While it is the first district in Maharashtra to implement the Forest Rights Act, development has not come easy

Aarda village near Sironcha in Gadchiroli district has seen few VIPs. As the helicopter with Union rural development minister Jairam Ramesh landed, there was much hysteria. The last time a union minister visited this place was Shantaram Potdukhe, who was an MP from Chandrapur and a minister of state for finance. The meeting is held near a newly constructed road under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.

About 47 people work on this 1.5 km road. The rural employment scheme is not very popular here as people have agriculture and harvest crops in two seasons, says a public works department engineer. Sironcha is 285 km from the Gadchiroli district headquarters and there is no hospital close by. Of the 41 gram panchayats in Sironcha taluka, nearly 12 don't have drinking water. The BSNL building lies unused and was burnt down a while ago by unidentified miscreants. Women outnumber men in the Aarda gram panchayat and this village claims it is Maoist free since 2008. To put it simply, no Maoists are allowed to enter the village limits.

But development has come to Sironcha in the form of bridges, the construction of which has been pending since a decade. Rajni Lonare, PWD engineer is jubilant about the activity and says that the bridge across Godavari costing Rs 185.82 crores will link Andhra Pradesh for the first time, while a second bridge will span the Indravati river at a cost of Rs 156.36 crores. A third one will connect Sironcha to Jagdalpur across Pranhita river. For the people of this remote area, these bridges are a lifeline to the outside world, says a local resident.

Gadchiroli district has the lowest Human Development Index (HDI) in Maharashtra at 0.21 and is one of the districts in the Maoists' Dandakaranya special zonal committee. There are 468 gram panchayats in Gadchiroli district and 200 of them were under the Maoists. Mr Ramesh has been talking of empowering adivasis using the Forest Rights Act and motivating the youth in the Maoist dominated regions to take part in the political process instead of joining ranks with the Maoists.

In Mendha Lekha, the first village to receive rights to cut and transport bamboo, Mr Ramesh advocated gram sabhas pass resolutions against the Maoists and not allow them to enter villages. Forest rights have been granted to 27,810 individuals and community forest rights were given to 777 villages in Gadchiroli. The district is number one in the State in the implementation of the Forest Rights Act.

In a bid to boost development in the district, Mr Ramesh inaugurated a solar energy pump project in Rampur under which 288 villages will get drinking water. Many places in this district don't have power and recently the Maharashtra home minister R R Patil mentioned in the state assembly that there were 52 villages which did not have power for nine years. People had to walk long distances, at least 30 to 40 km for primary health care or rations. Gadchiroli district had the lowest per capita income in the State and 35 per cent of government posts are vacant.

Road development under the Prime Minister's Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) was an indicator of the intensity of the Maoist problem.

Mr Ramesh says the programme was doing badly in Gadchiroli district. The Maoists were targeting PMGSY and in this district there were 108 habitations with a population of more than 250 which had to be connected. Of this only 78 were connected and work on roads for 30 habitations was slow or not happening, with instances of contractors being killed. He was considering handing over road works to gram sabhas in the Maoist dominated areas. In the rest of the 20 districts in other States like Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Jharkhand, where the Maoists had a stranglehold, of 1097 km of roadwork on 430 km there was little progress for three years.

There are flaws too in the Integrated Action Plan (IAP) for the Maoist dominated districts. For instance in Gadchiroli it was used to build a public bus stand.

A committee of the collector, the zilla parishad head and forest officials will now decide on how to spend the funds of about Rs 30 crore each in 78 districts. Of this the hardcore elements were in 20 districts and these were in the tri -junction areas of three States for example, Sironcha which was on the border of Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra. A major problem was the lack of infrastructure in these places which has to be addressed.