Fifty-six km down a fork off National Highway 221 in Chhattisgarh's Dantewada district, a pock-marked road meanders through miles of stifling forest before faltering at a fortified barricade. Beyond the bristling barbed wire lies Jagargunda, its watchtowers manned by heavily-armed sentries, its searchlights piercing the evening twilight like a predator's eyes.
At dawn, the settlement is revealed as a single street that starts at the Forest Colony that has no forest officers, the post office that has no postmen, past a sprawling Salwa Judum camp en route to the guesthouse that houses the 111th battalion of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF).
Since the Judum, Jagargunda has become a militarised atoll with a helipad for flying in CRPF supplies, with no connecting roads or civil administration.
Today, a crowd has gathered outside the police station: the food rations have finally arrived. After a month of eating tamarind rice, Jagargunda's approximately 3,200 inhabitants look forward to daal, onions and the occasional potatoes.
‘Salwa Judum' refers to a State-supported campaign, targeted at the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), which has displaced thousands of forest dwellers into guarded camps. The Chhattisgarh police have maintained that the camps sheltered civilians fleeing Maoist violence, but there are accusations that in some instances villagers were forcibly relocated to these camps by the Judum leaders.
Prior to the Judum, the settlement was a centre of trade in forest produce such as mahua and imli (tamarind), and had a regular bus service to Dantewada, Bijapur and Konta. Residents say the service ceased in 2004 in the backdrop of an intensifying conflict between Maoists cadres and the security forces.
Once the Judum camp was set up in 2006-07, the Maoists blocked Jagargunda and choked the approach roads. The residents, who walked the line between the police and Maoists, were forced to take sides. Some, like the villagers of Ursanghal, Tolivarti and Misiguda, stayed back in the forests, while those from Kunder, Miliampalli, Tarlaguda, and Koder came to Jagargunda and were confined to a rectangular space ringed by a perimeter of concertina wire.
“We live like frogs in a well,” said K. Satyam, an old resident of Jagargunda. Mr. Satyam has 30 acres of land a few kilometers beyond the guarded area, but is too scared to till his fields for fear of Maoist attacks. His is not an isolated case. Most of the fields surrounding Jagargunda lie fallow.
“We can provide security to those who farm just adjacent to the camp, but it is difficult to cover those whose fields are further away,” said Salim Kumar, company commander for the CRPF.
The absence of employment and supplies has compelled the district administration to launch biannual ‘ration operations' in which a heavily guarded convoy of trucks brings free supplies of rice, pulses, salt, soap, onions, potatoes and edible oil to the inhabitants of the camp.
Each family is supposed to get 15 kg of rice a person a month, 6 kg of lentils, 2 kg of salt, edible oil, chilly powder and two bars of soap a family a month. But when the trucks arrived this December, there was no one from the civil administration to distribute the food.
Dantewada Collector R. Prasanna admitted that there was no institutional mechanism in place to distribute the food; in the past village leaders divided up all rations equally amongst the residents without cross-checking to see if everyone was getting their entitled amounts. “We will send two officials by helicopter to distribute food,” said Mr. Prasanna, explaining that he was keen to create transparent protocols for ration procurement and distribution.
“We don't know if we are getting our proper share of rations,” said Madkam Massa, exiled sarpanch of Milliampalli, now living in Jagargunda. Mr. Massa said he suspected that the rations were being siphoned off the trucks while the convoy waited for security clearances at Dornapal and Chintalnar.
Jagargunda is classified as a malaria-prone area, but doesn't have a single doctor with an MBBS degree. “Our primary health centre (PHC) has two pharmacists, a woman nurse, an ayurvedic doctor,” said Aresh Behar, a dresser and pharmacist at the PHC.
The medical staff rotates every two months, so at any point there are only two medical assistants present, neither of whom is authorised to prescribe allopathic medication. Mr. Kumar said the CRPF has evacuated six malaria patients by helicopter this year.
Sources in the security establishment expressed concern that the blockade at Jagargunda had acquired emblematic value, with the Maoists demanding that the camp be closed and the administration refusing to cede the territory.
The administration has chalked out plans to build a concrete road from Dornapal to Jagargunda. “The road shall be built by a committee headed by my office, because no contractor is ready to take this up,” Mr. Prasanna said.