Silger protest taps into wider anger in Bastar over security camps coming up in the name of roads

Silger protest taps into wider anger in Bastar over security camps coming up in the name of roads

For over a month, Silger village in Sukma district became a magnet for thousands of Adivasis from across southern Chhattisgarh who travelled long distances to join a protest against the establishment of a camp of the Central Reserve Police Force.

The protest, which saw the participation of over 5,000 Adivasis at its peak, has now scaled down, because of concerns over the spread of coronavirus and the start of the monsoon agricultural season. Around 200 people, however, continue to remain at the site, 35 days after the protest first began.

Silger attracted protestors from all over Bastar for a reason: in recent months, the region has seen rising friction over the establishment of security camps, ostensibly for the purpose of aiding road construction. Across the seven districts of Bastar division, there have been at least 12 such protests since October last year.

In Kanker district, 50 elected panchayat members, including 38 sarpanches, resigned from their posts in December, after four days of peaceful protest against the establishment of two Border Security Force camps in Pakhanjur and Koyelibeda, where 45 km of road is being built.

Nearly 4,000 villagers gathered in November at Dhaudai village in Abhujmad region of Narayanpur district, 350 kms from Raipur, to oppose not only road construction, but also the establishment of an Indo-Tibetan Border Police camp in Kademeta, and the allotment of mining lease of their revered Amdai Ghati hill in Chhote Dongar village to Jayaswal Neco Company.

Massive protests erupted in Bijapur district in the month of November last year, when thousands of villagers gathered in Gangaloor to voice their grievances against the setting up of new camps in Bechapal, for which a two-lane wide bitumen road was being constructed. The police broke into a lathicharge, followed by stone pelting by the protestors, which left a security personnel injured.

The under-construction road from Silger to Bijapur has been blocked by the protestors. Photo: Malini Subramaniam

Security cover for roads

As per an official note, Bastar police, under its policy of ‘Vishwas, Vikas aur Suraksha’, or trust, development and security, established 14 new security camps in 2020 – one in Narayanpur, two each in Kanker and Sukma, three each in Bastar, Dantewada and Bijapur districts. Media reports state that in the last two years, 28 security camps have been established in Bastar.

The police claim these camps are necessary to provide security cover for road construction in Maoist-affected areas. In the past, Maoists have frequently targeted road equipment and even abducted contractors and workers.

“Connectivity is an antidote to Left Wing Extremism,” said P Sunderraj, Inspector General of Police of Bastar Range, in a conversation in early February. Echoing the government view, he said roads are required to usher in development infrastructure such as schools, anganwadi centres, health centres, public distribution centres, electricity and phone connectivity.

Once the stated purpose of the camp, which is to provide security to those engaged in road construction activities is served, are these camps dismantled?

Inspector General Sunderraj identified four camps which were vacated after the completion of road and bridge construction work. Two of these housed the Central Reserve Police Force: Manjipara camp in Kondagaon, vacated in 2018, and Boreguda camp in Sukma, vacated in 2018. A camp of the Chhattisgarh Armed Forces, built at Timed in Bijapur in 2017 to provide security to the construction of a bridge over the Indrawati river, was vacated in 2020. Another camp, housing the Chhattisgarh Special Task Force near Chitrakote was also vacated in 2020, the Inspector General said.

However, several other camps built in the region remain well after the road project was completed. For instance, on the 35-km stretch between Basaguda and Silger, five security camps were built, one camp every 7 km, none of which have been dismantled.

Sunderraj declined to share how many personnel are posted in these camps. In general, paramilitary camps in the region house not less than 200 security personnel on an average, which makes the police-civilian ratio in these short stretches among the highest in India.

Since the central paramilitary personnel, largely drawn from other parts of the country, are unfamiliar with the language and culture of local communities, they tend to view them with suspicion and hostility. As a result, villagers have come to fear security camps, viewing them as sites of surveillance and violence. Their opposition to the construction of roads is tied up with their resistance to these camps.

The Silger protest has seen large-scale participation of women, even those nursing babies. Photo: Malini Subramaniam

Area domination

While Chhattisgarh police claims the roads are being built for development purposes, the primary objective of the Union government’s Road Connectivity Programme in Left Wing Affected Areas, according to official documents, is “providing seamless connectivity, area security and area domination along with smooth movement of security forces in the LWE affected areas, by construction/upgradation of specifically identified roads”.

Under the centrally sponsored programme, Chhattisgarh was given Rs 1,637 crore as grants for building 2,479 km of roads between 2016 and 2020. Of the 35 districts that received the grants, 16 fall in Chhattisgarh, of which seven lie in Bastar division.

These roads, according to the document, have been identified by the “Ministry of Home Affairs, in consultation with the home departments of the States and security forces involved in combating LWE”.

Such an approach leaves little room for consultations with people through whose villages and forests the roads pass, even though Section 4 (i) of the Provisions of the Panchayat (Scheduled Areas) Act mandates consultation of the gram sabha or panchayat “before making the acquisition of land in the Scheduled Areas for development projects and before re-settling or rehabilitating persons affected by such projects in Scheduled Areas”.

