Red road block: High profile abductions leave officials in a tough spot

Abductions in the fast-expanding Red corridor are not new as a strategy. However, two successive high profile kidnappings have deepened the hue of Red terror. Though both Biju Janata Dal MLA Jhina Hikaka and Sukma Collector Alex Paul Menon are back with their families, one thing is obvious – the fear among politicians and officials is palpable. And as a consequence, development and welfare could be seriously affected.

In Chhatisgarh, the fear is being felt in no uncertain terms. “Life isn’t the same. Free movement is restricted”, said OP Choudhary 2005-batch IAS officer who took over as Dantewada collector in April 2011. He has asked his officers to be more vigilant. “Such abductions dampen the spirit and efficiency. It becomes more challenging for the collector since he needs to move around with his team,” Choudhary adds.

In West Bengal, the dread of Maoists is not new. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a former block development officer who worked in Belpahari, West Midnapore, said, “It was like life in jail for the two odd years I had to live (there). I was not allowed to move outside the residential area without proper security, forget visiting villages.”

In Odisha’s Malkangiri district headquarters, top district officers like collector or SP stay put in their barbwire-fenced premises following government guidelines after the abduction of the then-Malkangiri collector, R Vineel Krishna in February last year.

Officials in Bihar too are playing safe. The abductions have had the impact of sending them into a cocoon and have served to further reduce the government’s already low direct contact with the masses, especially in Maoist-hit areas of the state.

Following a government directive, several district magistrates posted in extremist-affected areas, sources said, have virtually stopped touring remote areas. The cascading impact of this avoidance, they said, could be gauged most tellingly in the Maoist-hit districts like Gaya, Aurangabad, Arwal, Rohtas, Kaimur, Jamui, Lakhisarai, Munger, Banka, Sitamarhi, Sheohar and Muzaffarpur.

In Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district, Naxals had already thrown an open challenge to the administration and the democracy.

A recent spate of political killings (at least four political leaders/workers in April alone) by Naxals, followed by mass resignation by office-bearers of local bodies owing to Reds’ threat, the people’s representatives too feel disenchanted.

In Karnataka, where the Maoist threat is relatively new, the fear psychosis is spread across politicians, officials and even teachers. There is increased fear among politicians belonging to Maoist-affected areas in the Western Ghats. MLAs like CT Ravi, DN Jeevaraj and others are taking extra care while traveling in such areas despite having armed security details provided by the State Intelligence Department.

Fear has spread to other departments, like public works, rural development, and revenue. A village accountant, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, “We are working in the villages and conduct public work on a day-to-day basis. We have already sought protection from police and have written a letter to the government.”

Fear stalling work
Development work is likely to slow down as officials fearing Maoist action refrain from going into the interiors.

“If we stay back in our office (fearing) Maoists reprisals, villagers will be the biggest losers. The police has asked us to take extraordinary precautions and keep them updated about our movement in Maoist-hit areas,” said Rahul Sharma, deputy commissioner, Gumla, Jharkhand.

In Bihar too, Maoists are holding up welfare work in various districts. “Monitoring of important welfare schemes like the Indira Awaas Yojana (IAY), the housing scheme for the poor, has suffered a setback as officers are reluctant to visit interior villages. This has increased the risk of IAY funds being cornered by unscrupulous persons,” said an official aware of goings-on in north Bihar districts like Sheohar and Sitamarhi.

In Gadchiroli, fear is achieving what Maoists want from it. Due to the demoralisation in the district and local administration, a posting in Gadchiroli is considered as a punishment by officials, who would lobby hard to get their transfer orders cancelled.

In Odisha’s Malkangiri district, work continues only because of the personal courage of a few officials. The Chintalwada gram panchayat office was blown up by the Maoists two years back and had not been reconstructed; so the panchayat executive office Bijay Kumar Sahu set up a table under a tree to register people for pensions for widows, old people and the disabled.

“This is not the right place to talk,” said Sahu when asked about problems he was facing as a government official in a Maoist-affected district like Malkangiri.

Every village under Chintalwada gram panchayat, about 750 km southeast of Bhubaneswar, has a village committee of the rebels which virtually decides how the government sponsored welfare programmes would be implemented.

It is the field level officials like block development officers and tehsildars who have to implement government schemes. And they have come to terms with the Maoists’ diktats.

“I have never received any threatening calls from the Maoists,” said one officer, who has served in the district for more than five years.

Nonetheless, the field officers get short and crisp notes from the rebels forwarding to them people’s grievances relating to welfare schemes.

Maoists want people to come to them with grievances rather than going to the administration. Later, they just get the things done through the same administrative network.
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