a group of Maoist Communist Centre (mcc) extremists recently abducted a forester from the Hazaribagh National Park in Bihar. The officer was released after being subjected to mental torture for six hours by the mcc. The forester had committed the cardinal error of arresting a local person for taking away timber illegally. This incident left the forest officials terrified. They have refused to stay within the confines of the forest at night. This is not an isolated case but one in a ever-increasing series. Today, almost all parts of the Chotanagpur region is infested by naxalites or other extremist groups like the mcc.
Reports of similar incidents come in from districts like Hazaribagh, Chatra, Koderma, east and west Singhboom where extremists have launched offensives against the government machinery. The mcc, for that matter, is ready to take on any system representing authority. On February 8, this year they killed around 10 policemen in a landmine blast in Hazaribagh district during the first phase of assembly elections. They had also threatened to kill people who did not stay away from voting during the elections. In many areas, say senior government officials at Hazaribagh, naxalites and mcc activists used threats to disrupt the polling process.
How did such anarchy come to prevail? It is mainly because even after 50 years of independence people in this area are still facing acute poverty, dying of starvation and suffering from fatal diseases. But what has the government done? It stands to lose the most. Their fault is that they control immense wealth in terms of natural resources like forests and coal, uranium, etc found deep within the bowels of the earth. Even as the state and Union governments have spent huge sums of money on tribal development, their living standards have remained unchanged.
Besides, the atrocities committed by forest officials and police on these tribals have made matters worse. "In Hazaribagh and Koderma districts," says Ashok Prasad, conservator (social forestry), Hazaribagh, "forest officials would allow timber smuggling but implicate the tribals in the course of inquiries. After a while the officials even started leveling trumped up charges against innocent people. This policy has backfired now." If the police have contributed in a big way to the formation of such extremist groups, then a lesser part share of the blame must go to the forest department.
Forest officials admit that it is members of their cadres and the police who are mainly responsible for the formation of such terrorist groups. Forest officials are known to have beaten up and arrested innocent people if they refused to buy wood cut illegally. At the same time, the police exploited the local people in many ways. The recent attacks on forest officials and police patrol parties are manifestations of the pent up anger these people have developed against the government machinery.
Says Tikam Prajapati of Badakagaon in Hazaribagh district, who is involved in illegal mining of coal in the area, "If we don't take to arms, exploitation of our people will continue. The government has not given us anything. We don't believe in the government machinery. Our parallel government is stronger than the real government." The mcc and naxalites harbour so deep a hatred towards the government that they did not allow ballot boxes to be transported during the last elections.
Officials say the forest department does not have any effective control over the forests as the staff cannot enter the forests for fear of the extremists. The mcc has its own forest management system. They have introduced a quota system to control the logging business and do not permit families to take more than their stipulated amount of wood. However, forest officials say that they are making money by permitting the smuggling of valuable trees like Khair, while there are certain species they don't touch.
Ashok Prasad, conservator (social forestry), Hazaribagh, says: "The poor tribals have run out of patience. Their exploitation had reached such a level that they are unable to remain silent. They want to take on any system which comes in the way of them meeting their needs." Did the government ever wonder how the local people would survive if their farmlands were taken away and used for coal mining, and their natural resources destroyed in the name of so-called development, he asks.
What is the need for such a mad rush to achieve development? Prasad adds: "If you destroy the natural resources and prevent people from fulfilling their needs, groups like mcc spring up." It is easy to understand why extremist groups are active in districts like Hazaribagh and Chatra in south Bihar. "This is mainly because the people of the region are heavily dependent on forest produce and farming. But in the name of mining, we have not only destroyed their farms and natural resources, we have also exploited these tribals," he says.
The government has spent crores of rupees in the name of tribal development. But where has the money gone? Why has it not reached the poor people? Instead of probing these issues, the government is busy buying guns for forest officials and strengthening its forces to meet the extremists' challenge. But, these same officials do not want to enter the mcc-infested areas and discharge their duties. They are scared of the local people who are mostly mcc and naxalite cadres.
The local people are an impoverished lot. This reporter found many people illegally taking timber and coal out of the forest area to Hazaribagh town, around 30-km away from their villages. For their troubles they get Rs 50 a day. Many of them starve for days as they are unable to make more than two to three trips a week. There is hardly any other means of livelihood they can turn to. Does the country need this kind of development?
Prior to the formation of the Bihar State Forest Development Corporation (bsfdc) in 1981, the tribals were given plenty of jobs by the forest department. The local people staying in and around the forest areas got jobs during July-August when plantation work started in the area. While in October-June, they were employed to fell trees every year. In those days, says J L Srivastava, chief conservator of forests (wildlife), none of the contractors used to cheat the tribals.
But the situation took a serious turn once the bsfdc was formed. The unemployed began felling trees illegally. They started conniving with those who were committed to destroy the forests and other natural resources. And the rest is history. bsfdc's functioning has come under a cloud. Today, after 19 years, when the government has proposed the winding up of the corporation, a major part of the forest has been destroyed - something which could not be accomplished in the last 200 years. A state government estimate claims that the forest cover of Hazaribagh district has dropped to 14 per cent in 1997 from 21 per cent in 1977. The situation is indicative of how a single wrong policy of the government can lead to such a disaster.
There are other examples too. In the mid-1970s, when government officials came up with a plan to drive out the 800-odd families of the Savre tribe from Mosabani forest, which is 65-km from Jamshedpur town, they never considered the possible repercussions. These tribals were given land beyond the forest boundaries under the Indira Awas Yojana, but nobody thought of providing them with any alternate source of livelihood. Ultimately, the tribals had to resort to illegal felling in order to meet their basic needs. Today, they have destroyed almost 90 per cent of the Mosabani forests and none of the forest officials have the courage to go inside the forest to put an end to the on-going destruction. The blame for such a crisis rests squarely with the government and its hollow policies. "Unless we are able to pinpoint the problem area, we may not find any solution to the terrorism problem in the state," Srivastava says.
Is it too late to rectify the situation now? "It is not. Even today, we can meet most of the demands of the mcc. But for that, we will have to revert to nature," he adds. The government will have to stop issuing licences to destroy the natural resources and chalk out development programmes for the tribals.
Experts say that many terrorist groups will rejoin the mainstream if the government ends the exploitation of the people and natural resources in the mcc -infested Chotanagpur region. It needs to launch socio-economic measures on a large-scale in areas where people still live in abject poverty, they add.
Reported by Manish Tiwari from Patna
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