Forgotten by the government, marooned by a dam, claimed by Maoists, Swabhiman Anchal is now slowly being mainstreamed
On October 31, when Khara Chaitan, 70, a Paraja tribesman of Kusumput village in Odisha’s Malkangiri district, stepped out, he saw the tricolour fluttering outside a building in Gurasethu for the very first time. Had someone told Chaitan, even a few months ago, that formal government, as represented by the tricolour, would arrive so close to his home, he would have laughed it off.
The flag had been hoisted that morning by a posse of men from the Border Security Force (BSF) and Odisha Police, with a bunch of local officials in tow. Gurasethu is in the heart of what was until recently the Maoist bastion of Swabhiman Anchal, once known as the ‘Cut-Off’ area of Malkangiri, a well-established theatre of several bloody stand-offs between Maoist rebels and security forces.
In 2008, 39 security personnel, most of them belonging to Andhra Pradesh police’s elite Greyhound force, were killed in a Maoist ambush in the Balimela reservoir. In 2011, the then Malkangiri collector R. Vineel Krishna was abducted when he went to supervise development work. In 2012, four BSF personnel, including a commandant, were killed in a landmine blast because security personnel repainted a memorial erected in memory of Maoist central committee member Patel Sudhakar Reddy at Janbai, the gateway to Swabhiman Anchal.
The flag that morning in Gurasethu was just one of several recent indicators that the area is slowly being reclaimed by the State government. Once littered with landmines, the area is gradually being mainstreamed in a manner that might well become the template for combating left-wing extremism in the country.
Before the security forces landed in Gurasethu, a red-painted, single-storey building used by Maoists, and a martyr’s memorial that commemorated their dead, were the two chief landmarks. The structures were symbols indicating that the sprawling hilly region in the Eastern Ghats on the Odisha-Andhra Pradesh border was under ‘occupation’ by the outlawed outfit, CPI (Maoist). Swabhiman Anchal featured prominently on the Maoist map along with other areas such as the Dantewada, Bijapur, Bastar and Narayanpur regions of Chhattisgarh.
Situated at the tri-junction of Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, in some extremely inaccessible country, the law had very little presence in this area. The jungles and badlands offered any number of hiding places for Maoists.
BSF men check for landmines on a village road | Photo Credit: Biswaranjan Rout
Malkangiri has been among India’s worst affected districts, recording 332 Maoist incidents between 2008 and 2020, with 101 civilian and 77 security personnel deaths. Of this, Swabhiman Anchal accounted for the deaths of 25 civilians and 49 security personnel. In 2016, in an encounter at Ramaguda in Swabhiman Anchal, some 30 Maoist ultras were killed.
How did it become possible for such an inaccessible area to exist in a fairly well-connected modern nation? The answer is that for 50 years, the government forgot it had thousands of citizens living here, citizens left to fend for themselves in the hills and forests.
The ‘Cut-Off’ area was created when the Balimela Dam came into being. Construction work began in 1962-63 in what was then Koraput district, and the dam was competed in 1977. According to Bidyut Mohanty, a Koraput-based social activist, the project submerged 17,496 hectares of land, affecting 89 villages. In 1975, a plan was chalked out to rehabilitate 1,200 tribal families in 31 resettlement villages. Eventually, some 700 families were sent to 24 villages.
The reservoir, meanwhile, created a water channel, 60 km long, which encircled 151 villages from three sides. For three years, between 1975 and 1978, the water-locked people had no access to the mainland and were cut off from civilisation. This erased their existence from the nation’s memory. Later, the government started a steamer service, which became the only link to the mainland. Nobody ventured there, not even government authorities. The villages fell off the map and stayed that way for 40 years.
The turning point came in 2018, when a bridge was built over the Gurupriya river. One of the most heavily protected bridges in the country, it is now the only land link to the rest of the State. The bridge allowed administrators and security forces to reach 12 km into Swabhiman Anchal, but large parts of the interiors were still out of bounds, controlled by the ultras and with boats as the only means of access.
In December 2019, the government began laying three-metre-wide pedestrian roads in the interiors. Although the ultras strongly opposed any roads that could reach their bastions, they allowed these narrow roads because they calculated that security forces would not be able to use them for heavy vehicles. As it happened, the narrow roads helped the BSF ride in on motorbikes and reach Hantalguda, a Maoist stronghold, where they set up camp on a commanding ridge.
Hantalguda was one of the spots where Maoists had constructed concrete houses and memorials, structures offered as examples of development in contrast to the government’s neglect. But now, with these new roads, the people saw the enormous mobility they offered and wanted them extended up to their villages. They began to shield road-workers from possible attacks by the ultras, slowly changing the power dynamics of the area.
Villagers began to sell the horses they had once used in the hilly outposts to buy motorbikes instead. “It heralded a new era for us. The roads brought us out from darkness,” says Ghasi Hantal of Hantalguda. Many villagers had never ridden in an auto-rickshaw before these three-wheelers arrived here. Some 31 roads, covering 231 km, and 24 small bridges are under construction now.
Until recently horses were a common mode of transport in Swabhiman Anchal | Photo Credit: Biswaranjan Rout
Then, the first mobile towers came up and a critical balance was tipped in favour of the administration. While the motive might have been to facilitate intelligence tip-offs, phones inevitably connected people to the world outside. The government has now planned seven mobile towers in Swabhiman Anchal.
