Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

By siding with the oppressed and taking up their cause like Robin Hood, the Maoists access their hearts and minds until these hapless people are firmly in their grip and too compromised to break free.

Causes and Cures of Left Wing Extremism

Fifth Schedule and other “difficult” areas are treated as punishment postings. Maladministration or non-administration have followed. How then to tackle the Maoist issue?

By B G Verghese

For Salute Magazine, Homeland Security, 7 March, 2011

The Prime Minister has over the past three years rated the Maoist challenge or Left Wing Extremism as the most serious internal security threat confronting India. Statistics have been bandied about regarding the number of districts and police jurisdictions affected, the arms snatched, persons killed or abducted, ambushes laid, IED explosions and the forces raised and trained to combat the menace. A unified command has been established to facilitate inter-state coordination and special laws have been enacted. Undoubtedly there has been pressure on the LWE and the overall impact has not been inconsiderable. However, the battle remains joined.

Talks have been suggested and modalities discussed. Intermediaries have been busy. Some see negotiations as a ploy by the Maoists to win respite and gain time to regroup as their ultimate aim is to seize state power through proletarian revolution. The Government has said it will talk if the Maoists honestly accept suspension of operations and “do not carry arms”. Nothing has gelled.

The Maoists have penetrated the deepest interiors, especially in tribal and forest belts where they have sought to establish “liberated zones” and training and indoctrination centres. While so doing they have not taken their gaze away from areas with dalit and small peasant concentrations where oppressive land and feudal relations have stirred discontent. This is not to suggest that tribals, dalits and other disadvantaged groups are by definition pro-Naxal. But targeting such groups manifests a strategy that considers the “enemy’s” enemy a friend. By siding with the oppressed and taking up their cause like Robin Hood, the Maoists access their hearts and minds until these hapless people are firmly in their grip and too compromised to break free.

One must step back to understand the LWE phenomenon. Throughout history, tribal peoples have been pushed back into the remoter forests and hills as lands were settled and brought under administration. The Raj continued this policy but eyeing good forests as revenue yielding assets, classified these as “reserved” and “protected” forests from which “encroachers” were cleared. Those needed to work the forests were, where necessary, herded into special “forest villages”. Tribals who had customarily lived in these forests and had a symbiotic relationship with them, found their “rights” converted into “privileges”. In some cases even the country brews they drank to sustain themselves were banned and only “foreign made country liquor” permitted to be sold through liquor contractors.

Cribbed, cabined and confined, these free spirits rose in periodic revolts that were crushed by superior might. Government came to them in the form of the lowliest and, often, corrupt or arrogant forest guard, minor forest produce contractor, liquor contractor or occasional policeman. They were oppressed and robbed of their dignity.

Scholars have described this situation as a “historical injustice” which Independent India sought to make good. The Constituent Assembly negotiated a new social contract between the Indian State and Tribal India that was enshrined in the Fifth Schedule (for heartland India) and the Sixth Schedule (for the Northeast) in view of the special conditions prevailing there. This provided a legal framework and instrumentality for governance of these tribal homelands.

What did the Fifth Schedule provide? It made Governors the custodians of tribal rights. They were mandated to oversee good governance, development and peace and tranquillity in these areas where customary law would prevail. To this end they were to be assisted by tribal advisory councils and required to make annual reports to the President with such recommendations as they thought fit. Having considered these, the President was empowered to issue such directives to the State as might be necessary. It was also provided that minor forest produce and minor minerals would be exploited by the tribal people and that their lands would not be alienated to non-tribals or otherwise acquired without the Governor’s approval. Money-lending would also be regulated. Furthermore, no legislation, Union or State, would apply to Fifth Schedule Areas unless approved by the Governor with such modifications as he or she might prescribe so that tribal interests were not adversely affected.

In addition, Article 275 of the Constitution provided that Parliament may make special grants-in-aid to States as charged (as opposed to a voted) heads for the development, welfare and better administration of Fifth Schedule Areas.

How did things pan out? With development, displacement, the expansion of farmlands, the creation of new settlements and growing urbanization with rapid population growth, industrialization and resource exploitation, the tribal homelands suffered gross exploitation and spatial erosion. New nature reserves, game sanctuaries, wildlife corridors and gene parks added to the pressure.

