'Development is the only answer to tackling Naxalism'

The right approach to tackling Naxalism can be illustrated by this incident at Lohri, where a few months ago a carnage had taken place when the Naxalites attacked a police party. We decided to hold a social security awareness campaign in the villages. But the Naxalites sent out warnings against it and closed the main road to traffic.

The tehsildar and his team could not make it to the campaign function. When I asked him about it, the tehsildar replied, "Sir, I tried to come. But the Naxalites had put a huge tree across the road. I moved it aside, my vehicle passed and then I moved the tree back across the road and returned home."

The question is not whether lack of development has given rise to Naxalism or Naxalism has given rise to lack of development. Why are 13- and 14-yearold tribals picking up SLRs and INSAS rifles? Because they get paid Rs 1,500 and get food and clothing. They don't even know who Mao is. It is the fire in the belly that drives them to arms. Naxalism is directly proportional to the forest area. And inversely proportional to the urbanized area. On a much broader scale, we do need to ask the question as to whether the administration and the political executive have delivered on the development model adopted.

Rambling thinking with respect to development, and disjointed or poor development have fuelled Naxalism. There have been discrepancies, mismatches and neglect of vital aspects of development while drawing up development plans in regions. The gap of inequality has been widening between the tribal havenots and others. The problem has nothing to do with ideology. Nandurbar, Amravati, Gondia and Thane are tribal districts. Between 1993 and 1998, Melghat region in Amravati district came into the limelight because of malnutrition-related deaths of tribal infants. Why is Naxalism not thriving there?

Today, Naxalism is taking a totally different path. Rather than talking about the oppressed, the Naxalites are talking about overthrowing the state. The line between the oppressed and the oppressor are very hard to differentiate. For the Naxalites, Gadchiroli comes in the path of their so-called march towards New Delhi in their bid to capture power there in 2030. Gadchiroli lies in the "Red Corridor" between Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa. The government has now agreed to procure modern weapons and equipment to tackle the Naxalite menace.

But development is the only answer. We cannot overnight attain the level of progress of the US. We can attain it slowly. The problems are many. The Human Development Index (HDI) is the lowest in intra-State terms. Agriculture is non sustainable. The monetary benefits of government schemes cannot reach the tribals as the banking network is not that widespread in the district. As many as 720 tribal villages are not covered by the mobile network.

Today, Naxalism is taking a totally different path. Rather than talking about the oppressed, the Naxalites are talking about overthrowing the state.

The tribals here are so poor that they cannot even afford to pay for the subsidized health, electricity, housing and food schemes of the government. One tribal development officer based at divisional headquarters in Nagpur looked after five districts in the State. So the additional District Collector is now Member Secretary of the district-level committee to monitor implementation of development work.

After taking over as District Collector, I advocated the need for convergence of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). Under the provisions of the Forest Act, tribals were being denied the right to sell even minor forest produce. I allowed them to sell it in the open market.

Seventy-eight per cent of the district's economy is forest-related. Those whose lives are dependent on the forests should be made essential partners in natural resource planning, conservation and protection. Only then can we overcome the problem of Naxalism.With the help of the agriculture department, we have implemented a tree plantation programme under which the tribals are being given saplings free. They also get ownership rights.

After the first three years, they can sell the produce in the open market. I have also advocated allowing Women's Self Help Groups (SHGs) as units in MGNREGS. Land has always been at the centre of the concept of development. I have tried to move this centre of development away from the district headquarters to the remote and border areas of the district.

There have been problems of connectivity and trained technical manpower. Just the other day the Naxalites burnt one of our vehicles engaged in GPS mapping. To ameliorate the conditions that the tribals live in, I have begun implementation of the e-Health, e-Disha and e-Vidya schemes. Project Dhannankur is aimed primarily at tackling Naxalism head-on.

In remote tribal villages, especially during the monsoons, speedy access to health services was a problem. We have placed ambulances at strategic places so that minimum time is lost in rendering medical aid to the tribals.

Why are the 13- and 14-year-old tribals picking up SLRs and INSAS rifles? Because they get paid Rs 1,500 and get food and clothing.

For this we have come up with a smart card that allows us to keep track online of the health of tribals. Under Project Kayakalp we aim to provide health services with a more human touch. The government has also enhanced the powers of the Divisional and Assistant Conservator of Forests to sanction development work for tribals.

During my decade-long bureaucratic career, I have had the chance to turn around several things. The other day, my presentation on the multi-pronged action plan of development for tackling Naxalism was well received at the meeting of the State Cabinet, chaired by Chief Minister Ashokrao Chavan. The Cabinet has given a green signal to proposals to modernize the local police force for tackling Naxalism.

As Managing Director of the State Minerals and Mining Corporation, Nagpur, I managed to turn the loss-making entity into a profit-making corporation in 2008. The corporation earned a profit of Rs 100 crore then, now it proudly owns captive coal mines in other States and has even begun exporting minerals.

During the 2009 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, several of the initiatives that we took in managing the polls were appreciated. We adopted an election management plan which was based on randomization. We categorized election staff on the basis of their age and then assigned them duties, gave time slots for polling parties to reach the polling stations, conduct the elections and report back in a sort of relay mechanism.

For the first time, the polling parties could stay overnight in the cloakroom of a nearby railway station. Many of our other initiatives regarding election funding and such matters have been adopted by the Election Commission of India in these Bihar Assembly elections.

The Chief Election Commissioner, Dr. S.Y. Quraishi, made special mention of our innovative methods in election management at the EC's regional conference recently in Goa. Handling such a sensitive and challenging assignment comes with strings attached. Being the District Collector of Gadchiroli, I have to live with Z Plus security cover. (Courtesy: gfiles) (ANI)