National

Lok Sabha Elections In Gadchiroli: Gashes In The Red Sand

Residents of the tribal district of Gadchiroli resist development models that destroy the environment

Photo: Dinesh Parab
At Polling Time: A banner of the CPI (Maoist) asking people to boycott the Lok Sabha elections hangs in a forest in south Gadchiroli Photo: Dinesh Parab
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Red banners strung between sturdy teak tree limbs are the first visible warning signs that you have crossed over into eastern Maharashtra’s ‘Naxal-liberated zone’. One banner on the road to Binagunda village in Gadchiroli’s southern interior sports the message, “Maoists support innocent Adivasis. Stop killing and arrests of Adivasis under Operation Kagar. Stop corporatisation and militarisation,” scribbled in a smattering of the local Madiya Gondi and Hindi. Other posters ask people to boycott the ongoing Lok Sabha elections and banish what the text describes as the ‘‘Brahmin-Hindutvawadi’’ Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The Naxal propaganda is the sole indication of the ongoing Lok Sabha polls within the isolated and largely inaccessible region of the hilly, deciduous forests of Bhamragad, which is controlled by the guerrilla army of the Communist Party of India.

“No politician ever comes here. It doesn’t matter who’s elected,” says Brindi Rama Durva from Binagunda, a scenic village with 25 resident families. Electricity poles were set up here only last month, but the power supply hasn’t started full-time. “There was electricity for one day. After that, it stopped,” says a villager, mocking the State government’s half-hearted attempts to provide basic amenities.

The imprint of development and democracy appears to draw to a screeching halt at the threshold of Binagunda’s boundaries.

According to advocate Lalasu Nagoti, an Adivasi lawyer and a Madiya Gond activist, the secluded area is symptomatic of the conflict between the State and indigenous tribals, which stems from a lack of understanding. “Government officials speak Marathi, Hindi and English, and the tribals speak Madiya Gondi,” says Nagoti. “The two don’t understand each other’s language or needs. For the tribals, the government’s ideas of development equate to the destruction of forests and displacement and hence the opposition. The tribals have their own system of justice and administration called gotul and abide by it. But the government wants to impose its administration system in the area and any resistance to it is perceived with a ‘criminal’ view,” he adds, referring to the large number of police stations in Gadchiroli—a region with one of the lowest crime rates. Tribals rarely go to the police station (to resolve disputes).

CRPF personnel guard a main road in Gadchiroli ahead of the first phase of voting
CRPF personnel guard a main road in Gadchiroli ahead of the first phase of voting Photo: Dinesh Parab
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Binagonda and surrounding villages rely on solar-powered lamps, batteries, a water tank and hand pumps facilitated by the district authorities. Located 18 km uphill from the nearest Laheri village, they lack tar roads, electricity or mobile connectivity, and are inaccessible during the monsoons, leaving them in darkness since cloudy skies hinder solar battery charging.

Nagoti says the Madia Gond, a hunter-gatherer community, lives and survives in forests with their traditional knowledge and rice and millet cultivation. “These villages are self-sustaining, but the life expectancy of the tribals here is on average 45 years. They would benefit if the government worked in consultation with them and built roads, schools and hospitals to meet their needs,” he points out.

Located at the edge of the Abujmarh forest area bordering Narayanpur district in Chhattisgarh, the village clusters majorly inhabited by the Madia Gond tribe, notified as a Particular Vulnerable Tribal Group, have no police presence, nor is there any obvious government outreach effort. The forests have been a safe zone for the militant leadership of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) and the People’s Liberation Guerilla Army (PLGA) waging Naxal insurgency in Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and parts of Andhra Pradesh.

Wary Binagonda’s villagers refused to allow Outlook to photograph them. Due to the strong Naxal presence in the area, they are very suspicious and fearful of visitors and do not mingle easily.

Kuvakodi village, less than five km from the Chhattisgarh border, does not even have electric poles. “There is a fear of Naxals, but the wild bears roaming around are even more dangerous and likely to attack. In either case, we are on our own,” says Devu Pandu Usandi.

