Connectivity in the LWE Region: A Road to Dereliction

23 Oct, 2012    ·   3733

Medha Chaturvedi analyses the case of National Highway 30 to argue the criticality of roads in counterinsurgencies

Medha Chaturvedi
Medha Chaturvedi
Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Internal and Regional Security (IReS)
The abysmal condition of National Highway 30 connecting Jagdalpur (District Headquarter of Bastar) to Vijaywada in Andhra Pradesh via Dantewada, Sukma, Dornapal and Konta, some of the worst affected LWE areas in the country is an important concern in fighting Naxals in the region. The condition of this road is appalling, being reduced to an unmetalled road, due to constant attacks and lack of follow-up maintenance work. The acute disturbance to road transport as a consequence, raises some serious questions about the role of roads in counterinsurgency. Are roads, which are considered the lifeline of human civilization, also a critical factor in counterinsurgency? Why is this road in a state of neglect? What needs to done to protect roads in LWE-affected districts?

Why Roads are neglected in the Region?
Topography: Sukma district has shared borders with Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Maharashtra and it is where the deeply forested Dandakaranya region begins. This highway is under NHAI’s maintenance contract, however, since January 2012, the Dantewada district was bifurcated to form Sukma, there has been no maintenance work on this road. This has reduced the highway to a one-lane dirt track through the thick forest accessible only by bike during monsoons. The extremists take advantage of the situation and attack and demobilize this national highway at will and without proper repairs and with the advent of monsoons, the situation only worsens.

Constant attack and Fear among locals: After the abduction of Sukma district collector, Alex Paul Menon earlier this year, the newly formed administrative district has been “pushed back at least 20 years”, in the words of a senior official from civil administration in the district. More than the repercussions of the incident, it is the fear which was instilled in the local contractors due to the brazenness of this kidnapping. None of the contractors are willing to take up the work of maintenance of the highway for the fear of reprisal attacks by the extremists despite assurances from the state government and civil administration in the district of a security cover to complete this task. Even labour is not available as there have been instances in the past wherein locals have been executed by the extremists following a verdict by the Jana Adalat (Kangaroo court) for “aiding” in government activity in the area. Constant attacks on the road by means of IEDs and the remoteness of the region also contribute to this crisis.

Corruption: Sukma’s District Collector, P Dayanand said that a newly floated tender for the repair and maintenance of this road puts the time period for its complete repair at 30 months. However, despite the agreement for the work order being signed nearly two and a half years ago, work hasn’t started on it yet. The NHAI-approved contractor entrusted with the responsibility of repair and maintenance then, was found to be corrupt and booked for fraud. The case is sub-judice in the state High Court. The DC also mentioned that the road was in a better running condition till 2010, the last two monsoons made the situation much worse. He has also assured that the district administration is willing to provide a complete security cover to the contractor and the workers once the work starts, which is NHAI’s responsibility to initiate.

Strategic Importance of Roads in CI Ops in Naxal Region
In Counterinsurgency operations (CI Ops), road can serve as a tool to gain control of a territory by the force which controls it. In Sukma, the security forces lost control of NH 30 nearly three years ago and thereafter, every subsequent attack only reduces this access further. Building a national highway, being a tedious process involving state action under a security cover for a prolonged period of time, works at glacial speed in an insurgency-infested area where the extremists are always in attack mode.  Local support is also needed for any activity along this stretch.

This leg of the highway is a hot bed for attacks against the security forces and locals who assist in any activity initiated by the state authorities. It is the same stretch where two years ago, a CRPF patrolling party comprising 76 troops was ambushed and killed by the extremists in a village called Tadmetla. Such attacks are a common occurrence along this stretch as this is where the South Bastar District Committee of CPI (Maoist) is most active under the Dandakaranya Special Zone. Moreover, formerly the largest Salwa Judum camp in Dornapal, 30 km beyond Sukma enroute Konta has seen a number of reprisal attacks since the organization was banned after a Supreme Court order in 2011.

This situation has reiterated the importance of roads and highways in CI Ops and has raised the question, are the Indian agencies failing to understand the strategic importance of roads or lack the means to protect them. Since identifying the Naxals and differentiating them from the locals is a challenge for the security forces, building a road without local support may increase the transit and smuggling activities by the extremists. Therefore, the need of the hour is taking the locals in confidence with their assured safety in moving forward with the maintenance of this road to gain better access to sensitive areas and allow civilian traffic a smoother inter-state transit.