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BackYou are here: AnalysisOpinion Tribal Alienation in India's Central Forest Belt Has Caused the Maoist Resurgence


Tribal Alienation in India's Central Forest Belt Has Caused the Maoist Resurgence

A Million Mutinies Now

Prem Shankar Jha

'... Across a swathe of land 2,500 km long and 200 km deep, tribals face expulsion from their lands because state governments want to build dams, power stations, roads, and allow private companies to build steel, chemicals, automobile plants and aluminium smelters. ...'

NOT LONG ago, at Lalgarh in West Bengal, the country witnessed the first fully televised confrontation between the Indian State and its subjects, in which the goal of the insurgents was not to create a separate state or country, but to capture the Indian State itself.

The media coverage forced the West Bengal government to shed its ambivalence towards the Communist Party (Maoist) and launch a full-scale operation to 'liberate' Lalgarh from its grip. Heads were broken, lives were taken and hundreds of 'miscreants', mostly local tribals, were arrested and bundled into police vans for the trip to jail, while the Maoist guerrillas melted away into the forest.

After two weeks, the Lalgarh 'operation' was declared a success. The media packed their bags and left, the police came back to their abandoned and ransacked stations and the local CPM cadres began to rebuild the homes and party offices that the Maoists had destroyed.

But one question remained unanswered: How did the Maoists manage to 'liberate' Lalgarh in the first place, and why did hundreds, if not thousands, of local tribals give them their support? For that matter, what new element in New Delhi's politics and economics has made 20 squabbling groups of 'Naxalites' unite and form the single most formidable challenge that the Indian State has faced? And is it a mere coincidence that they did so in 2004, the very first year of India's present, heady, growth? If anyone asked these questions then, like Jesting Pilate, they did not wait for an answer.

Journalists live in a constant present. So they can be excused for being less than enthusiastic about 'underlying causes'. But Delhi has no such excuse, for it is becoming obvious that the Maoist revolt will seriously hamper the future growth of the country, if not stop it altogether.

Earlier this week, Lakshmi Mittal of Arcelor-Mittal announced that he was likely to withdraw from his project to set up a 24 million tonne steel plant in Jharkhand and Orissa because the state governments had not been able to provide the required land. This devastating setback is only the last of a long and growing list that includes the failed chemical complex at Nandigram, the failed Tata and POSCO steel plants in Orissa and the failed Tata Nano plant at Singur. Singur was, indeed, a beginning and an end for five other large investors who had lined up behind the Tatas to enter West Bengal.

There are other serious failures that have largely escaped the media's eyes. How many people know that 68,000 MW of private power projects were held up in 2007 because the government could not give them an assured supply of coal. The government could not do so because Coal-India's output was fully bespoken and none of the hundreds of coal prospecting licenses that state governments had issued to private prospectors had borne fruit, because of the stiff opposition of the local inhabitants who stood to lose their land.

To anyone who has spent even a week in the Maoist-affected areas, it is as plain as the nose on his or her face that land has become the key bone of contention between the State and the poor of India. As the rate of growth has spurted, the need for more land, for roads, power stations, mines and manufactories, has spurted. As land acquisitions have multiplied, and as it has become clear that the acquisition is not for a public, non-profit purpose such as building a school or a hospital, but to hand it over to other private parties to make a profit from, the determination of the oustees to fight the acquisition has hardened. The Maoist uprising is the armed spearhead of that revolt.

In the India of Gandhi, Nehru and Govind Ballabh Pant it is possible that the cry of the poor would have been heard, even when it was expressed as the crack of a rifle. But today's India is a hard State which has made economic development its new God and willingly offers up sacrifices at its altar. To quote Home Minister P Chidambaram, the Maoists must be crushed first, no matter what their cause. Redress can follow only after the rebels have deposited their arms and come into police-run camps, i.e. after they have surrendered every shred of bargaining power that they ever possessed.

The antidote to the Maoist appeal, according to him, lies in still more and better administered development, for it will create new jobs in infrastructure building, mines, industry and associated services that will more than compensate for the loss of their user rights to this land. What he seems not to have realised is that economic development is not the solution but the problem. For there can be no development without land - the industry, dams and power stations that come up on it and the minerals that lie underneath it. Free, democratic, socialist and Gandhian India is one of the few democracies that does not formally recognise the traditional rights of indigenous communities. So, for 60 years most of the tribal development has meant only expropriation and destitution.

The blindness to these rights that is displayed by the Home Ministry is part of a much larger turning away from the poor that has been taking place ever since India began to grow rapidly and a muscular urban new middle class began increasingly to dictate the political agenda. It is reflected in an increasing propensity in the State to use violence against its citizens, and an impatience with the problems of the poor, which is accurately reflected by the media. With no guarantees for their future, tribals are flocking, in desperation, to the Maoists

The rapid acceleration and privatisation of economic development has increased the pace of expropriation. For instance, within its first three years as a separate state the government of Chhattisgarh issued more than 150 licenses to private companies to prospect for minerals in the state. There has been a similar scramble for mineral exploitation rights in Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and the coal belt in Assam. Across a swathe of land 2,500 km long and 200 km deep, tribals face expulsion from their lands because state governments want to build dams, power stations, roads, and allow private companies to build steel, chemicals, automobile plants and aluminium smelters.

Today the Maoists have a minimum of 10,000 trained and well-armed cadres, and operate in an area covered by 4,000 out of the country's 14,000 police stations. Since they are not interested in political compromise they cannot be bargained with, only defeated. But the road to their defeat lies through recognising the rights of indigenous peoples and offering them a royalty in perpetuity for the use of their land for development, in order to make them stakeholders in development - its beneficiaries, instead of its victims.

Unfortunately, a land acquisition bill that made no more than a half-hearted attempt to give them this right is languishing in Parliament because the government is simply not interested in pushing it through.

Tehelka, October 17, 2009