Swabhiman Anchal: A Maoist bastion in Odisha reclaimed through development

MALKANGIRI: Huddled outside her asbestos-roofed house along with a few other women in Sindhiput village of Jodambo grampanchayat deep inside the Swabhiman Anchal of Malkangiri district, Jasoda Alang, a 38-year-old OBC woman, is excited over the panchayat polls scheduled on February 24, a first, where they will use their constitutional right freely.

The village became famous in February 2011 when Maoists abducted erstwhile Malkangiri district collector R Vineel Krishna and a junior engineer, and kept them hostage for 8 days. The two were released after Odisha government ensured release of Ganti Prasadam, wife of CPI (Maoist) central committee member Ramakrishna. A year later, Maoists triggered an IED blast that killed commandant of BSF and three other jawans of the central paramilitary force ahead of 2012 panchayat polls.

Now, Alang, like several other villagers in the heart of Maoist bastion of Swabhiman Anchal, then known as cut-off area, is getting ready for panchayat polls. “The Maoists ruled our area for 40 years and once they gave a call for boycott, there was no other choice. But this time we would go out and vote in groups as per our choice,” said Alang.

The 172 villages of Swabhiman Anchal in an area of 372 sq km is separated from the mainland Odisha by the Balimela reservoir built in the early 60s and had fallen off the development map for four decades. However, it changed when the Odisha government built a 910 metre long bridge over river Gurupriya, one of the rivulets that feed into mammoth Balimela reservoir, connecting mainland Malkangiri with the isolated villages in July 2018. And, because of that bridge, Sindhiput now has 30 km road, untarred at some places, and is two hours away from Gurupriya, which earlier was a half a day journey. Construction of road to this village is important as it lies in Jodambo grampanchayat considered to be the headquarter of Maoists of Andhra-Odisha Border Special Zonal Committee.

“If things go as per plan, in another two-and-a-half years, all the 172 villages in the region would be connected with all-weather roads making Swabhiman Anchal probably the first Maoist fortress in India to come under complete control of any government,” said a senior state government official.

Swabhiman Anchal: A Maoist heartland

Two biggest problems in Swabhiman Anchal were the threat of Maoist violence and the terrain.
Two biggest problems in Swabhiman Anchal were the threat of Maoist violence and the terrain.

The cut-off Swabhiman Anchal, having a population of 31,000 people, became a Maoist citadel after the Naxal movement started in Andhra Pradesh in 1967 in the densely forested Andhra-Odisha border region. As an earth-cum-rock dam was built at Chitrakonda area of Malkangiri between 1962 and 1977 to generate 510 megawatt of hydroelectricity from the water released by Machhkund Power House in Koraput district, the reservoir and its backwaters created a 65 km long water channel submerging hills, forests and hundreds of villages. More than 170 villages that did not drown, were physically separated and came to be known as cut-off area and then Swabhiman Anchal in 2018. As the Swabhiman Anchal was geographically nearer to Andhra Pradesh, Maoists made the area their base, making it impregnable for government officials.

Malkangiri became a major theatre of violence after 2008 when police of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh launched operations against them. Between 2008 and 2021, the district recorded 342 Maoist incidences with 101 civilian and 77 security personnel getting killed in the spiral of violence. The Maoists suffered casualties too after the Greyhound police in October 2016 killed 30 Maoists including several top commanders at Ramaguda village of Swabhiman Anchal.

The long spiral of violence severely hampered the development of the region so much that NITI Aayog’s National Multidimensional Poverty Index report released last year, said at least 58.71 % of the district’s 6 lakh population lived below poverty line. In Swabhiman Anchal region, it was worse as no government official barring a few health workers could enter the area fearing Maoist reprisal. There were no functional schools while a skeletal health system existed. No institutional deliveries took place. The literacy rate stood at 10%. As there were no all-weather roads, villages were linked by mud roads, which become difficult to reach during rainy season.

Though a motor launch service exists to ferry people from eastern bank of the reservoir to the western side, the boats took anything between 3-6 hours and operated at the mercy of the rebels. Officially isolated and forced to remain remote, these villages did not come under administrative lens till the bridge over river Gurupriya was constructed in July 2018.

“Owing to its physical isolation and strategic location at the tri-junction of Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, Swabhiman Anchal with its hilly terrain, numerous creeks and forests was the swathe tailor-made for rebels and melt away to obscurity. No wonder the entire top brass of AOBSZC including Ramakrishna, late member of CPI(Maoist) central committee made the area their base for a long time. For all purposes, it was a liberated zone long before Bastar in Chhatisgarh became one,” said Deepak Kumar Nayak, a research associate of Delhi-based think-tank, Institute for Conflict Management.

Reclaiming the red bastion

The government has managed to reach 8 out of the 9 grampanchayats in Swabhiman Anchal, barring Jantri grampanchayat, located 50 km north of Gurupriya bridge.
The government has managed to reach 8 out of the 9 grampanchayats in Swabhiman Anchal, barring Jantri grampanchayat, located 50 km north of Gurupriya bridge.

In 1986, the government started working on a 910 metre long bridge over river Gurupriya, which was finally built at a cost of over 187 crore, from initial estimate of 8 crore. Since 1986, the government floated tenders for the bridge 11 times, but Maoists managed to scare the contractors away.

While construction of the 910 metre long bridge was a major achievement in reclaiming the Maoist bastion, the real challenge before the state government was how to make roads to the last village at the end of Swabhiman Anchal, a good 50 km away from the bridge, as well as provide mobile connectivity. In September 2020, Airtel started mobile telecom services in four villages.

