For Alex Paul Menon, staying clear of the media glare has become a challenge even as he recovers from the trauma of being kidnapped and detained in the jungles by Maoists. Undeterred by the sensational abduction, the 2006-batch IAS officer is determined to carry forward his mission of steering Sukma district towards achieving self-sufficiency on various fronts, including agriculture, food security and health care.
Though he parried questions on the kidnap episode, Mr. Menon spoke of the ongoing development programmes in Sukma, the new district that was carved out from the strife-torn Dantewada in Chattisgarh in January this year.
The district administration proposes to reach out to scores of remote tribal villages — even in the Konta Block, considered by Maoists as their “liberated zone” — and provide basic amenities such as drinking water, primary health centres and residential schools. This was perhaps seen by the Maoists as a threat to their relevance in the area.
Taking time off during his short visit to Chennai, the 32-year-old Collector spoke to The Hindu on his ambitious projects for Sukma. With a meagre staff of 16 members, the district administration started functioning as a normal Collectorate and identified its priority areas. The concept of e-governance was in place from day one, with the staff getting computers and a low-cost Hindi operating system called ‘Brahmi.'
To start with, the focus was on the ‘student-tracking system' a novel scheme to construct residential schools to enrol children, including dropouts, under the ‘Sarva Siksha Abhiyaan'. The system was introduced to monitor the enrolment status — enrol the students in primary schools and keep track of them till they passed out of 12th Standard.
“We are not trying to fight the Maoists but only attempting to bring some development in very remote, inaccessible areas. The strategy is basically to construct more residential schools where we can monitor the well-being of children in terms of education and nutritional standards. All the community schools in interior areas were dismantled by Maoists because they feared that the police might take shelter in pucca buildings. Though they are okay with the idea of schools, they are very firm that there should be no concrete roof in the structures,” Mr. Menon said.
With the aid of UNICEF volunteers, 122 places were identified for reopening community schools. Though there is only a jungle track to connect most of these places, officials were trying to reach out and raise structures. “Another problem in community schools is that the teachers will have to travel about 30 km to reach the school and return after work. They cannot stay there… there is no electricity, shops, etc.,” he said.
As part of the initiative, Sukma has appointed ‘Anudheshaks', boys who have passed out of 12th standard, to campaign and counsel for enrolment of students in remote locations. “We have appointed one Anudheshak for every 40 students and we pay them a salary of Rs. 4,000 a month. Their job will be to talk to parents on the benefits of schools and also teach the children in their local language like Gondi, Dhorla, Koya and Halba. This scheme has evoked a good response.”
Explaining that there was hardly any facility in the so-called liberated zones, he said development activities would go on irrespective of whether the areas were under control or not. “We are just moving on with our schemes. Most of the community schools are coming up in Maoist stronghold areas…the only buildings in such areas are smaraks, or memorial pillars. Our idea is to create basic infrastructure to address abject poverty and malnutrition,” Mr. Menon said.
Another programme was to identify the beneficiaries of the ‘van adhikar patta' or ‘forest rights patta'. Tribals or traditional forest-dwellers who occupied the land before 2005 for the purpose of agriculture were given rights on 10-acre land each. Seven thousand families, including many in Maoist-controlled areas, have benefitted by the scheme. These beneficiaries were also sanctioned houses under the ‘Indira Awas Yojana'. The development package christened ‘Total Convergence Plan' includes roads, public transport, healthcare, potable water and involvement of tribals in innovative farming and income-generating activities under the aegis of Central/State welfare programmes with the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme as the base.
Recollecting his interaction with the Maoists while in their custody, Mr. Menon said: “They are open to the idea of borewells. Since heavy vehicles cannot traverse through the jungle tracks, they want them to enter via Andhra Pradesh. Maoists also want revival of primary health centres. Since there is no power and other facilities, doctors are reluctant to go [to such areas]. We closed down at least half-a-dozen functional PHCs because of these problems. Now, efforts are on to introduce mobile PHCs by roping in doctors with the help of Red Cross.”
Opening up of more fair-price price shops mitigated the burden for womenfolk who were walking 30 km to collect their rations. The project to reach out and deliver rations almost at the doorstep was well appreciated by the people. “We relaxed eligibility conditions in the ‘Antyodhaya Anna Yojana' and enrolled about 9,000 families… each will get 35 kg of rice every month at Rs. 2 per kg under the scheme.”
In a bid to connect with the people, a scheme called ‘Sabari Express' was launched, under which educated youth with driving licences would be given a 32-seater bus with a good subsidy and soft loan. At least 22 routes in the main land and forest areas were identified for these vehicles to ply.
Asked whether the Maoists were aware of the development programmes in Sukma district, Mr. Menon replied in the negative, saying that they hardly knew anything happening outside.
During his 12-day stay with the Maoists, he said there was no access to any information. “Since there was no TV or newspaper, I was not aware of what was happening around. On the 10th day, I refused to eat if they did not give me at least a radio… and they gave me one. The last two days in custody, I was listening to All India Radio and BBC [Hindi].”
Mr. Menon signed off with at least one interesting bit of information — he had taught the Maoists to make ‘rotis'. “They gave me food that tasted very bad. After a week, I started cooking. I made ‘rotis' and ‘sabji', which they also liked. I took some classes on making ‘rotis'. As the quality of rice was so bad, I got to know the ration shop from where it was bought. Action will be taken to improve the quality of rice…”
On whether the Maoists tried to subject him to some kind of indoctrination of their ideology, the Sukma Collector said they did give him some bulletins and magazines. “When I contradicted their views and raised questions backed by facts, there would be no answers…”
With the assistance of Auroville Foundation, a GPS/GIS-based town-plan has been developed in the district to build infrastructure over 675 acres of land. The facilities sanctioned include a composite Collectorate complex, government hospital, district library, science centre and mini-stadium.