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Salwa Judum & tale of 644 deserted villages
Sreelatha Menon & Krishna Das in New Delhi
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September 18, 2007 19:39 IST

Tribals in 644 deserted villages in Chhattisgarh don't exist, at least on paper. These villages don't have citizens and hence there is no National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme for them or any health services or cheap rations.

These villages, located in the state's Dantewada district, have been allegedly evacuated by the government-backed private army Salwa Judum. All villagers are supposed to be "well settled" now in 20 relief camps.

But testimonials by tribals from the district and also footage from a film made for Channel 4 of the BBC prove otherwise. People still live in these deserted villages, where almost all houses have been burnt by the invading Salwa Judum mob armies. They hide in the jungles most of the day and come back now and then.

Tribals question the government figure of 50,000 people lodged in 20 relief camps. Are they the whole population of 644 villages, asks Lingoo Markam, a ward panchayat member from Balood panchayat of Dantewada block.

"If the entire population of the 1,354 villages in the district is seven lakh, how can 644 villages have only 50,000 residents," he asks, adding that nearly two lakh people are on the run.

Many are hiding in the forests, while many have fled to neighbouring Andhra Pradesh.

Manish Kunjam, a former Communist Party of India legislator from Dantewada, agrees that half the tribals in the villages attacked by Salwa Judum have fled to Andhra Pradesh. He says that he organised a rally in Cherla in Andhra Pradesh in which tribals who had fled from Dantewada were present in thousands. They were demanding an end to Salwa Judum terror.

The BBC film Unreported World shows a few families taking shelter in the only surviving house in a village. One of the tribal had his back mawed by a bear. He was in pain. The villagers come and look after him in that house saying that all the other houses have been burnt. They could not go to a doctor, as they would be caught by the Salwa Judum and killed on the way.

Shubrangshu Kumar, who assisted in the making of the film, says that the crew had no means to reach the deserted villages as they could be caught by the Salwa Judum. So they walked three days taking the jungle route, assisted by two tribal boys from the village they met in a Raipur hostel.

What do people in these deserted villages eat? Do they cultivate their lands? Chomuru had left Salwa Judum a few days after he was forced to join it. He says about his own village of Bechapal, which was raided and officially evacuated: "We survive on the burnt rice left in the village. We spend our time in the forests and eat whatever is available there."

Himanshu Kumar, activist of the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram in Dantewada, says that the tribal areas are now split into three. There are 644 villages, which have been evacuated while the remaining 600-odd villages are being targeted for evacuation. This is the enemy zone as far as Salwa Judum is concerned. Their goal is to capture these and burn the houses.

The third zone is the Naxal-dominated areas where, of course, no one enters. So, in all the three zones, health, education and employment generation is nil. Worse still, people can't move in and out for fear of being killed.

Chattisgarh Home Minister Ramvichar Netam agrees: "The representatives of the government cannot go to the villages following Naxal threats. The rebels have destroyed the schools, government buildings and are terrorising the teachers and doctors. How can the government provide relief when Naxals are not allowing us to enter?"

He added that even the roads had been damaged to cut off the villages.

Netam acknowledged the fact that all the 644 villages are not deserted. There are many villages which house 20 to 30 families.

According to Dantewada collector K R Pisda, not a single village is completely deserted. Only those who fear Naxals have taken shelter in the camps, while the others are still staying in the villages. The 644 villages are not the ones that are abandoned. These are the villages where the Salwa Judum campaign has reached, Pisda clarifies.

"Most of the villagers, who had earlier fled, have returned to the villages and those who have gone to the neighbouring states are part of the tradition as they go there every year for work," Pisda explained.

Himanshu Kumar, however, contested this: "If the villages are not abandoned, then why the government has shifted schools to the camps and pulled out other facilities?"

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