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Raipur: This summer, Bhima came of age. He experienced the fear of losing family and the difficulty of making money. Both are not uncommon experiences for those living in conflict torn, dirt-poor Dantewada. But then, Bhima is just 14.
On a hot summer day, he sat huddled with four boys under a tree at a fork on the Andhra-Chhattisgarh border. The shaded spot is a resting point for Dantewada’s adivasis as they travel to Andhra’s chilli farms to work.
That apart, there could be no mistaking where the boys came from: The back of their blue jerseys declared Civic Action Programme, CRPF 111 battalion, Dantewada. ‘‘Force waale came to our school to distribute clothes and sports equipment,’’ Bhima said.
They said their school was at Kuakonda, a town on the state highway, part of the insurgency-hit district’s slim belt that the security forces controlled. Home was three days away, the time it would take to cross the highway and the hill beyond which lay Maoist territory, a much larger area, nearly two thirds of the district.
While Maoists have controlled the area for long, the civil administration had a presence until 2005, the epoch year when an anti-Maoist movement Salwa Judum broke out.
As it clashed with the Maoists, thousands moved out to refugee camps on the highway. Those who didn’t, were branded Maoists. Worse, the state abandoned them. Ration shops and health centres folded up. So did 264 schools. Residents of more than 600 villages were left with no choice but to send their children on difficult treks to distant schools.
Bhima’s village, Morpalli, would be another non-descript speck in this god-forsaken landscape, except it recently made it to the national news when the thatched adivasi huts were reduced to ashes, allegedly by the police, out on an anti-Maoist operation.
Bhima saw the news on the TV set in his school. ‘‘I couldn’t sleep that night,’’ he said. Boys relieved to see their families alive
Exams were round the bend. But the boys decided they must go home. Walking would take three days, so they decided to take a bus that has a circular route. The last stretch would have to be covered by foot. Yet, it would be faster.
But the boys hadn’t anticipated they would run into the same blockade that had prevented journalists, opposition leaders and relief teams from reaching Morpalli. Guntoting police officers made it impossible to travel beyond the checkpost at Pollampalli, 30 km short of their village.
‘‘One of them slapped me,’’ said Dugu, Bhima’s friend. ‘‘He said why do you want to go to Morpalli. We said we were schoolchildren. We were only going home.’’
Finally, they got home. Seeing their families alive, Bhima remembers feeling a rush of relief.
‘‘My house was intact. My chacha lost his house, though.’’ Reassured, after a day’s rest the boys returned to school for their exams. But all the while, they kept track of the news. ‘‘We saw on TV that Harsh went to our village. Who is Harsh? The man with no hair.’’ Harsh Mander is a member of the NAC who travelled to Morpalli on an Supreme Court directive. The boys didn’t know the details, but they knew he was someone important.
The fact that important people were visiting their village calmed them down further.
Once exams were over, they returned home for summer vacations, and found some elders leaving for the chilli farms in Andhra. ‘‘We thought let’s go and work too,’’ said Bhima. ‘‘It will be good to make some money.’’
Again, they didn’t know what lay in store. In scorching 44 degree temperature, they worked from 6am to 7pm, with a one-hour lunch break. They cooked their meals. Every night, they whispered to each other what they would do once they got the money.
At the end of 10 days, they earned Rs 1,500 each. Minus Rs 170 on travel expenses and Rs 130 to buy rice, salt and oil, they were left with Rs 1,200.
How do they plan to spend their first earnings? ‘‘On clothes,’’ said Bhima, without a moment’s hestitation. Last year, he had gone to Raipur for a kabaddi tournament and felt embarrassed as he saw boys from other districts wore nicer clothes.
‘‘I looked for jeans in Bhadrachalam (a town in Andhra), the salesman asked for Rs 600. I told him that’s way too much. I think I can find a similar one for less in Kuakonda,’’ he said.
As they got up to leave, bending to pick up bags brimming with red chillies, food and utensils, the back of the jerseys came into view again. A parting question: Did the CRPF jawans say anything while handing out the jerseys? “Yes,” Bhima laughed. “Bola naxali mat bano.” (They said don’t become a Naxal)
(Names have been changed to protect the identity of the children)