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Fighting a war with two mobikes, one phone and no drinking water

Fighting a war with two mobikes, one phone and no drinking water

Author: Nitin Mahajan
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: February 24, 2008
URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/story/276456.html

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh calls it the most serious internal security threat the ountry faces. The toll in Naxalite violence has surged over the last two years to almost one death each day. The Sunday Express reporters travel to police stations in the heart of Naxal country in six states. To find out how and why security personnel at the frontlines of this war are little more than sitting ducks

A tiny room, one light bulb, a table and a chair, an AK-47 hanging from a nail on the wall, a cot in one corner with four bamboo sticks jutting out of its sides to prop up a mosquito net. This is the office and "residential quarters" of Inspector F Kerketta, the man in charge of the Koylibeda Police station in Bastar, whose job is to win one battle in the ongoing war against Naxalites whom Prime Minister Manmohan Singh calls the biggest internal security threat to the country today.

Beyond the police station are the forests of Abujhmad (literally meaning unknown forests), the strongest Naxalite bastion in the state for the past three decades. Two police personnel were killed and five injured here in an ambush by Maoist extremists on February 10. The area, long claimed as a "liberated zone" by CPI-Maoist cadres is also a confirmed spot used by Naxalites to run a training camp.

You wouldn't know this if you looked around the police station.

To monitor an area of 25 square km in some of the most treacherous terrain in the state is a group of just 43 police personnel: 33 from the district police and 10 men from the Chhattisgarh Armed Police. Forget winning, the battle they fight is just to "hold the post," the last semblance of any administration in Kanker district. "At least a company level force of 100 personnel has to be placed at this station," says Assistant Platoon Commander Manohar Lal Soni who is 55 years old.

It's not surprising then that the police have themselves blocked the road leading to their station with tree trunks and boulders to ensure that any approaching vehicle has to take a detour of over 200 m.

Admits Inspector General of Police (Bastar Range) R K Vij: "We definitely need more personnel and there is a need to improve the infrastructure and other logistical requirements for our policemen."

Consider what the government has given - or not given - as weapons in the fight:

o The police station is a decrepit cluster of small, one-storeyed buildings built in the 1990s. The 10 Chhattisgarh Armed Police personnel are put up in a hall opposite Kerketta's room. This hall is also used to store kitchen provisions and vegetables.

o There is a two-storeyed unfinished structure in the courtyard where construction started in 2003-04 but was abruptly stopped. "We were told the contractor refused to work in the area," says Kerketta. But so cramped is the space that police personnel have moved into two bare rooms and have used hay for the floor in three other rooms.

o The entire station has just two motorcycles and 10 bicycles. There is not a single four-wheeler.

o Even the motorcycles and the bicycles tell their own story of how serious the government is about the campaign against Naxalites. Says Station House Officer Kerketta: "We had 10 motorbikes, eight of these are now at the Kanker Police Lines undergoing repairs for the past two months. We had 25 cycles, 15 of these have been shifted to CRPF outposts located at Antahgarh and Tadoki."

o To visit district headquarters at Kanker, about 110 km away, police personnel have to board a private jeep which ferries villagers between Koylibeda and Antahgarh. "This is a dangerous prospect each time as there is always a chance that Naxalites have been informed about our movement and they can abduct or kill the policemen," Kerketta says. Two personnel Shiv Charan Markam and Ajanya Ram Nateri, constables at Koylibeda, were kidnapped by Naxals on September 10 last year.

o Says Soni: "The nearest security force post, from where a rescue party can be sent, is 30 km away at Antahgarh. In the case of an attack, we are left with just one choice - to keep fighting and hold the post as we can't expect any help to reach us within six hours."

o Another dilemma policemen face is on a personal front. "I could not get leave to attend my brother's wedding and was unable to convince my wife why I could not come home. It becomes frustrating when many of us cannot talk to our families for days to tell them we are alive," says a constable who did not wish to be named. Next to the SHO's room is the post's "communication hub": a wireless operator and one BSNL landline, installed in Kerketta's room. Mobile coverage is not available in Koylibeda.

o The remote location means the police station doesn't receive rations and other provisions meant for its personnel on a regular basis. "We have to make purchases out of our pockets if we want to keep the kitchen fire going in the official mess," says Kerketta.

o Night is when the station is on its toes, especially the watch-tower sentries. Bhakesh Patel, in his early 20s, is a new entrant, and has been entrusted with the LMG point (light machine gun) at a watch-tower. His job is to keep scanning the forests with the searchlight and alert the staff on any suspected movement. Almost every night, there is a power-cut for at least three to four hours.

o Although the government installed solar panels for power backup, these panels aren't working leaving the personnel to depend on generators.

o Three jawans are entrusted with preparing food served twice a day: at 11 am and 7 pm. The menu: dal, a vegetable and rice along with chapatis. It's only on special occasions, like birthdays or the visit of a senior officer, that a non-vegetarian stew is served. Ironically, while there is no additional allowance for policemen posted in Naxalite areas, they are entitled to a "nutritious diet allowance" of Rs 650 a month.

o A TV set and a VCD player in a tin shed is the post's entertainment room but basic amenities like safe drinking water are missing. Several security personnel have been killed not by Naxalites but by contracting water-borne diseases by drinking contaminated water. For, the only source of drinking water is a borewell sunk in the middle of the police station - the same well is used for morning ablutions, washing, drinking and cooking.

Almost every policeman posted here agrees that the government should ensure a fixed tenure of service in such "hyper sensitive" Naxalite areas.

Says Head Constable Umendra Singh Thakur: "I have served almost my entire service in Naxal-affected police stations. I have spent over two and a half years at Koylibeda while before this I was posted at Bande (three and a half years), Bhanupratappur (one year) and Aamabeda (three and a half years). The government should definitely think about its transfer and posting policy and try to provide respite to personnel who are posted in such areas."

As if tackling the Naxalites wasn't enough, the Koylibeda police station have to ensure the safety of a Doordarshan transmitter installed inside the station premises is also their responsibility.


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