Residents have collectively petitioned the local Block Development Offi­cer (BDO) for road connectivity, a functioning health clinic and a vehicle to ferry sick patients, but nothing has changed so far.

Binagonda has three ASHA workers attending to common ailments and pregnancy cases in the entire cluster spread over a 20 km radius. Snake bites and malaria cases are common here, too. In the absence of roads, there is no ambulance access, forcing villagers to carry patients on their shoulders in bamboo dolis (manually ferried carriages).

“There’s no government at work here. There are no facilities. If we need access to education and health, then we must walk for hours and go to other villages,” says Kolu Usandi, a 23-year-old reading for a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree at an open university in Aheri, 100 km away. He is the only person in Piramal Bhatti village pursuing higher studies. Most others drop out of school after the fourth grade and have rarely ventured beyond Bhamragad taluka.

In three of the seven villages Outlook visited, villagers said they were not inclined to walk four hours—one way—to the voting booth 20 km away in Laheri just to cast their vote. “We used to go to Laheri for voting. It takes a day’s travel and then we have to stay back there and return the next day. What did we get from voting? There is no point,” says 26-year-old Ramlal Doghe Usandi.

Resources at Risk: Anti-mining activists Sainu Gota and his wife Sheela bai at their home in Gatta village
Resources at Risk: Anti-mining activists Sainu Gota and his wife Sheela bai at their home in Gatta village Photo: Dinesh Parab
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But in the rest of Gadchiroli district, which has an electoral college of 15.69 lakh votes, villagers enthusiastically came out to vote. The Gadchiroli-Chimur Lok Sabha constituency, which was formed in 2008 following a delimitation exercise, reported the highest voting percentage at 66.3 percent. The reserved Scheduled Tribe (ST) seat was initially won in 2009 by Congress candidate Marotrao Kowase. Since 2014, the BJP’s Ashok Nete has represented it in Parliament. Nete is contesting for the third time against former excise officer Namdeo Kirsan, fielded by the Congress. The BJP government promises development, while the Congress pledges to address tribal issues.

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Even as Home Minister Amit Shah has promised to eradicate left-wing extremism entirely from the country within the next two years, over the past decade, Gadchiroli has seen remarkable advancements in security and development. Anti-Naxal operations targeting senior leaders and platoon members, along with the elimination of top leadership, have resulted in a notable reduction in armed conflict. Police records show that between 2017 and 2022, approximately 137 Naxalites were killed in police encounters, 196 alleged Naxalites were arrested and 91 others surrendered.

The implementation of State and Central government schemes, bolstered police presence through setting up a network of chowkies, enhanced telecom connectivity, expanded road networks, highway development and improved connectivity via interior roads and river bridges have effectively reduced the Naxalite presence. One of the landmark achievements in the last decade has been the construction of all-season expressways and roads, providing year-round accessibility to the remote region. The travel time from Gadchiroli to Nagpur, the largest city in east Vidarbha, has been reduced from seven to 3.5 hours. Areas like Gardewada and Bhamragad, once deeply affected and isolated by Naxalism, now have improved road and network connectivity. Vidarbha native Nitin Gadkari, Union Minister of Roads and Highways, who has won twice from Nagpur, has promised to transform the “entire face of Gadchiroli in around two years” with additional road network connectivity projects.

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“At one point, people would not venture beyond Chamorshi taluka adjoining the main centre, after dark, but now things have improved. It has also become safe to travel in the region during the day,” says Reena Sende, a young activist of the Peasants and Workers Party from Vasada village in Armori taluka. With almost 85.76 percent of the district covered by teak, bamboo and mahua forests, Gadchiroli is considered ‘backward’ in government parlance due to almost non-existent industrial development. The sparse tribal population scattered deep inside the forest area and threats posed by heightened Naxal activities had kept the district secluded and cut off from the mainstream for decades.

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The BJP-Sena-NCP led Mahayuti government has announced plans to lift the district out of poverty and backwardness by focusing on industrial growth and the agriculture sector. Once part of the ‘‘Naxal Red Corridor’’, Gadchiroli is now included in the State government’s ambitious mineral transport route dedicated to transporting extracted iron ore. Plans for setting up a steel plant and an iron ore plant are underway, promising employment opportunities for over 25,000 people. While villagers appreciate connectivity measures like road and mobile network improvements, they question the government’s notion of modern and industrial ‘development’.

