03 May 2011

'Undeclared Civil War-Like Situation, Starvation In Dantewada'

[Report of Special Commissioner to the Supreme Court, Harsh Mander, on his visit to village Morpalli in Dantewada, Bastar, Chattisgarh on April 6, 2011]                                                   
In the Writ Petition (C) No.196 of 2011, PUCL Vs. Union of India, the petitioner PUCL on 29th March 2011 petitioned the Supreme Court that they feared that conditions of acute hunger and starvation were rampant in Morpalli, Timapuram and Tarmetla villages of Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh. These conditions arose, according to the petitioners, because on 11 March 2011, about 200 local armed militia (the so-called Koya commandos) and 150 Special Forces (the anti-Naxalite CoBRA force of the CRPF) allegedly burnt all the houses, grain reserves and moveable properties at these villages. They referred to media reports that both the district administration and civil society groups, including one led by Swami Agnivesh, were blocked subsequently from reaching food and other supplies to the affected villages. Therefore they sought directions that the Special Commissioner to the Supreme Court in the CWP 196/2001 Mr. Harsh Mander should visit the villages with district officials to ascertain the conditions of the residents.  The Supreme Court in its order of 28 March 2011 noted that the Commissioner would visit the site with district officials and submit his report to the Supreme Court before the next hearing.

In consequence of this order, the Special Commissioner to the Supreme Court in the CWP 196/2001 Harsh Mander requested the state government to make appropriate arrangements for him to visit the affected villages at the earliest. The state government agreed to offer all assistance to facilitate his enquiry, subject to 2 requests. He should await the visit first of H.E. the Governor and the Chief Minister to the villages on 2 April, and that the state government would be able to make arrangements to visit only one village, because of the burden of ensuring security arrangements. 

Accordingly, Harsh Mander visited village Morpalli in Dantewada on 6 April, 2011. He was accompanied on the helicopter by Principal Secretary to the Government of Chhatisgarh Mr. Vivek Dhand, Divisional Commissioner Bastar Mr. Srinivasulu, and Collector Dantewada Mr. Omprakash Choudhary, and subsequently met the Chief Secretary Mr. Joy Oommen in Raipur. The state government extended all assistance for the enquiry.  

The Hindu reported that even 20 days after the massacre, the villagers had not received any emergency aid from the state.[1] On 2 April 2011 the Chief Minister Raman Singh and others visited[2] one of the three villages that were burned down. The government distributed 17 quintals of rice, some tarpaulin, two hundred sarees for women, volleyballs, tea but no sugar, a few quintals of potatoes in Tadmetla village. The Chief Minister denied all allegations that there were starvation deaths in the affected villages, even though local news reports and those from BBC Hindi had claimed that six starvation deaths had occurred in the village of Morpalli.

On starvation deaths reported in the media, the villagers informed the team that the three deaths could have occurred because the old and feeble persons who had fled into the forests had lost their way and were unable to procure adequate food. The team noted that there was no evidence of starvation in Morpalli village, but the impoverishment and destitution was acute as the means of their survival - their granaries- had been burnt by the security forces. Moreover, they reported that there was a complete abdication of all of the state’s welfare functions as a result of which the people were unable to access basic amenities including clean drinking water.  As reported in the media, the people recounted that only the village of Tadmetla had received meagre relief from the government, despite the Chief Minister’s visit.

The Writ Petition (C) No.196 of 2011, PUCL Vs. Union of India, highlighted the events that  occurred on 11 March 2011,when about 200 local militia (Koya commandos) and 150 Special Forces (CoBRA) burnt all the houses, green reserves and property at Morpalli, Timapuram and Tarmetla villages of Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh. In consequence of this application, Special Commissioner Harsh Mander visited one of the affected villages Morpalli on 6 April, 2011, with state government officials. This is his report.

Main Findings

The visit to village Morpalli was too brief, and too much in the shadow of security, for me to be able to make detailed observations. Still, I was able to talk to the assembled villagers of Morpalli, and local village, block and district officials. I saw their burned homes and grain stores. I also spoke, incidentally, also to the jawans of the security forces. These are my main findings:

Conditions prevail in the region akin to an on-going undeclared civil war, predominantly using guerrilla tactics in the inaccessible and thickly forested region. The indigent local tribal communities are trapped in unending cycles of often brutal violence, unleashed consecutively by Maoists, security forces and vigilante armed civilian groups such as the Salwa Judum, and its incarnations by other names. Each group claims that there attacks are retributive and defensive, and that they have not initiated the violence. But none of the groups can defend such a claim.
The villagers of the region live in unabated conditions of great fear, of violence, but also consequences of taking sides, or being seen to be taking sides, with each of these warring groups. They are condemned equally if they act or they do not act. They are called upon by visiting dalams or squads of Maoists militants to supply them food, uniforms and sanctuary. They frequently comply, whether out of active sympathy with their ideology of armed rebellion, or from fear and helplessness. It is hard to tell what motivates this support - and I believe it is not even relevant to ask – but their perceived Maoist support results in grave and exorable consequences for the local villagers. Many are jailed as Maoist sympathisers and languish for long periods in prison, without even the succour of national and international support and human rights backing as surged for Dr. Binayak Sen. Security forces often camp in the villages, or march through these, and make similar claims on the impoverished local residents, grabbing their grain and livestock, and demanding that they cook for them and serve them. They also suffer bouts of brutal retaliatory violence from the Special Police Officers and vigilante civilian groups like the Salwa Judum, who unleash periodic violent attacks on local villagers with or without the active support of security forces.

