Jaag utha Saranda vana!
Adivasi faces lit up for better days ahead
BJ Mirror Correspondent
Saranda, the gem of forests that boast of having tallest Sakhua (sal) trees, many of them centurions in age and height! Saranda, the home of poverty! Saranda, the treasure trove of iron ore! Saranda, the fiefdom of Maoists! And Saranda, the cradle ‘liberated’ after ten years of subjugation!
Nestling on the tri-junction of Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh borders the Saranda vana (forest) in West Singhbhum (Chaibasa) district is in for a metamorphosis. The Dalbhum forests provide links to West Bengal. Saranda is the second largest sal forest in the country. And teak trees are new addition to the forest wealth. All the 56 villages in its crib are set to see a new era of development. The Union government’s plan is on the anvil to showcase it, as a test case, to prove that police action is no impediment to building social infrastructure that promises a new dawn; a life of dignity and honour, said an official.
Union rural development minister Jairam Ramesh has sent a proposal to Union home minister P. Chidambaram, seeking his support for the slew of development activities his ministry wanted to launch in the forests. Ramesh has said that “the Saranda forest area was under the control of Maoists for over ten years. The CRPF has liberated the area. We want to make it a test case to prove how development activities and police action can go hand in hand and can win confidence of people and keep the Maoists away”.
Spread over 855 sq.km, these villages with a population of 36,500 did not see any development ever since they came under the ‘complete control’ of the rebels in 2000. Three banned outfits, CPI(Maoist), Kishan Krantikari Samiti and Nari Mukti Sangha, were ruling the roost. People and government officials dreaded to tread. Though there were schools and anganwadi centres, the government could not monitor or supervise them. The funds were being siphoned by these extremist groups.
Combined forces from Orissa and Jharkhand undertook ‘Operation Anaconda’ in the Saranda forests between July 31 and September 1, so far the longest sustained armed offensive against a rebel stronghold in the state. According to Jharkhand DGP, a dozen Maoists’ training camps were busted from Saranda, the second most important rebel hub after Bastar in Chhattisgarh.“The rebels may not have been totally flushed out, but the rule of law has been established”, he claimed.
The Ramesh letter to the Union Home Minister suggested a multi-pronged approach to develop the area. The proposal included a number of initiatives on housing and healthcare for the benefit of the community, particularly widows. A boost to employment will come in the form of the Mahatma Gandhi rural employment guarantee (Manrega) scheme to develop land and build roads. The district administration will open ten integrated developmental centres (IDCs) at strategic locations to cover these villages and provide minimum services like ration, health care etc. The IDCs will provide BPL and Antyodaya Anna cards to all eligible families. Widows will be sanctioned Rs 10,000 under the national family benefit scheme, while eligible families will be covered under Indira Awas Yojana. It is estimated that around 5,000 houses will be required.
As the area does not have any health infrastructure, mobile health units could be operational. Helicopter services could be provided to help critically ill patients reach hospitals.“It will give a message that helicopters are not just for the police forces”, Ramesh wrote. .
A new dawn
Access to the area has been a major problem as the communication network is very poor. None of the schemes of the Union rural development ministry was implemented, Ramesh rued. Now the Jharkhand forest department has decided to convert decade-old routes crisscrossing Saranda into metalled roads. The department will rebuild 110km of roads, which had been laid by the British using moram, a type of reddish soil. The forests have a network of nearly 500km roads, kutcha or moram-built pathways. The stretches would be turned into cement-concrete roads to provide better mobility to officials for taking up development work. This would also prevent Naxalites from planting landmines, a Forest official said. The surveyors had found that most of the landmine explosions that had rocked Saranda in recent times were planted on the roads. The foresters had already surveyed the network of roads in Saranda and were preparing a detailed project report (DPR).
Meanwhile, deprived villagers are enjoying fruits of newly started government schemes. Supal Sido, a job card holder in Saranda, is not alone to feel she has never had it better. A labourer at a road construction site, the 23-year-old widow is happy that her children can now play nearby and enjoy some snacks. District authorities have organised biscuits-chapattis, medicines and a tent nearby for children. The best part is that she will receive a payment of Rs 120 per day, under Manrega scheme, in cash every Friday, a day before the weekly haat.
There are several mothers who have no one at home to look after their children. Hence, small tent like structures have been erected where infants can rest. The Saranda Action Plan has brought a glimmer of hope for many.
Seventeen-year-old Vardhan Gudia is a fighter. He defies odds daily, to trudge to Charwaha Vidyalaya in Manoharpur block. A tiller’s son, Bitkilsoy resident Vardhan was born orthopedically challenged. Now, he has hopes of making it to the end. Caught between rebel threats and police action, Vardhan, who clutches a pen with the help of his forearms, recalled how he had to trudge 25 kilometres earlier to get to his school, before he decided to seek a separate accommodation in Manoharpur.“We do not have any high or middle schools in Bitkilsoy. One can study up to Class VI only. Hence, I had to rent a small hut in Manoharpur to continue my studies. But, we are a family of seven and with our financial condition I do not think that I might be able to study or finance my stay much longer”, Vardhan said.He added that his father earned Rs 1,500 per month. “I decided to continue my studies, after dropping out initially, because the state government started providing me with Rs 200 per month as scholarship, which is too little”.
A little better off academically, if not financially, Baranga village resident Gulshan Lohar, probably understands Vardhan’s concerns. A BA and BEd degree holder from JLN College, Chakradharpur, Gulshan, just like Vardhan, is orthopedically challenged and is forced to grip his pen with his toes in order to write. Similarly, the 25-year-old MA student is now hopeful that with renewed focus on Saranda he would be able to get a job. “I need a job immediately as there are seven mouths to feed. We have been facing a financial crunch ever since my father’s illness left us with a huge debt”, he said.
Meanwhile, the Union government has prepared Saranda Action Plan, which comprises short-term and long-term measures for the area’s development.The tribal inhabitants of Saranda have been victims of long years of official apathy and isolation from the development process due to Maoist dominance. Home to the Ho community, Saranda has 25 per cent of the iron ore deposits in India.The ministry has had to start from scratch, as there is no information.
The short-term measures of the action plan will include distribution of solar lamps, bicycles, transistors and musical instruments to all 7,000 families. The costs will be met through funds under the Centre’s integrated action plan (IAP). The district administration will implement the programme.A major long-term initiative of the action plan is distribution of forest title deeds to deserving families under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, also known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA).Under FRA, scheduled tribe families and other communities who have been living in forests for three generations prior to December 13, 2005, are entitled to land deeds. There has been no distribution of forest rights titles in Saranda so far. The coverage, at present, is estimated to be less than five per cent of the eligible families. The titles can be distributed quickly in forest hamlets where details of possession and ownership are well established.
The plan also proposes to launch employment-oriented skill training for youths in Saranda, which has a presence of 12 mining giants. The ministry will provide funds for the programme while the companies will be roped in to provide skill-specific training.Lastly, the ministry would set up ten residential ashram schools for providing free education to tribal children.