Trucks carrying extracted iron ore lined up on the main road in Etapalli, south Gadchiroli
Trucks carrying extracted iron ore lined up on the main road in Etapalli, south Gadchiroli Photo: Dinesh Parab
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“Gadchiroli is never in the news for demanding employment. Have you ever heard us demanding jobs?” asks Sainu Masu Gota, head of the village panchayats of Surjagarh in Etapalli taluka. “Our employment and income come from the forests. We are self-made and self-sustaining indigenous tribes that have lived in these jungles for centuries. We want the government and the police to let us live and stop destroying our forests.”

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Gota and his wife, Sheela bai, were arrested in 2017 for protesting against iron ore mining. The couple is leading a people’s movement in Surjagarh and surrounding villages against the mining projects, which were “destroying the environment and displacing the indigenous population”.

In 2005, the Congress government proposed 25 mining projects in Gadchiroli district, of which 13 are listed in Surjagarh alone. Recently, six new mines have been leased out and infrastructure works to lay our roads, water and electricity connections are in progress to allow companies to set up their bases.

Lloyds Metals and Energy Private Limited and Thriveni Earthmovers have been the only mining operators in the Wooria hills of Surjagarh since 2007. Villagers say that despite severe opposition by local gram panchayats, the companies received final environmental clearance in 2022, after which they expanded their extraction capacity from three million tons per annum to 10 million tons per annum.

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“The hills are sacred for us. It has our indigenous gods, whom we worship even now. Our panchayats have passed resolutions opposing ore extraction. But the government, in violation of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, has allowed mining and set up police chowkies on the hill. This is completely against our beliefs,” says Kalpana Alam, former sarpanch of Surjagarh village.

Gadchiroli is covered under the PESA Act 1996 or PESA, which grants ownership of forests for protection and conservation to the villagers and makes it mandatory for the district authorities and the State government to take the consent of gram sabhas or village assemblies for any development project.  It is Maharashtra’s leading district in PESA implementation and since 2007, at least 1,450 villages have been granted community forest rights. Villagers are permitted to gather minor forest produce such as tendu leaves, mahua flowers, and bamboo and wood for sale or private consumption, considered an illegal activity since colonial times. 

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Alam stresses that the increased police presence has created an atmosphere of fear as the police brand villagers roaming inthe jungles as Naxals or Naxal sympathisers. “Our women, men and children go to the jungle every day,” he says. “We have been living this way ancestrally. If we protest against the police, we are branded Naxals and issued warning notices.”

Last year, villagers across Surjagarh’s 72 gram sabhas converged in Todgatta to protest for more than 150 days against iron mining in Damkondawahi and Surjagarh and to demand the protection of their ancestral land. The police dismantled the protests and detained several villagers.

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Ramesh Jhuga Kavdo of Damkondawahi village and organiser of the Damkondawahi Bachao Andolan Samiti, received a police notice in March last year, accusing him of being a Naxal sympathiser. “The police have labelled me and three women from my village as Naxal supporters. I am summoned to the police station frequently and my movement is restricted. All because I organised protests against the mining projects,” he says. “Is it not our right to organise peaceful protests in a democracy?”  Villagers claimed they were adhering to democratic processes, accusing the State government of acting in contravention of PESA rules. The ongoing conflict over mining between the villagers and district authorities has deepened distrust regarding the government’s functioning, election process and democratic ideals.

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Eligible tribal voters turn out to vote in large numbers, mainly because the police force them to do so. Some villagers say that visiting the polling booth and getting their fingers inked feels like an exciting novelty. In the interest of voting, the Surjagarh village council has decided to support the Congress party after local leaders assured them of addressing the opposition to mining. “But we don’t trust any political party. Our fight is against displacement and oppression of tribals, which do not feature in any party’s political agenda,” says a disgruntled Sainu Gota.

Shweta Desai in Gadchiroli. This appeared in print as Gashes In The Red Sand.

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