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India struggles with development in Maoist citadel

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The new four-lane highway crashing through the thick jungles of central India suddenly crumbles into a narrow dirt path, cratered with huge holes from bombings carried out by Maoist rebels.

In a sense the road is a border, serving as a line of control for the government and Maoist rebels India is trying to fight not only with thousands of police but also roads, water and power.

In this desperately poor forest belt, the government sees development as a central plank of its efforts to wean people away from the Maoists, who have operated in a vacuum of official neglect that has fuelled distrust of the authorities.

But it is struggling to push development in the face of resistance from the rebels, who see roads and bridges as bringing in more troops and schools and hospitals as police barracks.

Massive official corruption and inefficiency have only made matters worse, leaving a gaping hole in what is supposed to be a crucial element in the government response to the insurgency.

“See they had a headstart and they created a Robin Hood image in areas where government presence was minimal,” said T.J. Longkumer, the police chief of Bastar region in the state of Chhattisgarh, considered the epicentre of the insurrection.

“So building roads, schools, providing water, power — this will be important. But the Maoists are enemies of development.”

The ruling left-of-centre Congress party blames “development gaps” for the conflict. In response, it announced three years ago a $4.3 billion (2.8 billion pounds) plan to build roads, homes, schools and health infrastructure in 55 districts seen as rebel heartlands.

But the rebels, who number roughly 10,000-20,000 besides thousands of village militias armed with bows and axes, see the plan as a step to bring in private corporations eying the region’s massive deposits of coal, iron ore and bauxite.

In the hardscrabble village on Chinnagellur, a two-hour walk through winding forest paths littered with booby-traps aimed at police, it is easy to see what the government is up against.

PERFECT COCKTAIL FOR REVOLUTION

The occasional tubewell or two-room school — the only signs of official presence in this “red heart” of India — disappears miles before Chinnagellur. No-one from the village has ever stepped out of the forest and no official has visited in years.

A lone twisted electric post stands as evidence of an official effort to bring power a few years ago, but the Maoists and corruption stalled it.

At least 30 people died in and around the village last week from diarrhoea, a seasonal killer when monsoon rains pollute the river water the villagers use to drink and bathe their cattle.

“We have hardly ever existed for the government,” Telam Hunga, Chinnagellur’s headman, sinewy and bare-chested, told Reuters, sitting on the mud-floor of his empty thatched hut.

“Why do we believe it if it hasn’t noticed us till now?”

Life in Chinnagellur, mirrored across a large swathe of India’s forest belt, offered a cocktail of neglect and exploitation that helped the Maoists win support among millions of tribal and lower caste people.

The rebels have also rallied tribal people to oppose seizure of their land for industry, particularly in the mining sector.

On a slowburn for four decades, the rebellion still remains on the margins as an issue for many in the cities of rapidly modernising India.

The rebels want to overthrow the state, which they say has not cared for the poor. They blow up railway tracks, attack factories and kill police, sustaining the rebellion with income from extortion and “taxes” imposed on “liberated zones.”

In March, the government launched the biggest deployment of security forces in the history of independent India to fight what it describes as the country’s gravest domestic security threat.

The Maoists responded with more attacks. Already more than 400 people have been killed this year, mostly police, the same as the number killed in the whole of last year.

In keeping with Home Minister P. Chidambaram’s plan of following up the security offensive with a quick and heavy dose of development, the government last year approved another $800 million in new projects.

CORRUPTION, INTIMIDATION

But a tour of the forests, which cover an area the size of Switzerland, reveals a picture of official corruption and Maoist stalling of progress in a completely militarised zone.

The forest belt of India has some of the country’s worst rates of poverty, poor health and malnutrition. In village after village, there was little sign of any government presence.

In some villages close to motorable roads, there were once schools, most of which now lie blown up or function as police barracks. Deeper inside, life has never progressed beyond living off the forest.

But when it comes to development, funds are never the problem.

“The region receives a huge chunk of development money, which is always shown as spent on government books,” said Sheikh Karimuddin, head of a local journalists’ group.

Roads and schools are shown on paper to be built in most large villages of Bijapur district. But on the ground many villages remain out of bounds for the government.

A few attempts to build roads in the interior villages have failed because of Maoist threats. One stretch of road connecting Dantewada and Dornapal towns has been either blown up or hacked away at at least 50 places.

“Apart from socio-economic deprivation, there has been a steady erosion of traditional tribal rights and their command over resources,” said a 2008 government panel on development for the Maoist-dominated areas.

“We have two worlds of education, two worlds of health, two worlds of transport and two worlds of housing, with a gaping divide in between.”

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