The reliance on Special police officers recruited from the local community, and civilian vigilante groups, to fight the Maoists has bitterly torn apart the social fabric of the homogenous tribal community. When, I visited the burnt- down homes and grain stores of the villagers and spoke to some of the women there, I could observe that this was not simply a routine surgically executed attack of external armed groups. There was evidence of vicious personalised hatred of the kind that I have observed only in communal pogroms and anti- dalit attacks. It is not unusual also, say, for one brother to be a recruit of the Salwa Judum  and his sister to have joined one of the Maoist squads, and old parents left in the village struggling to survive the consequences of the violence of both. 

Another consequence of State support for civilian vigilante groups has been the transfer of all development assistance and personnel meant for the local villagers to camps of those claimed to be ‘spontaneous’ supporters of the Salwa Judum. Government officially admits to around 50,000 persons being housed in 20 Salwa Judum camps between 2005-08[3], and even during my visit to Morpalli it was clear that PDS subsidised grain for the village had been diverted to the Salwa Judum camps. It was only after intervention of the Supreme Court that PDS was restored to this and surrounding ‘affected’villages since May 2010. The villagers testified to receiving since this date their quota of highly subsidised rice from a PDS shop in Chintagupha Thana or Polamparlli Thana, which are at a distance of about 20 kilometres from the village but, only on an average, every alternate month.

Apart from this recently resumed PDS, almost all other most basic public services were unavailable to the villagers. The Maoists had bombed and razed the school building in 2007, and since then no school has functioned in the village. There is no ICDS centre and I could see highly malnourished children all around me; and very few aged persons receive pensions. The sub-health centres were also not functioning. This is the only village I have visited anywhere in the country in which the villagers had not even heard of the Mahatma Gandhi NREGA, far from possessing job cards of benefiting from wage employment in public works. The village elected Sarpanch was absconding from the village for many years. It was rumoured that he feared for his life from the Maoists; others claimed that it was from the Salwa Judum. The Gram Panchayat Sachiv, or the Secretary of the village panchayat had not visited the village for 4 years. She ventured into the village, as did the teacher and ICDS worker, only because of our visit – although they presumably were drawing their salaries regularly. On enquiry, I found that the Gram Panchayat Sachiv was a non-tribal, wife of the local grain trader and moneylender! She recalled that many years earlier, she visited the village occasionally with her husband, when he went there to buy or sell grain to the villagers. But since the Maoists gathered strength, her husband’s visits dried up, and so have hers!

I did not find evidence in my visit of confirmed starvation deaths in the village. But I found conditions of people living with starvation, in conditions of great penury and destitution. This is aggravated by the conflict. We were informed that this is the second time their houses were destroyed and their few belongings destroyed or looted. Their conditions are aggravated further by the virtual abandonment of the local people by the entire state government machinery, except the security forces. 

The village, and even block and district officials have completely abandoned services to these villages for two reasons. There is no doubt that there is real fear from the Maoists, from being targeted or being killed accidentally in land-mines or cross-fire. The Collector spoke to me of a young newly recruited Naib Tahsildar who had been sent to the village from Dantewada for 2 days before my visit in ‘preparation’. When he returned, he wept like a child before the Collector. ‘I want to do a job’, he said. ‘But I don’t want to die! If I have to do this again, I would prefer to resign.’ However, to some extent, fear of Maoist violence is also an alibi for inaction. There are fine and brave officials at various levels, including reportedly the earlier Collector Dantewada Prasanna, who braved fears of attack and roamed the length and breadth of the district, without being blocked or intimidated by Naxalites. But the second reason for the withdrawal of most public officials is that the majority of appointments are not by local residents of the villages. The only chance that teachers or panchayat secretaries or ICDS workers will continue to work in these villages is if they are actually residents of the villages, and preferably from the same tribal communities. It is true that many would not fulfil the educational qualifications for these positions. But failing to recruit them creates a vicious cycle in which even in the next generation, there will be no educated local tribal young people to recruit as teachers and village development functionaries in the next 20 years, because no schools or development institutions function at the village level. The battle against Maoist violence (and vigilante ‘counter-violence’) will be won in the end not by armed commandos and the further shedding of blood, but by schools, health centres, feeding centres and employment.

The tribal communities in the districts of South Bastar are economically and socially devastated by the conflict with which they have had to live for nearly 3 decades. But even independently of this, these districts are among the poorest in the country. It is clear from the table below that even compared with the development indicators for Chatisgarh, which are among the lowest in the country, development deficits are abysmal for Dantewada.

