Ananthapriya Subramanian is an independent writer with keen interest in humanitarian issues. After working for over 10 years as an award-winning journalist and following a shorter stint leading communications in the development sector, she is, for the moment, content observing trends in the development sector landscape. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"We want a school. Our children just sit around all day with nothing to do." Adamai implored the small group of visitors to the small settlement at Balimela in Chintur mandal, Andhra Pradesh. What Adamai, which is not his real name, did not mention then was that the adults here too did not have much to do. The 30-odd families living here in a small clearing near the forest adjoining the State of Chhattisgarh have a special status though. They are internally displaced people (IDPs). They may as well not exist as even this status is not readily acknowledged them. Similar clusters of families are scattered in Andhra Pradesh along the border adjoining Chhattisgarh having fled what is India's worst-kept secret: a conflict in the heart of India. The Indian Government does not readily acknowledge there is a conflict and prefers to call it an internal disturbance.
Across the border, the hauntingly beautiful landscape of southern Chhattisgarh provides the setting for the conflict that has seen the displacement of over 50,000 indigenous people or Adivasis (tribals) from their homes to the forests in the State and to neighbouring ones. The mineral-rich tribal belt is the epicentre of a war being waged between the State and Maoist guerillas known as Naxalites. Caught in the middle are the Adivasis, who are one of the most politically and economically marginalised subaltern groups in India.
In 2006, Manmohan Singh, the Indian Prime Minister, went so far as to call Naxalism the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by India.
The conflict in Chhattisgarh flared up in 2005 with the launch of the Salwa Judum. The Salwa Judum, which ironically means "peace hunt" in Gondi, one of the tribal languages, is claimed as a spontaneous movement launched by the locals fed up with the strategies of the Naxalites. Whether it was a spontaneous movement or not, the reality also is that it soon became a paramilitary force, with its members having been inducted as "special police officers". But it soon degenerated into a civil militia mimicking the Naxalites in some of its actions. Thousands of Adivasis were uprooted from their villages and moved to roadside relief camps, ostensibly to starve the Naxalites of local support.
While the State claimed that these villagers came voluntarily, other reports suggested that many also moved out of fear of reprisal if they disobeyed the diktat of the State and its sponsored militia. Whatever the truth, the cold reality is that these villagers have been dislocated from their home and hearth.
Adamai and his family along with several others fled Banda panchayat in Dantewada district, Chhattisgarh in 2005 and hid in the forests on the border with Andhra Pradesh. The exact number of the IDPs seems to be in dispute with estimates varying from 40,000 to up to a 100,000. For centuries, the fertile land and the abundant forest cover were the main source of subsistence for the tribals. But with the conflict, they had to leave behind everything and flee for their lives.
Every one of the tribals living in the forest clearing had a heart-wrenching story to tell. Every single one of them had changed their names for fear of being identified as a Maoist sympathizer or a Salwa Judum by the opposing parties to the conflict.
Madvi Gangamma was picked up in Dantewada by the Salwa Judum on suspicion of being a Maoist informer. After being "detained" for 10 days, she was let off. Now living as an IDP, she has no intention of going back to the 20 acres of land that belonged to her family. "I have nothing here but I am safe." The notion of safety is flimsy here in Andhra Pradesh as the State appears to not want the IDPs to live here. When the IDPs try to clear some forest land to cultivate some maize and vegetables, the tribals allege that the Forest Department brings in cattle to destroy it. The majority of the IDPs in Andhra Pradesh are not entitled to subsidized food rations provided by the government for the poor. And when they do manage to get a ration card, all they are given is rice and nothing else.
The little settlements have no drinking water or toilets. There is no electricity. Clearly, there is no evidence that India's runaway growth story was scripted here. There is evidence, however, of poverty, accompanied by high levels of illiteracy and poor health. "Sometimes we get work as casual labourers. When we get some money, we eat. Otherwise, we starve," said Devayya. No one looks healthy and children, especially, appear chronically malnourished. Falciparum malaria is endemic in this region, according to NGOs working here.
Another IDP cluster and the story is the same. This one in Dumakudam block in Ranagutta village has 32 families living in threadbare conditions. Only nine children from this cluster go to a primary school which is three km away. None of their parents has been to school, ever. While the children speak Halbi, a tribal dialect, they learn Telugu at school. And learn fast as their teachers do not understand their dialect! All nine children will drop out of school after Class V as the nearest secondary school is 10 km away.
Education has suffered collaterally across the border in southern Chhattisgarh as well. Security forces occupy schools as they advance into the interior areas combing for Maoists, who in turn, demolish the schools to thwart the CRPF's strategy. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court had pulled up the Chhattisgarh Government for misleading the court that the CRPF had vacated all schools while in reality the security forces had only vacated 6 out of 31 schools.
In a country where elementary education is now a Constitutionally guaranteed right, Adamai's appeal for a school seems like a cry in the wilderness. Is anyone listening?
(Ananthapriya Subramanian is National Manager, Media and Communications, Save the Children. For more information on the work and how you can help, log on www.savethechildren.in)