In its efforts to win over the tribals in battle against Maoists in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district of Bastar, the state government has begun beautifying and preserving Devgudis, or temple-like structures of tribals’ deities. Devgudis play a vital role in the lives of tribals.
Officials said the decision followed the demand of Sarva Adivasi Samaj and other tribal representatives for basic amenities like water and toilet at the Devgudis of all 143 panchayats of the district.
While the local administration took heed of the demand, Maoists reportedly threated residents of a couple of villages against taking government help. Despite that, Devgudis in around 15 village panchayats have been preserved, officials said.
“We had discussions with the people and tribal representatives of the region and came to the conclusion that Devgudi is a place through which people connect with the administration. The representatives told us that during any local festival, they visit Devgudis but suffer for want of drinking water, toilet and other basic amenities. Hence, we decided to help the tribals by giving Devgudis a makeover,” said Dantewada collector Deepak Soni.
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He added that the administration has decided to spend Rs7 lakh on each Devgudi for fencing, drinking water, sheds, toilets and other facilities. “We have identified around one acre of land around each Devgudi. We have sanctioned money for 143 village panchayats of the district and the work has started,” said Soni, adding that the aim is to develop local tourism also.
Talking about the threat of Maoists in the construction activity, Soni said, “Till date, no one has informed me that Maoists are opposing Devgudis, except stray incidents like a couple of letters by which Maoists purportedly threatened some people. Even in Chitpaal village, which is in a severely affected Maoist area, the Devgudi has been renovated,” said Soni.
Other officers posted in the district say that the Maoists are in a fix whether to oppose the step of administration or not. Meanwhile, the administration is trying to connect with the tribals of villages located deep inside the Maoist area through this gesture.
“If Maoists will oppose the government’s work, it will be seen as opposing the tribal culture which would make it difficult for them in the villages.They are in a Catch-22 situation now…,” said another office posted in the region.
This officer said that for funds, Central and state government schemes have been merged to beautify the Devgudis for promotion of local tourism.
“Like Swachh Bharat is being implemented to build toilets and water facilities for community use around Devgudis. MNREGA is being used to build labour intensive infrastructure around it. Through Devgudis, the administration is implementing various schemes for community participation. There are seven oaths that people have to take, which includes usage of mosquito net for malaria eradication programme, Suposhan Scheme to combat anaemia and malnutrition,” the officer said.
Dantewada superintendent of police (SP) Abhishek Pallava said preservation of Devgudis will help police and administration to make tribals aware about state’s policies and programmes and will work to counter Maoist ideology in these villages.
“Maoists worry that if villagers engage with the administration in constructive ways, they might grow distant from them,” said Pallava.
Meanwhile, tribal representatives of Bastar claimed that the demand for preservation of their Devgudis pertained to their faith and religion and Maoists will not oppose it. “We have demanded from the government that our Devgudis need preservation and protection. If Maoists oppose this or threaten us , they will have to face local opposition,” said president of Sarva Adivasi Samaj, Bastar region, Prakash Thakor.
However, human rights activists have raised questions over the administration’s step. “I do not think it is a good idea for the district administration to use adivasi religious and cultural spaces, symbols or practices to further its own policies. It can do so through appropriate democratic institutions and platforms like a gram sabha meeting,” said Bela Bhatia, a human rights activist working in Bastar region.