Lack of consultation

Chhattisgarh is one of the four states that are yet to frame the rules needed to implement the law, which was passed in 1996. In its manifesto for the assembly elections in 2018, the Congress had declared that it will fully roll out the PESA Act, especially in Scheduled V and Adivasi areas. But two and a half years later, its government is yet to do so.

“Confiscating village land without holding any gram sabha is violation of PESA laws,” said Manish Kunjam, leader of Adivasi Mahasabha. “What sensitivity does one expect from the government that rode to power with the promise of rolling out PESA law so that Adivasi rights are honoured, yet does not see it important in its three years of running the government to frame rules of PESA in the state.”

Soni Sori, an Adivasi activist who recently legally challenged the establishment of a security camp in Potali village in Dantewada, said: “When there are provisions in the Constitution to consult the people, why is the state shunning away from its duties? The Adivasis in the villages may be illiterate, but they are intelligent enough to understand what is good and bad for them.”

In the absence of consultation with local residents, nearly every camp and road-building project has seen the same characteristic pattern: peaceful protests by villagers in large numbers, followed by lathi-charge by the police, aggression by the protestors, and finally random arrests of villagers declared to be Maoist cadres.

Shouldn’t the villagers be consulted, after all the PESA laws demand it to be so? “No villager is going to agree to establish a camp in their village,” said Sunderraj. “But we know once established, they will see the benefit, as they bring in not only more security for the villagers from the Maoists but also development, including education, health and livelihood options and of course convenience of commuting especially during health emergencies.”

Sunderraj dismissed the protests as instigated by the Maoists who were concerned about the roads and camps putting them at a backfoot. “Their movement is restricted and their recruitment in the village is curtailed,” he said.

Bijapur police superintendent even cited the instance of Kodoli camp built near Nelasnar, which could not be withdrawn as villagers wanted it to stay.

What villagers say

But many villagers in Bijapur refuse to buy the argument that the roads were being built for their benefit. In February, we visited Gangaloor block in Bijapur district, which has seen several protests over road construction, most recently when more than 5,000 villagers from 15 gram panchayats marched peacefully to the block headquarters in December 2020 to serve a petition to the district collector.

When the police blocked the procession, the village deities being carried on wooden bars fell to the ground, and in anger, the protestors pelted stones on the police, the villagers recounted. One security personnel was injured.

Within hours, a larger police contingent arrived and lathicharged the crowd, villagers said. Late evening as the protestors gathered to take stock, they found 17 people missing, including three minors and a young mother who had left behind her one-and-half year old daughter in her village to join the protest. They had been arrested for murder, rioting, unlawful assembly, criminal conspiracy, among other charges.

Elderly men and women sustained injuries in the police lathicharge in December. Photo: Pushpa Rokde

The protest had been sparked by the widening of a 51-km stretch of road from Gangaloor to Mirtur, passing through 10 villages. Two security camps had already been established in Gangaloor and Kodoli. But the villagers wanted to stop a third from coming up at Bechapal, which overlooks the Bailadila hill range that has deposits of high-grade iron ore. The National Mineral Development Corporation has been mining in the area since the early 1960s.

“We are not opposed to roads, after all we also travel to Andhra for work and go to bazaar,” said Dasnamore, a man in his early forties, who squatted on a tree-trunk along with two others in Pusnar, one of the villages affected by the project. “But please do not construct wide roads as it destroys our fields, our trees and disturbs the stones we lay for the dead.”

Fifty-five-year-old Chhanu Punem, whose son Lakma was among the 16 people arrested in Gangaloor, explained: “We need our old roads on which buses and four-wheelers ply to take us to nearby bazaars.” Not the new roads which are 8-metre wide, and are cutting into their fields, he said.

In Pusnar, about 20 people were losing their land because of the road widening, the villagers claimed. Asked if they would be satisfied with compensation for their land, Mangu, a resident of the village, said: “We want to live peacefully. No road, camp or compensation can bring that peace.”

Dasnamore and other residents of Pusnar village. Photo: Malini Subramaniam

The villagers pointed out they had no information about the location of the proposed security camp. The government had not even bothered to consult the traditional village heads – the patel and the perma.

Like most sarpanches in interior villages who live in the block headquarters, primarily due to threats from the Maoists, the sarpanch of Pusnar, lives in Bijapur. Villagers said he hadn’t visited Pusnar in several years.

Raju Kalmu, the sarpanch of Gangaloor, said the 25-km stretch of road connecting the block headquarters to Bijapur had seen protests three years ago, but eventually improved connectivity and trade. A man overhearing the conversation, however, interrupted to say that the private vehicles plying on the road as well as the shops that benefited from the road are mostly run by non-Adivasis.

The one area where the villagers agreed there had been benefits to them was healthcare. Just a week ago, they said a woman in an advanced stage of pregnancy was able to safely deliver her child in the Bijapur hospital, because an ambulance arrived on time.

