India’s planned assault on Maoists troubles European aid body

Written by: Nita Bhalla

An Indian tribal teenager holds a bow and arrow at a relief camp in Dharbaguda, in the central state of Chhattisgarh, one of India's poorest states. REUTERS/Kamal Kishore
An Indian tribal teenager holds a bow and arrow at a relief camp in Dharbaguda, in the central state of Chhattisgarh, one of India’s poorest states. REUTERS/Kamal Kishore


NEW DELHI (AlertNet) – India’s plans to launch a major offensive against Maoist rebels in the country’s heartlands could jeopardise much-needed humanitarian operations in the impoverished area, the European Commission said on Thursday. The government has signalled that an assault against insurgents is imminent in the central state of Chhattisgarh — the epicentre of violence between Maoist fighters, security forces and pro-government militias since 2005. The Maoist violence – estimated to have caused 600 to 700 deaths annually and the displacement of 100,000 civilians – has spread to 182 of India’s 602 districts and has been declared the country’s single biggest internal security threat. But the European Commission’s Humanitarian Office (ECHO), which has been funding relief assistance for thousands of villagers caught up in the violence since 2007, said it was concerned that its work would be at risk if violence intensified. “It can become too dangerous, because of ongoing fighting, for our partners to access and reach out to the villages,” Maria Joao Ralha, ECHO’s desk officer for India, told AlertNet by phone from Brussels. “It can also limit access as parties involved in the conflict may become too nervous and may not want humanitarians working there so villagers would not be able to receive the healthcare that our partners are providing them.” ESSENTIAL AID Over the last two years, ECHO has provided 1.5 million euros ($2.2 million) to international aid agencies to carry out primary healthcare activities in the under-developed, mineral-rich state. Aid workers have been venturing into remote Maoist-controlled forest areas to reach tribal villages where there is a high prevalence of malaria and malnutrition. Forests in the worst-hit districts of Dantewara and Bijapur are often infested with mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), say aid workers, adding that they sometimes have to walk for up to six hours to access some of the poorest villages. According to a recent European Commission report, the state structure remains weak and the government has virtually no capacity to deliver even the basic amenities in the two districts. “It is virtually impossible to engage health professionals to work outside these districts’ capitals, due to the very harsh living conditions exacerbated by the conflict,” said the report. NEW FUNDS FOR 2010 Ralha said it was imperative that humanitarian work continued in the state, and confirmed that ECHO has approved additional aid of 1.4 million euros for 2010 to assist 300,000 conflict-affected civilians in Chhattisgarh. The funds – the bulk of which will be channelled into healthcare – will also be used to promote information on respect for innocent civilians amongst all insurgents, security forces and pro-government vigilantes. Rights activists say the local populations are being persecuted by both the security forces and the Maoists and villagers accuse the rebels of forced recruitment, including the recruitment of children, and widespread extortion. The insurgents have attacked schools and police stations, and use landmines and improvised explosive devices. They have also hijacked a passenger train, beheaded policemen and suspected informers, and attacked employees of mining companies. But there are also widespread abuses by government-backed vigilantes and security forces, who in previous anti-Maoist drives, have conducted arbitrary arrests, torture and killings, say activists. “Funds will go to the dissemination of information on International Humanitarian Law as there is an urgent need to advocate for the protection of innocent civilians,” said Ralha. “Our partners will be talking to parties involved in the conflict and saying India is a signatory to these conventions and these conventions must be respected.”

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