Fighting Maoists & Mosquitoes
DEV 360 (My fortnightly column) – The Asian Age , Deccan Chronicle
April 13 : At a time when Sania Mirza, Shoaib Malik and Maoists are competing for eyeballs, what chance does a story about malaria stand? But despite the heavy odds against it, malaria hit the headlines recently with a twist in the tale: Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) men deployed in the dense jungles of Chhattisgarh to flush out Maoists are up against another deadly enemy — mosquitoes. Many security men are falling prey to malaria, and have had to proceed on sick leave. The non-availability of medical facilities have made matters worse.
Malaria in India is a governance issue. The worst-affected areas — and most of the deaths — are where the health facilities are scant or non-existent, where there is hardly any semblance of the State. Many of the things which need to be done to fight malaria in the tribal belt are also critical to success in the battle against Maoists. To fight Maoists, security forces would need allies. Such allies would necessarily have to include tribal communities who have myriad justifiable grievances against the Indian state as anybody who has ever visited a tribal settlement in the rural interior knows. Today, when Maoists are seen as the biggest internal security threat facing the country, and the government has announced plans for a massive anti-Maoist offensive, it is vital that tribal communities get to see a benign image of the state as well. That is unlikely to happen if the only sign of the state they see is a uniformed man wielding a gun.
In February this year, there was another report pointing out that more than 100 policemen fighting Maoists in the state of Jharkhand have died of malaria in the past two years. Sadly, the grim realities confronting the paramilitary forces is the stuff of everyday life for those who inhabit these vast swathes of forested, mineral-rich, infrastructure-poor land. Malaria does not make news in tribal districts because it is so common. Tribals make up eight per cent of India’s population but contribute about 30 per cent of India’s total malaria caseload. Tribal communities also bear a disproportionate burden of malaria deaths in the country.
Why is this so? Three years ago, while researching an article about a cholera outbreak in three tribal-dominated districts in Orissa, one of India’s poorest states, I discovered some uncomfortable truths. More than 150 people had died of cholera in these districts because they did not have access to safe drinking water. Many villages did not have a functioning hand pump and residents had been forced to drink water from streams and rivers, the same water sources they used for bathing, cleaning and washing clothes. The scarcity of doctors and a weak local health system added to the death toll. Similar factors worked in the case of malaria. A senior official of the Regional Medical Research Centre for Tribals in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, told me that the government had put in place special regimens for malaria control in tribal areas because these regions are often inaccessible and forested. But, unfortunately, malaria programmes did not have the desired impact in tribal areas because of a shortage of manpower: 30-40 per cent of the fieldworkers’ posts typically remain vacant and posts for medical officers stay unfilled.
The Maoist massacre of 76 CRPF jawans in Chhattisgarh is uppermost in every mind. But the continued suffering of the ordinary tribal caught in the crossfire between Maoist insurgents and government forces is no less poignant. Many innocents have died. Many more are suffering. Apart from healthcare, the other area which graphically illustrates the impact of the conflict on tribal communities is education.
In a 103-page report (Sabotaged Schooling: Naxalite Attacks and Police Occupation of Schools in India’s Bihar and Jharkhand States) last December, Human Rights Watch detailed how the Maoists, or Naxalites, are targeting and blowing up state-run schools. The report also pointed out that simultaneously, security forces were disrupting education for long periods by occupying schools as part of anti-Naxalite operations. The report was based on visits to 22 schools in Bihar and Jharkhand, and interviews with over 130 people. The losers — the students.
Last week in Delhi, at one of the sessions during the Independent People’s Tribunal on Land Acquisition, Resource Grab & Operation Green Hunt, one heard from the affected people directly. Montu Singh and Gajen Singh, two tribal activists from the non-government organisation (NGO) Bhumija Kalyan Samity in West Bengal’s West Midnapore district, spoke about the misery of villagers whose lives are being torn apart by the conflict. Classes were suspended in many schools in the conflict-scarred Lalgarh area between June and December 2009 because security forces needed to camp in the premises. Students and teachers began agitating. A public interest litigation was filed by Samity, seeking the Kolkata high court’s intervention in resumption of normal functioning of schools in the district. The forces had to eventually vacate the school buildings, following a court order. But many students, especially in senior classes, suffered because they could not appear for examinations. Montu and Gajen said even primary health centres in the area were being used as camps by security forces.
There are many inspirational examples of what can be achieved even in this difficult terrain given will power. Even in the conflict-affected areas of Chhattisgarh today, NGOs are running mobile medical clinics, providing malaria treatment and even hospital services.
Today, tribals in the conflict-scarred areas live in abject fear, dreading displacement and an uncertain future. They need more than promises of a shiny future. The government’s fight against Maoists will only be strengthened by action on the ground which includes dialogue with local people and measures that assure tribal communities that tomorrow will be better than today.
By Patralekha Chatterjee
Patralekha Chatterjee writes on development issues in India and emerging economies and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org