Just imagine climbing a 30-foot-high tree and hanging on to a branch to make a phone call. This is a grim reality in Maoist-hit districts of Orissa where the extremists have been targeting the towers that relay mobile telephone signals.

After the destruction of several towers, mobile communication has come to a virtual halt in several areas of Malkangiri and Koraput districts of southern Orissa, which border Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh.

In the last one year, four mobile towers have been destroyed in Malkangiri district and three in Koraput district, said A. Kumar Napak, the divisional officer of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) in charge of the two districts.

With the towers gone, people who have to make an urgent call have no option but to climb a tree or a hill.

“It is the only option left to communicate with the outside world. Since there is no communication link after Maoists destroyed the local mobile tower in Chitrakonda, we catch the signal of nearby areas after we climb a tree or a hill,” said Jatindra Rout, reporter in an Oriya daily who works in Chitrakonda in Malkangiri district.

Government officials posted in the area are in the same boat. “Since it is a Maoist-hit area, relatives back home are always concerned about us. We have to talk to them once a day. I have identified a tree near my office where I can get mobile signals and where I can climb conveniently to make a telephone call,” K. Sethi, an engineer working in Orissa Water Resources Department in Malkangiri district, told IANS.

Some residents of Chitrakonda walk miles so that they can catch a signal from a mobile tower that is still standing.

“If one goes five to ten kilometres from Chitrakonda, one can get a feeble mobile signal from neighbouring Sillur of Andhra Pradesh. It is the only way one can communicate,” Rout said.

The mobile towers have become a preferred target for the Maoists as they are unguarded and their destruction means huge loss to the phone company.

“Mobile tower is a soft target as they require a few crores (tens of millions) to set up a mobile tower which is certainly a costly target compared to a school building or other office buildings. It also serves their purpose, as they believe that destroying mobile towers helps them stop anyone from giving information to police,” government-run BSNL's Napak said.

Once a mobile tower is destroyed it takes at least three to six months to repair it or put up another one. Its destruction also means loss of Internet connectivity to the area.

Since mobile towers often become targets of the Maoists, private telecom operators are too scared to start services in these areas.