Odisha: Half Empty
By South Asia Intelligence Review/IBNS: Speaking in the State Assembly on December 3, 2012, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik claimed that situation was improving in Naxal [Left Wing Extremism (LWE)]-afflicted Districts due to "strong action" taken by Security Forces (SFs).
"Districts such as Jajpur, Dhenkanal, Nayagarh, Deogarh, Mayurbhanj, Sambalpur and Gajapati have not witnessed any Maoist [Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist)] violence this year while ultras were active in Koraput, Malkangiri, Nuapada, Bolangir, Bargarh, Kalahandi and Nabarangpur District," he elaborated.
In an earlier reply in the Assembly on September 3, 2012, he had claimed that LWE activities had considerably reduced in nine of the 19 Maoist-hit Districts - Rayagada, Gajapati, Ganjam, Nayagarh, Jajpur, Keonjhar, Mayurbhanj, Sambalpur and Deogarh. However, Director General of Police (DGP) Prakash Mishra subsequently claimed, "About 8 of the 17 Maoist-affected Districts are now free from the menace [LWE] following aggressive drives." The eight Districts identified were Nayagarh, Jajpur, Dhenkanal, Sundergarh, Keonjhar, Sambalpur, Mayurbhanj and Deogarh, he said. The variation in details notwithstanding, the underlying message in the claims was that a great deal had been achieved in the fight against the Maoists.
These claims notwithstanding, the reality is that the decline in the intensity of violence is relatively modest, even as other indices of Maoist activity remain worrisome. According to Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) data, total fatalities in 2012 stood at 55 - including 31 civilians, 14 SF personnel and 10 LW extremists; as against 76 in 2011 - including 29 civilians, 14 Security Forces (SFs) and 23 LW extremists. Significantly, SF fatalities remained where they were, while civilian fatalities declined by 20 per cent and, crucially, LW extremist fatalities dropped by 56 per cent. It is necessary to note, furthermore, that even the 10 LW extremists killed in 2012 were not all from the CPI-Maoist, the overwhelmingly dominant LWE outfit; half of them were from the Sabyasachi Panda-led Odisha Maobadi Party (OMP), which split from the CPI-Maoist in August 2012.
Moreover, a range of other parameters remind us that things may not be as even as positive as they seem on the basis of fatality figures alone.
While most parameters appear to be comparable over the two years, the number of attacks on the Police more than doubled, from nine to 19 and the number of 'Jan Adalats' held - a critical index of Maoist political mobilization - increased considerably, from three to 10. The number of arms training camps held also increased, albeit marginally, from seven to eight.
Indeed, two high-profile abductions by the Maoists in 2012 - the abduction of two Italian tourists by Sabyasachi Panda, who was then the secretary of the Odisha State Organizing Committee (OSOC) of the CPI-Maoist; and the abduction of Biju Janata Dal (BJD) Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA), Jhina Hikaka, by the Andhra Orissa Border Special Zonal Committee (AOBSZC) - exposed the fragility of the security situation in the State. In both cases the State had to bow before the demands of the Maoists to get the hostages released.
During the abductions, however, a power struggle escalated within the CPI-Maoists, resulting in a split in the Odisha chapter of the party in August 2012, when the CPI-Maoist expelled Sabyasachi Panda for "betraying the great cause of the toiling masses", even as Panda announced the formation of the Odisha Maobadi Party. The split weakened both the CPI-Maoist and Panda's splinter group, and the latter suffered further with the killing of five of its cadres, during an encounter on November 14, 2012, in the Bhaliagada Forest in Gobindpur Panchayat area under the Mohana Police Station in Gajapati District. Some significant recoveries of arms and ammunition belonging to the OMP further and considerably diminished the splinter group's capacity to engage in violence. The State Police, apparently to put further pressure on the OMP, have on February 8, 2013 arrested Dandapani Mohanty on charges of links with the Maoists. Mohanty, considered close to Panda, had acted as an interlocutor between the CPI-Maoist and the State Government during the high profile abductions of the then Malkangiri collector R Vineel Krishna in 2011 and Italians Paulo Bosusco and Claudio Colangelo in 2012.
The CPI-Maoist, appears to have retained its capacity for violence, though its area of activity was diminished with the August 2012 split. According to South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) data, the Maoists remain highly active in two clusters - Malkangiri, Koraput and Nabarangpur Districts in the Southern-Western part of the State; and Bargarh, Bolangir and Nuapada Districts in the Western part - though, other Districts like Sundargarh and Keonjhar in the North and Kandhamal, Rayagada, Gajapati and Ganjam in the South (the latter, strongholds of Sabyasachi Panda) still witness some LWE violence. A majority of the killings of civilians and SFs in 2012 (30 out of 46), took place in Koraput and Malkangiri Districts, while another seven occurred in Bolangir, Bargarh and Nuapada Districts. A bulk of the incidents of arson - nine out of 18 - were recorded in Bolangir, Bargarh and Nuapada; while Koraput and Malkangiri accounted for another seven out of 18. The Maoist influence in Koraput and Malkangiri can also be gauged from the fact that Maoist posters were found pasted at the entrance of the office of the Malkangiri District Magistrate (DM) and Collector on December 24, 2012.
Further, letters seized from CPI-Maoist 'commander' Ghasi alias Chenda Bhushanam, who was arrested in April 2011, indicate that the Maoists were in touch with at least one MLA (Koraput MLA Raghuram Padal) and one Member of Parliament (MP) of the BJD (Koraput MP Jayram Pangi) and the Pottangi Congress MLA.
