How often have you heard that one-third of India is gripped with Naxals, or Maoists, or LWE-afflicted (LWE stands for Left Wing Extremism in government parlance)? One-third! Is it one-third area, or one-third population, or one-third districts, or one-third of India's states?
One-third of India actually creates an impression that one-third of India's geographical area -- and thus one-third of India's population -- is under the grip of Maoists. That sounds really horrible. Precisely why it is used by those who wish to portray India in poor light internationally.

Count with Care: While many soldiers have been martyred fighting
Maoists, it would be wrong to overstate their presence in the country
and spread hysteria

Where does this figure of one-third come from? India has a total of 640 districts and The Economist magazine (July 22nd, 2010) suggested that 200 of them are affected by Naxal insurgency. This brings us an approximate figure of one-third. International wire agency AFP (May 15, 2010) claimed that 20 of India's 28 states are affected by Naxalite conflict. By that yardstick, 70 percent of India is threatened by Maoists. Other media reports talk of a 'Red Corridor', which covers 40 percent of India's geographical area. 33, 40 or 70 percent -- take your pick.

What are the official figures for LWE-affected areas? There is no single official figure for LWE-affected districts released by the Government of India. In its annual report for the year 2010-11, Home Ministry doesn't mention the expanse threatened by the Maoists. However, there are some official data points which can help us assess the real extent of the Maoist challenge.

The first among these is the Integrated Action Plan (IAP), devised by the Planning Commission, which has provided Rs 65 crore directly in the hands of district officials for accelerated development works. Initially proposed for 35 Maoist-affected districts, political jockeying resulted in a plan for 60 districts, all of which are not Maoist affected. The plan has thus been christened as 'IAP for Selected Tribal and Backward Districts', and is not an accurate indicator of the expanse over which the Maoists hold sway.

Next is the list of SRE (Security Related Expenditure) districts. These are 83 districts in nine states where all the expenses incurred on security in these districts are reimbursed by the union Home Ministry. These districts, where incidents of Maoist violence are more than 20 per cent of all the incidents in that district, are identified after a survey. Notwithstanding that precondition, full reimbursement by the centre has led to a clamour from all states for including more districts in the SRE list. While politics may eventually lead to an expansion of this list, it currently seems to be the best estimate of the number of districts affected by Maoist insurgency.

Even within these 83 SRE districts, there is another categorisation: 35 of them have been classified as 'focus' districts. Identified as most hardship prone districts, paramilitary personnel posted to these districts avail an enhanced hardship allowance. These are the districts which happen to be severely affected by the Maoist insurgency. The 'focus' districts provide a real idea about the severity of Maoist insurgency in various states. While 16 districts in Andhra Pradesh are SRE districts, only one among them is a 'focus' district. In contrast, seven out of nine SRE districts in Chhattisgarh are 'focus' districts. It conforms with the observation that Chhattisgarh is more severely affected by Maoist insurgency than Andhra Pradesh.

The notion that 200 districts or one-third of India is under the grip of Maoists is bogus. Maoists present a formidable challenge in 35 districts across nine states in the country, and have a significant presence in another 48  districts. This is not to diminish the challenge posed by the Maoists, which is the gravest internal security threat facing the country today. While those who try and brush the Maoist menace under the carpet are guilty of ignoring the truth, those who overstate the case are equally guilty of spreading fear-mongering and hysteria.

Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review.