IN Orissa's rural interiors, virtually everyone is in a state of panic: industrialists, mine owners and traders fear the worst; local people return to their homesteads by sundown; elected representatives including Ministers, during their rare visits to the regions, avoid staying overnight even at the district headquarters. Although left-wing extremists have not launched any major attacks since the looting of a large cache of arms from the Koraput district armoury in February 2004, the security forces are on their toes.
The State police believe the Maoists would make inroads into new areas in the State following the ban enforced in Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Orissa does not appear to be in a hurry to ban naxalite organisations although 15 of its 30 districts have already reported Maoist presence. A recent study on the naxalite problem has indicated that the Maoists will have 25 districts in their grip by 2007.
Orissa has no ready answers for the naxalite menace. While the police deal with it as a law and order problem, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik views it essentially as a socio-economic one. During the annual conference of District Collectors and Superintendents of Police in September, his message to the bureaucracy and the police was to reach out to the tribal people and redress their grievances. He has been talking of a multi-pronged approach to tackle the menace and the need to build roads to and improve irrigation facilities in tribal areas.
The Chief Minister is, however, finding it difficult to make any progress on these. Last year, Patnaik had announced the withdrawal of minor cases and the resolution of a large number of land disputes involving the tribal people. This has not been carried out by the administration. On the other hand, senior bureaucrats have avoided making trips to the backward districts as directed by the Chief Minister to review the progress in the work of their respective departments.
The District Collectors are no better. Barring occasional trips during VIP visits, they stay put at the district headquarters. The S.P.s' visit different parts of the districts, but mostly after a naxalite attack.
Twenty-two per cent of Orissa's population is tribal. The tribal-dominated districts of Rayagada, Gajapati, Koraput and Nawrangpur in the south and Sundargarh and Mayurbhanj in the north, which have mostly served as entry points for the Maoists, are backward. Thirty-three of the 147 Assembly seats and five of the 21 Lok Sabha seats in the State are reserved for tribal candidates.
The situation is no better in the non-tribal constituencies in the naxalite-hit regions. An indifferent administration, non-implementation of development and welfare programmes and a lack of road connectivity and health care facilities give ample scope for Maoists to make inroads into these areas.
Backward areas that have witnessed industrial activity in recent months are also attracting the Maoists. Expressing concern over this trend, senior police officials have stressed the need for opening more police stations and strengthening the existing ones. Modernisation of the police force is under way with the acquisition of AK-47s, bullet-proof vests and night vision equipment.
Suchit Das, who took charge as the Director-General of Police recently, claims that the police were doing their best to check extremism. A special wing in the State police is working to gather intelligence on the activities of Maoists and exchanging information with other States for coordinated action.
"Two separate joint task forces were formed recently and the Orissa Police is working in close coordination with both sides," Das told Frontline. The task forces comprise personnel from Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and a portion of Chhattisgarh in the south, and Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and parts of Orissa and Chhattisgarh in the north.
But finding a solution to the problem is not that easy. Tribal people are resisting developmental projects fearing loss of livelihood. "The government should not neglect the tribal people and the poor while promoting industrialisation," said Dandapani Mohanty, president of Daman Pratirodh Manch, a pro-naxalite forum.