According to media reports, the Odisha Police put the total number of armed Maoist cadre in Odisha at a little over 500. The AOBSZC operating in Koraput and Malkangiri Districts was the biggest group, with an estimated cadre-strength of 240 to 250. The second largest segment was the Dandakaranya Zonal Committee, which had around 100 armed cadres, mostly from Chhattisgarh. The third largest group was the OSOC, with some 80 armed cadres. Panda, the erstwhile secretary of the OSOC, who broke away from the Party, may have taken not more than 20 cadres with him. Police also believe that between 70 and 80 per cent of the total armed cadres in Odisha are not natives of the State.
There are indications that, of late, in January and February 2013, the Maoist hold over the Narayanpatna area in Koraput District may be declining, though it is still early to pronounce authoritatively on the trend. 168 supporters of the Narayanpatna-based Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh (CMAS), a known Maoist-front organization, have already visited the Narayanpatna Police Station in 2013 and pledged that they would no more involve themselves in the violent activities of CMAS and the Maoists. 47 cadres deserted CMAS on February 6, 2013, while sixty-eight had surrendered on January 13; 15 on January 12; and 38 on January 11. Most of them were from the Bhaliaput, the native village of CMAS-Narayanpatna President, Nachika Linga.
However, the State Police response to the Maoist challenge is yet escape the 'fire fighting' mode. DGP Prakash Mishra announced, on January 2, 2013 that some sections of the armed forces deployed in Maoist-hit Districts were to be diverted to Police Stations to overcome the manpower crisis there. He noted that Police Stations were running with 'skeleton' staff in Bhubaneswar, and would receive a major fillip after the proposed arrival of 700 personnel, who were being withdrawn from counter-Maoist operations. Earlier, on December 30, 2012, noting that understaffing was a big problem, Mishra stated, "efforts are on to enhance the staff by inducting more constable level personnel." The present strength of the Odisha Police is claimed at 60,000, up from 34,000 in 2001, according to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, but the main thrust was to create more armed units, keeping in view the Maoists problem.
There are a number of other problems in the processes to strengthen policing in the State. In the performance audit of the 'Modernisation of Police Force' (MPF) Scheme in Odisha covering the period 2004-2011, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) observed, "long term planning to drive the scheme for modernization of Police in Odisha so as to derive optimal benefit from it was not made. The annual plans, thus, were just a wish-list of various items projected to be purchased during the year rather than being outcome-based."
Understaffing is not just a problem in the Police Department but, crucially in a situation where 'development' and 'good governance' are constantly emphasized as a 'solution' to the problem of Maoist mobilization, also in civil administration, severely affecting the capacity of the State to bridge the development gap and deliver public services in LWE-affected areas. This has been dramatically visible in one of the worst afflicted regions, the Malkangiri District, where manpower deficits in the administration remain a chronic problem, with at least 555 current vacancies - including 51 in senior level (Class I and Junior Class I), 49 in Class II posts, and 455 at the Class III and IV level, as in January 2013. On December 10, 2012 Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik informed the State Assembly that at least 47 Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and 82 Indian Police Service (IPS) officers' posts were lying vacant in the State, against the sanctioned strength of 226 IAS and 188 IPS posts.
Further, large-scale irregularities have been detected in the implementation of Integrated Action Plan (IAP), intended to provide a 'holistic' solution to the Maoist problem, in the State. In the performance audit of the IAP in Odisha covering a period up to March 2012, the CAG made some scathing comments on the implementation of the scheme:
Performance Audit of Integrated Action Plan (IAP) revealed that the projects were selected in consultation with line departments and local MPs and MLAs without taking any input from Gram Panchayat (GP) level institutions such as Gram Sabhas/ Palli Sabhas. Critical gaps were not properly assessed. 249 projects with an estimated cost of (INR) 35.18 crore were cancelled as they were finalised without proper examination of their feasibility and ground reality. Instructions of Planning Commission for inclusion of livelihood projects was not carried out by all test checked Districts excepting Koraput though (INR) 440 crore was received by eight districts and 8040 projects were planned during 2010-12. Eight District Level Committees undertook 602 inadmissible projects with estimated cost of (INR) 20.90 crore under IAP, of which an amount of (INR) 13.86 crore was spent as of March 2012.
The CAG observed, further, "though periodic monitoring of the programme was being made (sic)by Planning Commission and the State Government, physical inspection of the works by the State level officers remained inadequate."
Nevertheless, concerned over Nuapada District, especially the Sunabeda Forest area, emerging as a Maoist hub and creating a launch-pad for violence in neighbouring Districts, Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh, on January 17, 2013, proposed that the State Government draw up a special plan in the line of Saranda Action Plan. The Saranda Action Plan was designed to speed up development in the Saranda Forest area, purportedly 'liberated' from Maoist 'control' in September 2011. The plan was formally launched on December 3o, 2011. However, the implementation of the plan has drawn flak from critics due to the delays in several projects under the plan.
The visible reduction number of Maoist-affected Districts in Odisha, and some diminution in total fatalities notwithstanding, Maoist violence and activity in the State remain high. The Administration is presently in a unique position to exploit the weaknesses of the movement resulting from the split in the State unit of the CPI-Maoist and the expulsion of Sabyasachi Panda, but unless these gains are urgently consolidated through aggressive operations, this window of opportunity can be expected to quickly shut down, with escalating Maoist efforts to recover lost ground.
(The writer Fakir Mohan Pradhan is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management)
(The view expressed in the article is of the author and not India Blooms News Service)