However, these benefits were outweighed by the increased presence of hostile paramilitary personnel, they said. “We were mute spectators to the arrival of a huge contingent of security forces on the newly constructed roads, with the forests cleared with machines overnight, concertina wires set up surrounding a large portion of land, and a board of a camp put up,” said Bugga Punem, describing the manner in which Bechapal camp was set up early January this year. Punem’s 25-year-old daughter Shanti Punem was among the eight women arrested in the Gangaloor protest in December. The families haven’t been able to meet the accused in prison because of Covid-19 restrictions.

After the arrests, a delegation of about 22 villagers from different gram panchayats met the Bijapur collector with the help of local journalists on December 28. Dasnamore, who was one of the delegates, said they tried to explain why they were opposed to more security camps: “We are unable to roam around the forests at our will. We are picked up by the forces when we are out picking up mahua flowers or working in our fields. We are accused of supporting the Maoists.”

The security camps, said the villagers, disturbed the rhythms of their daily lives, and women and girls are easy targets of sexual abuse. The villagers also requested that the 17 protestors, including three school going children, be released. While the three minors were given bail two months later, the others are still in jail.

According to Raju Kalmu, the sarpanch of Gangaloor, who had joined the delegation, the district collector assured them that he would investigate the matter. Road construction halted only for a day, before it restarted under the watch of a larger contingent of security forces, said the villagers.

Bijapur collector, Ritesh Kumar Aggarwal, said he travelled to Pusnar the very next day to assess the situation in person, but an explosion triggered by Maoists forced him to cut short his visit.

Pusnar villagers whose family members are in prison for protesting against the road. Photo: Malini Subramaniam

Mining operations

Across the region, there is suspicion that the roads are meant to enable the extraction of natural resources.

“One thing is clear, the road is not being constructed for us,” said Dasnamore, with a wry smile. The road in Gangaloor will enable transport of iron ore from Deposit number 10 of the Bailadila range, he said.

In Narayanpur district, nearly 5,000 villagers had staged a demonstration in November after Jayaswal Neco Limited, a private company mining iron ore in the Chhota Dongar area since 2016, was allowed to expand its mining operations from 0.05 million tonnes per annum to 2.95 million tonnes. To safeguard the mine, the government has established a security camp at Kademeta on top of the Amdai Ghati hill that locals consider sacred.

After several days of protests, in early January this year, the villagers along with leaders of Sarva Adivasi Samaj, Sanyukt Sangharsh Samiti, activist Soni Sori and lawyer Bela Bhatia held a meeting with the district administration and the police.

“The villagers explained the cultural importance of the region, their lifestyle, their connection with the forest,” recalled Sori. She said the district collector promised to take up their concerns with the government and assured them mining work won’t start until then. Although the mining work did not start, the security camp has stood firm, and work continues on the 31-km Chhota Dongar-Orchha road project.

A prolonged impasse

Silger fits into this larger pattern of conflict over road building in Bastar.

The controversial camp in Silger village is about 12 kms from Basaguda in Bijapur district and 14 kms from Jagargunda in Sukma district. The Basaguda-Jagargunda route was once the nerve centre for trade and business, with buses and private transport ferrying passengers and goods between the two districts, and beyond, all the way to neighbouring Maharashtra via Bhadrakali and Bhopalpatnam, and Andhra Pradesh via Dornapal.

But the route was rendered inaccessible after the upsurge of Salwa Judum in 2005. The armed civilian vigilante movement, sponsored by the state to counter the Maoists, burnt homes in villages considered as safe harbours for the Maoists. Jagargunda, a village that lies at a tri-junction connecting Sukma via Dornapal, Dantewada via Aranpur and Bijapur via Basaguda, was turned into a Judum camp and CRPF fortress. In response, the Maoists blocked the route to choke all vehicular movement into the area. The hundred-odd villages that fell along the route continued to use it as a walking pathway.

The government has been attempting to rebuild the road for over a decade, but aggressive road construction activities began only in 2017-18. The old pathway began to make way for a two-way road that is 8 metres wide. Since the road cuts through Maoist strongholds, Central paramilitary camps, aided by the local footsoldiers of the District Reserve Guard of Chhattisgarh Police, were established at a distance of every 5-7 km.

When the road from Jagargunda to Aranpur was widened, it cut through agricultural fields. Photo: Malini Subramaniam

The 58-km stretch from Dornapal to Jagargunda already has 11 camps, one every 5 km. It has taken nine years since 2012 to reach a stage of near completion. According to data shared by the Inspector General’s office, between 2012 to 2020, the police lost 87 of its personnel on the stretch, including 25 killed in a Maoist ambush near Burkapal in 2017. Eight civilians were killed allegedly by Maoists as police informers, 34 alleged Maoist cadres were arrested, and 50 explosive devices were recovered, the police data shows. Records on how many people lost their land and how many trees were felled as a consequence of the road widening were not available.

On the other side, the 35-km stretch from Basaguda to Silger, too, is complete. Now, the only stretch remaining to be built is the 14-km between Silger and Jagargunda.

On May 13, three people died when the police fired on the protestors in Silger. A pregnant woman, caught in the stampede, succumbed to her injuries five days later. A month later, with Chhattisgarh government unwilling to withdraw the security camp and stop road construction, the protest continues. How will the current impasse end?

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