By Sameer Showkin Lone
If Kashmir is paradise, Bastar is heaven. Like Kashmir, the entire Bastar region is surrounded by lush green mountains, beautiful waterfalls, streams and natural caves.
The sprawling area of around 40,000 square kilometers, mostly comprising tribal population, Bastar was one district till 2000 when part of Madhya Pradesh, bigger than the state of Kerala and many other countries. Today Bastar is divided into seven districts – Bastar (Jagdalpur), Kanker, Kondagaon, Dantewada, Sukma, Bijapur and Narayanpur forming as essential part of the state of Chhattisgarh.
Bastar is nothing new for someone from Kashmir. Both the places have unique commonality- the presence of thousands of footprints of jackboots and armed forces manning every road and corner, leaving numerous untold stories behind.
The CRPF, SSB and Chhattisgarh Police have spread a web of security camps, barricades and check points across Bastar region.
The day starts with road opening parties of government forces and ends on the same note. Proving identity and other similar episodes on the roads are quite often seen, though not as frequent and severe as it is in Kashmir.
The nature of conflict is very different in Bastar than that of Kashmir and with different challenges. The militants and Naxalite operate in different ways. While the militants in Kashmir are locked in a guerrilla war playing hide and seek with the government forces, in Bastar, the Naxalites have dominance over a vast area almost in every district, where they are calling the shots.
These areas are not easy going for non-locals and officials. One needs proper permission to venture into these areas. Venturing there without a green signal from Naxalites can invite trouble.
Bastar is the Kashmir of 1990s
On the development front, Bastar is the Kashmir of 1990s. The construction of roads, buildings, schools and setting up infrastructure continues to remain challenge for the administration in these Left Wing Effected (LWE) areas, due to which people are denied their basic needs of livelihood.
Scanty roads and poor communication have marred the development of Bastar region. Even the basic right of its men and women “to live with dignity” has been denied. Around 60 percent of the villages have no proper road connectivity. During monsoon, these areas remain completely inaccessible and cut off from the rest of India. Cellular network is a distant dream.
In order to thwart the government forces’ movement into the core areas, the Naxals damage the existing roads and disallow construction of new roads. According to figures, over 130 roads have been blasted, cut and ultimately damaged and made non-motorable by the naxals.
Not all about Naxalism
When many of us get to hear about Bastar, we associate it with naxalism. I used to think on the similar lines before I was posted here. My family and friends had similar concerns about my safety, even some advised me not to work here.
The perception about the area is that it is all about naxalism. The similar way non-Kashmiris think about Kashmir. But once they visit, they return with a different perception.
While I can’t comment on entire Bastar, I will surely like to talk about districts of Dantewada and Bijapur – the most-affected districts. Both the districts are nearly 400 and 470 kilometers from the state capital of Raipur and about 90 and 160 kilometers from Bastar’s biggest town Jagdalpur.
The state of art ‘Education City’ of Dantewada is a revolution in itself. Spread over an area of 150 acres and with a budget of Rs 100 crore, ‘Education City’ was set up in Dantewada in 2011. The district once with the lowest literacy rate at 42 percent, today thrives with progressive education and hope. Education City also caters to children that come from the underprivileged sections giving them free-of-cost education.
Another education city is coming up in the adjoining Bijapur district which is in the process of its completion phase.
YUVA: The call centre started in December 2017 has currently three IT companies operating with an employee strength of over 500.
Chu Le Aasman: This scheme is meant for students in 9th to 12th standard. They are provided extra coaching classes in order to increase the probability of their selection in professional courses like MBBS, Engineering, Pharmacy, and NIIT. It is a residential facility with all costs borne by the government, books included. There is a separate facility for boys and girls.
Bastar Nahin Dekha, tou kya Dekha?
There is a common saying that Bastar Nahin Dekha, tou India mein kya Dekha? Yes, you have read it right. Any mention of Bastar would be incomplete without Bastar Dussehra. I got to see it for the first time last year. It is very interesting and captivating and very different than rest of India. The tribals make it unique with their traditional cultural practices and simplicity. All people, especially tribals (adivasis) worship Ma Danteshwari.
Bastar has much to offer as a tourist destination. Temples of Barsur, the weekly Haat markets, Chitrakoot Waterfalls, Kutumsar Caves, Tirathgarh Waterfalls, Bastar Craft and lots more.
There is an airport at Jagdalpur, Bastar’s biggest town. But the flights have been stopped for reasons better known to the administration. Regular flights would give a fillip to tourism in the region.
(Author is working as Aspirational District Fellow with Government of India, and is presently posted in Bastar)