Sprawling Bastar has again plunged into darkness. The region is experiencing a blackout for the second time in as many years. On June 5, guerrillas from the Communist Party of India-Maoist set off explosions and brought to the ground two 220 KVA high tension towers near the interior Barsoor village of Dantewada district in Bastar in mineral-rich Chhattisgarh state in central India.
According to preliminary reports, four of the five districts that comprise Bastar (Dantewada, Bijapur, Narayanpur and Kanker, the fifth being Jagdalpur) have been plunged into darkness. Effectively, 15,000 villages are experiencing a blackout.
Two days earlier, the rebels blasted and uprooted 14 electric poles in Narayanpur district, snapping power supply to an estimated 50 villages. Narayanpur is the unquestioned bastion of the Maoists where the core of the highest leadership is believed to be in hiding in the Abuz Maad forests. It is also where the rebels frequently conduct large military training camps, for days on end.
Describing the wanton act of destruction and disruption as "unprecedented", "inhuman" and "grim", Chief Minister Raman Singh ordered quick restoration of power supply. But that is easier said than done, especially because the 2008 destruction is indeed unprecedented! Therefore, it would take a few more days before normal power supply is restored.
A media report quoting police sources claimed that it would take 12 days to restore normalcy. The effort that would need to go into the relief operation is mammoth: mobilising enormous amounts of human and logistics resource, inter-agency coordination, round-the-clock work, motivating leadership, and ensuring the physical security of men and material involved in the entire work.
The experience of the 2007 blackout and the lessons learnt in restoring power supply would perhaps be taken advantage of by the authorities. Arranging for logistics from diverse sources, ensuring physical security, difficult terrain and motivating people to work are not easy in Bastar; each is a challenge in itself.
The last time round, just about a year ago, on May 31, 2007, the rebels blew up three 132 KVA HT towers in Narayanpur district, plunging into darkness the entire Bastar region for a few days and Narayanpur and Dantewada districts for 12 continuous days. This time it would take at least a week before normalcy returns.
Meanwhile, the state government appears to have made some stopgap arrangements. But these are unlikely to entirely mitigate the hardships the people are going to experience. Besides, the mining industry, businesses and the railways too would suffer huge losses, running into millions of rupees.
The 2007 Bastar blackout holds ample evidence to this possibility. At the time, normal life was severely impaired and four million people had to bear the brunt. Civic amenities were impaired in town areas, surgeries in hospitals had to be suspended, critical medicines were rendered useless due to non-availability of refrigeration services, petrol was sold at a premium at Rs.70 a litre, a wax candle was sold for as much as Rs.15, and cellular communication was badly hit.
Businesses and industry too incurred heavy losses. During a field visit to Raipur, Jagdalpur and Narayanpur following the 2007 blackout, this author was given to understand that the vandalism resulted in a total loss of Rs.2,000 crore. While all industrial activity came to a halt, Essar and the state-owned National Mineral Development Corp (NMDC) -- which undertakes iron ore mining in Dantewada -- were the worst hit.
All iron ore mining activity in both these industries came to a virtual standstill. The impact was felt on the raw material dependent steel production units such as Ispat and the Visakhapatnam steel plant as well as other units. Then Superintendent of Police G.P. Singh told this author: "NMDC incurred a loss of approximately Rs.16 crore a day, resulting in a net loss of Rs.160 crore. Essar incurred an approximate loss of Rs.2.5 crore a day, resulting in a net loss of Rs.25 crore; halting of freight traffic cost the railways Rs.20 crore."
Essar would have incurred further heavy losses but that was averted by timely action. The iron ore mined by Essar is added to water and is sent as slurry through a pipeline to Visakhapatnam. The length of this iron ore slurry pipeline is 267 km. As Sundar Raj, the then superintendent of police at Narayanpur, explained to this author: "A big relief was that a potential clogging of Essar's 267-km-long iron ore slurry pipeline from Dantewada to Visakhapatnam was averted. If the slurry was not emptied from the pipeline within a specified duration, it would clog, and would have resulted in a loss of Rs.900 crore for Essar."
Thus, by engineering a blackout, the rebels have demonstrated their destructive capacities, of being able to nearly paralyse life and hit at the economy. Thus they sought to convey the message that they can hold a few districts to ransom, at will, for nearly a fortnight.
In fact, these attacks on power transmission lines should be seen from the prism of a conscious, new Maoist design and decision to target infrastructure -- soft targets that are easily vulnerable and cannot always be made secure given their numbers and spatial dispersal. Thus, in a break from the earlier practice of isolated, occasional attacks, at least since the past three years, the rebels have been deliberately targeting infrastructure - whether it is telecom towers, power transmission centres, power generation centres, HT towers or the railways. In 2007, the rebels launched attacks making infrastructure their target 37 times, according to this author's personal databases on Maoist violence in India.
These repeated acts of targeting infrastructure speak vividly of Maoist intentions: paralyse normal life, sabotage economic activity, dictate terms and allow life and economic activity on their 'terms and conditions'.
(P.V. Ramana is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. At present he is Visiting Fellow at the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)