A recent meeting chaired by Union home minister Amit Shah and attended by CMs or their nominees of 10 states highlighted the declining incidence of Maoist violence in the country. In fact, the annual death toll from Maoist violence has dipped below 200 for the first time in decades, marking an 82% decline from the all-time high of 1,005 in 2010 to 183 in 2020. Plus, over the same decade Maoist influence has shrunk from 96 to 53 districts, with ultras most active in just 25 districts that account for 85% of total violence.

However, despite this apparent success, the core command structure of Maoists remains intact. This was exemplified by the deadly Maoist attack on security forces in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region earlier this year that killed at least 22 jawans. Despite no popular appeal, elusive Maoist commanders like Madvi Hidma operate with small groups of committed fighters and draw on the support of remote tribal populations in the deep forested areas of Bastar, Bijapur, Dantewada, Kanker, Kondagaon, Narayanpur and Sukma districts of Chhattisgarh and adjoining areas of Maharashtra and Odisha.

It’s clear that security operations, although vital, alone aren’t enough to overcome this challenge. Development of remote affected areas along with targeting of Maoist money flow is key. Ultras thrive on extortion in areas rich with minerals and minor forest produce like bamboo and tendu leaves. The latter alone account for revenues estimated at Rs 20,000 crore annually. Gram panchayats auction these forest products and Maoists pose as middlemen to get better prices from contractors and take a cut. Thus, the trade in minor forest produce needs a closer look in Maoist-affected areas to break the contractor-Maoist nexus. At the end of the day, it is poverty that sustains Maoists. Hence, the country’s best weapon against ultras is extending the welfare state to areas it hasn’t quite reached. A pincer security-development strategy, done well, may just stub out the Maoist menace for good