“In Swabhiman Anchal, two biggest problems were the threat of Maoist violence and the terrain. There were only hillocks and creeks and we had to build roads through them. Without roads, there was no way we could develop the area,” said Malkangiri district collector Vishal Singh.

To keep the Maoists at bay, security personnel were deployed in several camps deep inside the region to provide protection for road construction.

The Gurupriya bridge built in July 2018 was the first step to reclaim the lost space but officials also wanted to come up with short routes to build the road from one village to another through numerous hillocks. A junior engineer then hit upon the idea of making the cattle walk on the hillocks. “The cattle while grazing always take the easy path. So we mounted on horses and followed the herd of cattle grazing on the hill slopes while local people who we had won over flanked us on both sides,” said Prashant Behera, a junior engineer who knows the region like the back of his hand.

However, the biggest obstacle was building a road through the hillocks in Hantalguda area, another Maoist fortress. The Maoists engineered a protest of over 2000 villagers and gheraoed the men constructing the road believing that roads would lead the police to cannabis plantations, their major sources of livelihood. As the standoff continued, one night, BSF men armed with the IWI X95 assault rifles that can fire over 750 round a minute, were airdropped in Hantalguda and a temporary camp was established with lightning speed. Before the protests could escalate, the BSF jawans started air domination exercise instilling a sense of security among the road contractors.

“The deployment of BSF jawans was crucial for the roads as they sanitised the area with clinical efficiency,” said Rajesh Pandit, deputy inspector general of police (south western range).

The relative safety has ensured that the state government could build 188.85 km road of a targeted 391.32 km in Swabhiman Anchal in around three years despite Covid pandemic and the tricky terrain.

In Hantalguda, Sabai Khara, a 50-year-old Paraja tribal woman said she could never think that an ambulance could reach her village. “Many people used to die of malaria earlier and in case of any accident, there was no way we could take the victim to the hospital in Chitrakonda. Now I can easily go to Chitrakonda on an autorickshaw or riding pillion on motorcycle,” said Khara.

Former Malkangiri district collector Manish Agrawal, who oversaw construction of the roads till November 2020, said the administration had to keep on building roads in the face of obstacles and provide all government facilities in the areas where roads have been built. “We wanted to make the people believe that the government would not fail them,” said Agrawal.

The state government through Socio-economic Transformation and Upliftment(SETU) scheme for the villages of Swabhiman Anchal provided electricity, drinking water and schools. So far, 160 crore has been sanctioned under SETU programme and more funds are likely to be sanctioned. A mega water supply scheme is on anvil through which water from Balimela reservoir would be drawn, filtered and supplied to homes through pipes.

The biggest turning point in the government’s effort to reclaim the red bastion came on January 25, 2020 when people of Tikarpada, Janturai and Jodambo villages took on the Maoists who wanted that the road construction be stopped. The rebels sent two of their cadres asking villagers to stop the road construction when they came face-to-face with hundreds of angry women. One Maoist was killed while another received serious injuries. A few hours later, over 200 Maoists came and attacked the villagers, but the villagers rained down arrows on them. While retreating, the Maoists burnt down some houses in Jodambo village including that of Mukta Hantala’s properties.

“They burnt down an almirah, one of the wooden doors, paddy stocks and several important documents including my NFSA card. But next time any Maoist comes to our village, he would not go back alive,” said a local villager, Hantal.

For this, the officials also made a small concession to the people who planted cannabis on the hill slopes by not booking them in NDPS cases. For over a decade, Malkangiri and Koraput districts have become major nurseries of cannabis that find their way to rest of the country through a network of agents. “There was no other livelihood option available to them and immediately booking them in NDPS cases would have turned them towards the rebels. But if our forces seized any cannabis from a vehicle passing through the area, we did not give any leeway,” said a police official.

To bring back governance on the rails in the region, the district administration started conducting review meeting of all departments on first Monday of every month. “All the 18 line department officers now visit the Swabhiman Anchal every week for which a data sheet has been developed to track and monitor the visit of officials. Presence of teachers, health workers and doctors are being monitored every month in the review meeting,” said Malkangiri district collector Vishal Singh.

While development goes on, there has been a steady erosion in the Maoist base with surrender of Maoist commanders and militias as well as record seizure of explosives in the area since 2018. According to officials, in 2020, the BSF seized huge ammunition left over by fleeing Maoists. At least 5 Maoist cadres including a woman divisional committee member have been killed in the last 3 years bringing down the Maoist morale.

The panchayat polls in February would be the first time when ballot boxes and polling officials would travel by vehicles and not transported through choppers. Officials in Malkangiri said, of the 9 grampanchayats in Swabhiman Anchal, the government has managed to reach 8, barring Jantri grampanchayat, located 50 km north of Gurupriya bridge.

Nayak of Institute for Conflict Management said the development measures in the erstwhile Maoist bastion coupled with a weakening Maoist leadership has brought Swabhiman Anchal back from the brink. “Quick development is key to win back the trust of people. In that respect, Swabhiman Anchal may serve as a model for the rest of the country on how to develop a Maoist citadel. For the time being, it looks difficult for Maoists in the region to challenge the might of the state,” he said. 

Source: Swabhiman Anchal: A Maoist bastion in Odisha reclaimed through development | Latest News India - Hindustan Times


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