‘If Maoists attract youth through ideology, government has to counter it in similar way'

As many as 78 districts affected by Maoist menace will soon witness a surge of energy and optimism, with young professionals ready to make a difference. A total of 156 youngsters aged between 22 and 30 will don the mantle of agents of change, working in the Naxal-affected region for two years, in the first batch of the Prime Minister's Rural Development Fellows Scheme (PMRDFS) to be formally launched in Hyderabad on Saturday.

The aim of the unique scheme is simple. “If the Maoists attract youth through their ideology, then the government has to counter that in a similar way,” Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh said, speaking to The Hindu earlier this month. As many as 8,600 applications were received for 156 posts, and the applicants ranged from social workers to IIM graduates to IT professionals, Mr. Ramesh said about the project he introduced in 2011.

Aim is win confidence

“The scheme is one way of gaining back the confidence of people in the Naxal areas. It is necessary to create a perception change among the youth,” he said.For the Fellows themselves, this is an opportunity to “be a part of the solution,” as 25-year-old Vishnu Nair states. An engineer from NIT Trichy, Vishnu gave up his job with an MNC in Chicago to return to India.

“Most of the educated youngsters in India today are heavily skilled in solving the problems of the rich or those of the developed countries. I was into risk analytics, and I felt that it was not helping the development of my country in any way. NIT, where I studied, was heavily subsidised by the government, so I felt like I should be giving back to the society.”

As Fellows, they will not be part of the ‘permanent bureaucracy' for which the Naxals have contempt. “We will work as goodwill ambassadors, as agents between the government and the people to restore their faith,” said Mr. Nair.

‘Sherpas to Collector'

The role of the Fellows, according to Mr Ramesh, is best described as “sherpas to the District Collector.” They will be placed in the Naxal-affected districts of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Odisha covered under the Integrated Action Plan — a project of the Planning Commission and the Home Ministry to intensify development work. “A Collector has a lot of responsibility, and the Fellows, with their experience and training, will help in the development process that includes planning and monitoring,” Mr Ramesh said.

The Ministry is set to spend Rs 60 crore on the scheme, with stipends amounting to Rs. 53 crore and the training cost Rs 6.5 crore.

The Fellows will be paid Rs 50,000 in the initial two months of training to be organised by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, and then Rs 75,000 for the rest of the fellowship period. However, for Neeraja Kudrimoti, like most other Fellows, it is not money but the sense of being part of the development process in the most affected conflict area of the country that matters more.

‘Great opportunity'

“Leaving the security of an IT job is a big deal, but there was no sense of contentment working in a cubicle. There was always a sense of ‘what am I doing this for?' This was a great opportunity to contribute and be a part of the change we all hope for, sitting outside,” said the 24-year-old employee of Patni Computer Systems, from Pune.

Integrated planning

Soumita Basu, a development worker with the Azim Premji Foundation, said the fellowship provided an opportunity to participate in integrated planning. “People have lost faith in the development process, and this is one way of restoring that. I would want to contribute to the cultural and social process of bringing the region back on the development agenda.”

Security concern

Asked if security is an issue, Neeraja is honest to admit that it is. The recent Odisha incident in which an MLA was abducted by Maoists has in fact escalated the fears, she said. “I am scared, and I am aware that the government has not really shared a rosy relationship with the Maoists. But facing danger is a part of the journey that we have agreed to take on. Hopefully with the work we do, we will make things easier in the region, and for the next batch. For that, I am willing to take the risk.”