help militants explode bombs and coordinating attacks.
Initially militants did use the mobile phones to plan attacks but soon it was going to prove counterproductive for them. Currently not more than 100 militants are active since 2003 when they numbered in thousands.
“Most of the militants were eliminated when security officials tracked their cell phones or recorded their conversations. Sometimes SIM cards were planted and other times their internet (social networking) activity monitored. “In this brutal war the technology, you can say, had sided with us,” explains a Srinagar-based counter-insurgency official.
In recent cases, cell phones led to the killing of most-pursued militants like Laskhar-e-Toiba’s (LeT) Abdullah Uni, Jaish-e-Mohammd’s Hamad in 2011, arrest of Abdul Rashid Shigan, a cop who ran a self-styled two-man group that attacked troops and policemen 13 times in 2012. Other times, to the utter surprise of even investigation agencies, the SIM cards planted in 2010 into the ranks of LeT were later found from slain militants involved in the 26/11 Mumbai attack by the National Investigating Agency (NIA).
Same project to be employed in nine Naxal-hit states, according to sources, will cost rupees 3000 Crore (app USD 0.5 Billion) and the entire mobile infrastructure project will cover some 2200 places in nine states where Naxals are widespread.
Most of these locations fall in Chattisgarh, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh states where the government has realised how information activities can play an increasingly key role in shaping opinions and generating support against insurgents both inside and outside these states.
In fact to a question in parliament, Indian IT minister Killi Kruparani recently said “out of all the proposed 2200 locations, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) has already installed MobileTowers at 363 areas.”
The project started after Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) identified and conveyed these locations to the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) for installation of mobile towers which are affected by what it calls ‘Left Wing Extremism (LWE)’ and do not currently have any coverage by any service provider.
These mobile towers are coming up at 782 locations in Jharkhand, 497 spots in Chhattisgarh, 253 in Odisha and 227 in Andhra Pradesh. Rest of the towers would be built in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Maharastra, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal states. Some 351 towers have already been commissioned by the BSNL in Chhattisgarh.
According to MHA officials, the installation of mobile towers is funded by Universal Service Obligation (USO), which as per the Indian Telegraph Act 1885 (as amended in 2003 and 2006), is defined as access to telegraph service to people in rural and remote areas at affordable and reasonable prices.
“The current process is a continuation of 11th Five Year Plan thorough which 673 mobile towers were installed under the scheme in LWE (Left-Wing Extremism) affected districts,” MHA sources say.
The Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) had launched a scheme ‘Shared Mobile Infrastructure Scheme (SMIS)’ in May 2007 to provide subsidy support for setting up and managing 7353 infrastructure sites/towers in 500 districts including LWE-affected districts spread over 27 States for provision of mobile services in the specified rural and remote areas, where there was no existing fixed, wireless or mobile coverage.
“Villages or hamlets with population of 2000 or more in LWE-affected areas and having no mobile coverage were taken into consideration for installation of towers under this scheme,” they say.
In India, the USOF imposes approximately a five per cent levy on operator revenues and according to one estimate is sitting on USD four billion collected from telecom operators “which remains an un-utilised fund”. But MHA sources say the USOF will be spending half-a-billion dollars on this scheme and the funding disbursed by USOF under shared mobile infrastructure scheme up in Naxal strong-hold until February 28, 2013 was 191 crore (USD 34.90 million).
“Why these villages remained cut off was because these are poor and remote areas. There is no potential to generate revenue. Which is why private operators haven’t really bothered to erect installations in these areas,” sources say.
In fact it was after eliminating top Maoist leader Kishenji in November 2011 with the help of mobile communication that the over 500 mobile towers were installed in Naxal affected states.
But Naxals know how detrimental these towers have become for their operations. That’s why according to one report, Naxals blasted some 38 towers in 2008, 66 in 2009, 70 in 2010 and some 71 in 2011 across the Naxal-hit states. Officially some 3650 people including civilians, Naxals and troops have been killed since 2008 in 9234 incidents of violence. And according to fresh report of Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), among adult fighters there are 2500 children too fighting this war against government soldiers.
With the graph of violence showing a slight decline since 2010, sources say cell phone tracking has become essential and one way authorities can monitor communications over phone and internet would be utilizing the recently rolled out Central Monitoring System (CMS)—a system that has cost the government some 400 Crore rupees which gives central and state investigative agencies both a single point of access to call records, text messages and emails as well as the geographical location of individuals.
Critics like Suhas Chakma, Director of Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) say, “The government, in fact no one, has been able to deal with the development paradigm vis-à-vis Naxalism in central India and using such a huge infrastructure to track down Maoism will be wastage of money.”
Many others like Shubranshu Chowdhury—a former BBC journalist-turned-development activist—warn against using the mobile service as “tool of war” and “not as a medium of communication.”
“There is a complete breakdown of communication between Adivasi (Tribal) India and mainstream India, which has good journalists, activists, leaders. Mobile phones can be used to bridge that gap. But if they use mobile phones like they use roads, PDS and schools (roads and schools are built to cater to police and Hindi speaking upper class Adivasis only. Likewise PDS is benefiting those who side with the government) then I am not sure how useful will be that effort,” he says.
Chowdhury, who has spent more than seven years in Chhattisgarh watching closely the Maoist movement, says: “The very language of tribals in Chattisgarh is Gondi, which is not understood by the majority of journalists, bureaucrats and politicians. So when people try to report the Maoist problem in the area they end up talking to people who know little bit of Hindi or English. So it’s Adivasis’ story being told by others who are actually close to the state and part of power structure,” he says, adding , “Now mobiles can bridge that gap and help bring Adivasis closer to the mainstream India. But again if the state uses it as a war weapon, things are not going to change.”
Chowdhury, however, says mobile phone service must be welcomed too. His mobile phone-based news system CGNet Swara has been giving voice to tribals for several years now. Adivasi tribals or their activist, whose plight mainstream media rarely reports, have been calling CGNet on a particular number to register their problems. The internet-radio-website system, first of its kind in the world, records their voice and the news gets circulated to the people who matter.
For example, on 14 March 2010, when tribal activist Prakash Korram was seized by police at Damkasa, Kanker during operation Green Hunt in Chattisgarh, police refused to acknowledge his arrest. Soon senior activist of Ekta Parishad an NGO for which he was working for started calling CGNet Swara. After the report of his arrest was ‘out’ on the internet, the police began receiving calls from across India and outside condemning his arrest. Facing strong pressure, police had to release him.
“CGnet Swara is like Facebook for Adivasi people who do not have computer/internet but mobiles. Internet reach in Chhattisgarh is only 0.7 percent. So whenever people want to communicate something they call Swara number and record their messages,” he says.
Chowdhury adds, “So in a way we must also welcome the mobile service offer by the government minus their ‘security’ issue intentions. It is like school and roads. If it is not used as a weapon of war, introducing mobile service should be welcomed in that scenario.”