In July, the first passenger bus was introduced. The district administration has also started digging borewells. The idea is to demonstrate that the government is serious about development. The people of Swabhiman Anchal, who for decades have sourced drinking water from muddy streams, now have potable water in their backyards.
Even as Maoists continued to attack the BSF camp at Hantalguda, the security forces set their eyes on Jadambo, eight km away, which served as a sort of Maoist capital. In January this year, the administration was given five days to build a ghat road across the hilly terrain connecting the two places. More than 1,000 security personnel were deployed to plug every possible entry and exit route of the ultras. The ghat road was built, allowing the administration to reach Jadambo.
The watershed moment was possibly the night of January 25, when armed rebels came into Janturai, a village in Swabhiman Anchal, demanding to know why the villagers had allowed the road to be built. The question enraged the villagers, especially the women, who summoned the courage to ask why they should not be entitled to a road and to progress. The altercation grew, and some 200 tribal women reportedly besieged the ultras, pulling at their hair and landing blows while the men stood guard with bows and arrows.
This was an unprecedented fight back. The clash, which killed one Maoist and seriously injured another, sent the ultras fleeing but not before they burnt down several homes. The fact that three villages — Janturai, Sindhibadi and Jadambo — had fought against the Maoists generated confidence in the security forces. And on January 26 this year, they hoisted the flag for the 71st Republic Day celebrations. “The world has gone way ahead, surely nobody can prevent us from having a motorable road to our village. We could not have allowed this to go on,” says Chandrakala Sisa of Janturai.
After the incident, the former Malkangiri District Collector, Manish Agarwal, and the Superintendent of Police, Rishikesh Dnyandeo Khilari, visited the BSF camp at Hantalguda; this was the first time that top district officers had ventured so far into Swabhiman Anchal. The villagers whose huts were burnt down were given compensation. “We have ensured that not a single incident of police high-handedness spoils our achievements. The humane approach is our mantra to win hearts,” says Shefeen Ahamed, Deputy Inspector General of Police for the South West Range.
For the Maoists, the next citadel to defend was Gurasethu, their ideological headquarters. This is where they conducted training sessions for their armed cadres. Being close to Andhra Pradesh, rebels would slip across the State border after carrying out attacks. The citadel fell.
The Maoists have since been fighting a guerrilla war. But the moment the state steps back on development, they will be able to stage a comeback; the administration knows this well, which is why it ensures that development and securing territory goes on in tandem.
There are other challenges. For instance, cannabis has for long been the illegal cash crop here. “It is important to wean people away from cannabis and towards turmeric, equally profitable. We have drawn up a plan to convert cannabis fields into turmeric farms. If things go as planned, we may soon see organic turmeric from Swabhiman Anchal,” says Agarwal.
The Balimela reservoir, originally responsible for the area’s isolation, is now being turned into a source of income, with the government planning to release five crore fingerlings into the reservoir for regenerative fishing.
The decades of seclusion have created generations of illiteracy. Madan Khara, a shopkeeper in Hantalguda, doesn’t even know basic maths, while Krushna Hantal’s Class VII-level schooling is the village’s highest. A residential complex for teachers is being built to revive schools here.
Health sub-centres are also being constructed; the Jadambo primary health centre is being run with the help of an NGO. Two doctors were recruited in Swabhiman Anchal for the first time in September this year. “In the last one year, people here have seen many firsts. What is promised is being delivered. Police stations function like civil administration,” says Khilari.
A young girl waits for the boat to return home to Swabhiman Anchal. | Photo Credit: Biswaranjan Rout
Maoists have now retreated to Jantri, the extreme end of the reservoir. Two bridges are being planned to extend the road to Jantri. It is too early to say whether Swabhiman Aanchal has been fully reclaimed or if development will squeeze out the ultras. For a region with such a long history of neglect and injustice, winning people’s trust can be a long process.
“For decades, the government neglected the region; there was no real development agenda. Force cannot be a tool to win back a region where the CPI (Maoist) established its presence by highlighting socio-economic issues. There has to be a human touch in every action of the government,” says Deepak Nayak, a researcher with the New Delhi-based Institute Conflict Management. “The government needs to make people partners in the development process before expecting any tangible change. Nobody questions the importance of the role of security forces in bringing back normalcy, but they cannot be the face to win back trust.”
Vijay Upadhyay, a rights activist in Malkangiri, says that many villagers still believe the new roads are meant for the movement of security forces. “The Maoists were never against development,” says Upadhyay. “In fact, they were quite supportive of education and development. While it’s true they opposed the Gurupriya bridge, it is because they said it would allow security forces to enter.” Nothing stopped the Odisha government from developing the area, says Upadhyay. “The administration has been entirely missing all these decades.”
Unless the government shows concrete action, the trust deficit will only continue. Development cannot be viewed from the prism of security alone; it means addressing jobs, drinking water, food, health and education issues. The NITI Aayog report of October 2020 shows that Malkangiri continues to languish in the bottom 10 of the Aspirational District Programme index. In health and nutrition, its performance is deteriorating.
At Chitrokonda, the boats still ply, ferrying people to their hamlets in Swabhiman Anchal. Damuni Karingia, 70, from Panaspadar village, says she has undertaken a four-hour boat journey to buy a kilo of salt and some jute bags. “The day my grandson or great-grandson can take me to the market or health centre in his gaadi from my doorstep, and I need not worry about tomorrow’s meal, I will say development has finally arrived,” says Karingia