IT’S 7 in the morning in a remote village in Bastar. Almost all the inmates of Jagargunda, including its farm animals, are out inspecting the bus. It is the biggest object for as far as one can see, and it has returned to the village after 12 years.
Back then Jagargunda was a flourishing merchant town. It used to be full of traders and had schools, clinics and electricity. It lost all these in 2005 when government launched the notorious Salwa Judum campaign.
In their bloody clashes, Naxal and state sponsored Judum militias destroyed the town several times over. To stop arms supply to Judum members, Naxals went on to destroy the roads connecting Jagargunda to outside world – towards Dantewada on one side and to Sukma on the other. That year the village was cut off from the world.
Over time Jagargunda became home to retired Judum members. To protect it from Naxals, the town was barricaded from all sides and fortified with police and paramilitary forces.
Very few people have ever stepped out of the village in the last 12 years fearing Naxal violence. Not even to farm. Which is why the state still provides rations to its 5000 people twice a year. But some are now taking their first steps outside through this bus which was started on May 2. It travels 200 km daily through Dornapal and Sukma till Jagdalpur.
It’s early in the morning but residents of Jagargunda have already embraced the bus. Some reclining on it are having their morning black tea. Others are sitting inside the bus with neem twigs in their mouths. Children, who’d never seen something like this before, fill the bus, bursting out from the windows. A few teen-aged boys and girls are checking themselves in mirrors and brushing their clothes before stepping in.
Madvi, is a shy 17 years old girl who lives here and works as a tailor. She’s going to Jagdalpur on this bus in hope to find better employment, with an aunt who’s sitting close by.
“I know I can sew well, but I haven’t got a chance to prove myself outside Jagargunda. I have some relatives in Jagdalpur and some down in Chennai. I’ll try to find work somewhere and hopefully earn better,” she says.
Kavasi, a young boy who used to work as a cook for the police here is also going towards Jagdalpur to try his luck at one of its hotels. While other passengers run a riot inside the bus, the two teenagers sit side by side, quietly looking at their phones. Madvi’s aunt looking over both, stony-faced.
But the bus is not only a symbol of hope for the local people; it is also a cause of worry for those sitting in it.
That’s because in half an hour all of us are about to be driven over what perhaps is the most dangerous road in the country.
In and around the 58 km stretch from Jagargunda down to Dornapal, more than 50 soldiers, from state police and central paramilitary forces, and about as many civilians have been killed in the last three years.
CRPF camps along this road are routinely ambushed by Naxals, the most recent of which, in Burkapal, claimed lives of 25 CRPF soldiers.
Naxals have also carried out 18 improvised explosive device (IED) blasts on this stretch. And on this stretch patrol parties have dug up over 130 live IEDs in last two years.
Spikes, planted by Naxals in an attempt to halt CRPF convoys and attack them, regularly take out tyres of private pickup trucks.
“The risks are high. Situation here changes in a few seconds. Right now all these people are giggling and cracking jokes, the next moment there could be an IED blast and all of them will learn their lesson,” Jagdeesh, the conductor says chuckling himself. He may not have expressed it very well, but he has a point.
On the Dantewada-Sukma road, not very far from here, on May 17, 2010, Naxals blew-up a civilian bus they suspected was full of policemen. 24 civilians, apart from 11 Special Police Officers, lost their lives in the IED blast that day.
Dozens of civilians die each year accidentally stepping on mines, targeted at security forces, laid out by Naxals. Sometimes they issue an apology letter. But most of the time they don’t even do that.