Socio- Economic Indicators for Bastar Division

Literacy Rate (%):

All India
South Bastar Dantedawa
North Bastar Kanker
Source: Census 2001 and 2011

Combined Enrolment ratio^
Rank^^ in Education Index
Infant Mortality Rate
Rank in Health Index
Per capita Income#
Rank in Income Index
Rank in HDI
Dantewada and Bijapur*



All India**



# Per capita income at current prices 2000-01 in INR. This per capita income is excluding the income from mining and quarry as it is believed that the income from such sources doesn’t accrue to the poor.
Source for literacy rate is census 2001 data
^ Combined enrolment ratio is the average between primary and secondary enrolment ratio
^^ Out of 16 districts
*Bijapur district was carved out of Dantewada in 2007. The information from this survey was collected between 2003-2005.
** Data on enrolment ratio and per capita income is for 2005. Source: International Human Development Indicators http://hdrstats.undp.org/en/indicators/62006.html. Data on Infant Mortality Rate is from NHFS 2005-06
@ In Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) US $
Source of the table is the Chhattisgarh Human Development Report 2005. Available at: http://cg.gov.in/book/hdr.pdf

Equally worrying is recent data from the Census 2011 that the decadal rate of growth of population of these districts is far below that of the state and country. In Bijapur and Dantewada, it is as low as 8.76% and 11.90% respectively as compared to 22.59% for the state. It is important to understand what has led to population growth which is almost half that of the overall state. The possible explanations could be a) they were not counted; b) they have far higher levels of mortality because of poor incomes, nutrition, health services and the on-going conflict; and c) internal displacement to other states like Andhra Pradesh, or other districts of Chhatisgarh. 

Decadal Population Growth Rate Figures for Selected Districts of Chhattisgarh (%)

All India
South Bastar Dantedawa
North Bastar Kanker
Source: Census 2011


In light of my findings in my visit to Morpalli village, I propose that the Supreme Court kindly considers giving the following directions:

Above all, the state government must urgently restore its development and welfare presence in this and all 644 ‘affected villages’. As a minimum, the following services should be restored within 3 months:

Every hamlet should have a fully equipped functioning ICDS centre, supported by functioning nutrition rehabilitation centres at the PHC level; there should be a drive to identify and treat malnourished children
PDS Fair Price Shops run by panchayats should be opened at the maximum distance of 5 kilometres from every hamlet, and should be open at least 5 days a week
A drive should be undertaken to ensure that all households of local tribal villagers are given AAY ration cards and foodgrains at Antodaya rates (prevalent in Chhattisgarh) in all the 644 villages affected by the on-going conflict.
MG NREGA job cards should be also given to all local households, and the State should strive to ensure that 100 days of work is given to every household that seeks employment under the scheme.
All persons above the age of 65 years should be given old age pensions
All sub-health centres and PHCs should be restored and rendered fully operative.

All primary, middle and high schools should be fully functioning, with a full contingent of teachers, and if no pucca building is available, it may be run temporarily in kutcha structures
A campaign should be undertaken under SSA to bring every child into school
To service all the conflict affected areas, sufficient numbers of residential schools for both boys and girls should be opened, and parents given the option of admitting their children in residential schools if they feel they would be safer and more secure there.
Special effort should be made to identify all minors in custody or camps, including former child soldiers, and they should be admitted into residential schools, after professional psycho-social counselling under the supervision of NCPCR.

All vacant positions should be filled within 6 months by local, preferably tribal persons, and preferably to persons who are resident in the villages. For this, if necessary educational and other qualifications should be relaxed.

All village level functionaries, including teachers, ICDS workers, and Gram Panchayat Secretaries should be residents of the villagers, and should physically reside in the villages. Non-resident appointments should be either cancelled or the functionaries transferred, as the government feels is appropriate. This should be completed in 6 months.

The state government should in 6 months study the reasons for such low decadal increase in population in the 3 districts of Bastar Division. In case the reason is that they have not been counted, this may be remedied in consultation with the Registrar General of India. In case they are internally displaced, state government should indicate the numbers and locations, and steps planned to enable people to return to their homes. A detailed report on this may be submitted to the Supreme Court.
I am not making any specific suggestions regarding relief and rehabilitation of internally displaced persons, including the estimated one lakh persons who were resident in Salwa Judum camps, or migrated to other areas including Andhra Pradesh. This is because this is already under consideration of the Supreme Court in the Writ Petition 250/2007 Nandini Sundar and Others vs. State of Chhatisgarh.

As Special Commissioner in the Writ Petition 196/2001, I propose that after receiving Action Taken Reports on each of these points, I will return to the affected areas, and periodically send my representatives, to evaluate the extent to which these steps have been taken in the affected villages, to ensure the right to life with dignity and without fear, of all the affected villagers of this impoverished, troubled and conflict-ridden region.

[1] Aman Sethi, ‘Torched Villages in Dandtewada yet to receive emergency aid’. The Hindu. 1st April 2011.
[3] ‘Hearing plea against Salwa Judum, SC says state cannot arm civilians to kill’, The Indian Express, April 1st 2008. Available at: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/hearing-plea-against-salwa-judum-sc-says-state-cannot-arm-civilians-to-kill/290932/

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