Friday, April 17, 2009

Democracy in Maoist citadel

PRAVEEN SWAMI
Kotiya



Why adivasis in insurgency-hit Koraput risk their lives to participate in the elections









Women at a polling booth in Laxmipur, Koraput.

Tied to a bamboo pole that seems to stretch to the sky, the red flag of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) flutters high above the hamlet of Ganjaipadar.

But draped all around it are green Biju Janata Dal flags, emblazoned with the party’s conch logo, and Congress posters extolling the virtues of nine-time Member of Parliament Giridhar Gamang.

Not a single police officer is visible in or around Ganjaipadar, but Maoist insurgents seem to be making no effort to enforce their call for an election boycott. By 10:00 a.m., 147 of 510 voters had exercised their franchise; the number had more than doubled by lunchtime.

Ganjaipadar lies in the cluster of adivasi hamlets around the village of Kotiya — the mountain bastion of the Maoist insurgency in Orissa’s troubled Koraput district.

For all practical purposes, Kotiya has disappeared from Orissa’s map. Buses stopped making the 26-kilometre journey from National Highway 43 years ago. Last year, Koraput district authorities gave up the effort to stop what remains of the road from dissolving into the red earth, after a contractor fled the area. Police officials in Koraput admit it has been months since they attempted to send patrols into the area.

Democracy and development


Why do large numbers of Kotiya villagers spend their time — and risk their lives — on participating in the democratic process as voters and party activists?

Kotiya is among the most impoverished regions in Orissa, but democracy seems to have part-delivered. Its residents have access to a functional primary school, which gives students an education — and, no less important, lunch. Kotiya has a rudimentary dispensary; its footpaths have been paved, and Indira Awas Yojana grants have enabled more than half of its 490 residents access to a weather-proof home.

Orissa government engineers have even stretched power cables across the mountains to Kotiya and — for a few hours every day — there are lights, among other things, for late-evening volleyball games played on the court built by the Gram Panchayat.

Most important of all, the local residents’ votes have brought a degree of food security. Most Kotiya families have access to cards which entitle them to 25 kilos of rice at Rs. 2 a kilo. In Ganjaipadar, the election campaign revolved around the fact that just 25 of 110 families had cards — a result of badly-framed rules and poor implementation.

“I’m voting,” says Kotiya resident Shakunta Hemla, “to show that I support the people who brought us cheap food.”

Learning from experience, insurgents have avoided confrontation with local politicians. Cadres of both the Congress and the Biju Janata Dal told this correspondent they had an arrangement with Maoists: no attacks would take place as long as no police personnel were brought into the Kotiya area. But in the face of other challenges, those that go beyond the provision of cheap food or municipal facilities, democracy isn’t doing quite so well.

Koraput is the advertisement for the new Orissa the State’s politicians have been working to create. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited operatives a massive facility that produces engines for Sukhoi and MiG combat jets. The National Aluminium Company Ltd. runs Asia’s largest alumina refinery here. Nearby, in the town of Jeypore, hotels are packed with British and Russian engineers who have come in to help develop new mining and industrial projects.

But the district’s residents have benefited relatively little from these investments. HAL, local politicians complain, refuses to conduct job examinations locally, while much of NALCO’s work goes to contractors from outside the region.

Little progress


More important, industrial growth has done little to accelerate human development. Just 36.2 percent of the district’s 11,97,954 residents are literate; less than one in four women can read and write. Among adivasis, who make up just over half of the population, the literacy rate is estimated at just over 20 percent.

Put simply, the bulk of Koraput’s population has neither the education nor the capital needed to exploit the entrepreneurial opportunities that industrial growth is opening up. Koraput’s already-marginalised adivasi population, in particular, has little reason to look to the future with hope. Democracy needs to provide answers to the looming crisis — or could face defeat.

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