At the same time, the Fifth Schedule was increasingly ignored and almost rendered a dead letter. Governors’ reports were fitful and seldom, if ever, deliberated in Parliament. Few if any directives were issued to the States. The Tribal advisory councils were gradually co-opted into the system. Few Governors seem to be aware of their tribal responsibilities and in any case have no staff to discharge them. Commissioners for Scheduled Tribes have cried out in vain. There has been little screening of legislation and so the tribal people have been enmeshed in complex procedures and litigation.

There has been a further problem in the lack of a suitable delivery system. In the early days of NEFA (now Arunachal) the Centre established a special Indian Frontier Administrative Service that was field-oriented and not secretariat-bound and operated a single line, single window administration. The “government” was wherever the political office (DC) was at the moment, tramping the hills from village to village. He could take decisions on the spot and his word was virtually final. No one had to run from pillar to post and seek legal redress. The IFAS jurisdiction was extended to certain other frontier areas but was wound up in 1968 for lack of sufficient career prospects within a small cadre. Thus ended a great experiment.

Today, Fifth Schedule and other “difficult” areas are treated as punishment postings and are lightly manned with a large number of unfulfilled posts. Maladministration, non-administration, social and development neglect, lack of connectivity, extreme poverty and exploitation, corruption, alienation and indignity prevail. Electoral politics being what they are, the tribal areas pull little electoral weight. Many tribal states and districts have a non-tribal majority. The dice has been loaded against Tribal India and the shield of the Fifth Schedule has been removed despite earlier tribal sub-plans and the more recent Panchayats (Application to Scheduled Areas) Act or PESA, which empowers gram sabhas as basic units of governance.

It is in this context that all talk of “socio-economic development” and special fund allocations for Naxal affected districts sound hollow. Where is the legal framework? Where is the instrumentality and delivery system? There is even today no reference to the Governor’s role and Fifth Schedule safeguards in policy pronouncements. Suggestions that a special cadre of officials be selected for administering a single-line, single window system in tribal belts, with special incentives and promotional avenues to the very top, and that Governors should have special, well-staffed tribal cells within their own secretariats to perform their constitutional duties, have fallen on deaf ears. Who is listening?

Peasant farmers, especially in the permanently settled areas of eastern India, still suffer a dreadful agrarian and social depressor in the form of oppressive land and feudal relations. These are fertile areas for LWE penetration as in Bihar. Tribal areas now face a new problem. Economic reforms have triggered a 8-9 per cent rate of growth which demands exploitation of the country’s minerals and headwater resources, the largest part of which lie in Fifth Scheduled Areas. Every new industrial, mining, power, dam rail-road or port project and related township that intrudes into these areas and calls for land acquisition has created great controversy, tension, opposition and violence.

The past record of acquisition, compensation, displacement and R&R has been poor in many instances. But things have improved. New legal frameworks, clearance norms, compensation standards, stakeholder participation requirements and administrative and judicial oversight are in place and are being steadily improved upon. NGOs are ever more vigilant and civil society too understands that development costs and benefits must be fairly shared in accordance with capacity and need. This is the safeguard.

Equally, it must be recognized that time is a resource as India has vast numbers living in abject poverty and needs to create 10-12 million jobs each year just to keep pace with the net growth of the labour force. A sustained 8-9 per cent rate of growth is needed to eliminate stark poverty by 2020. True, 40-80 million persons have been displaced by development since 1950, but some 40 million distress migrants move every year for lack of development. Who is to care for these “nowhere people”. Social and political unrest can play havoc and poverty is an enemy of the environment. Farms can no longer gainfully employ those currently on the land. Future employment can only come from industry – small and medium to large and mega – and services.

Opposition to this emerging new economy for reasons of nostalgia for a long gone agrarian, pastoral past represents a form of latter-day Luddite obduracy that can only cause grief. We live in a globalised, competitive world that can be harsh and even predatory. A large country must be able to hold its own.

The corporate houses and entrepreneurs queuing up to exploit these opportunities must be seen not as part of the problem but as part of the solution. Many of them may not have uniformly proud records. But new norms of trusteeship and corporate social responsibility are being established and improved upon, sometimes through imaginative court orders. Furthermore, these corporate houses often dispose of more investable resources, and command more and better qualified management and technical manpower and technological and marketing capability than do State governments. So why disqualify or thwart them?

For corporates, time is money and large and mega projects entail area development that necessitate establishing connectivity and the construction of roads, communications, power and water supply systems, schools and medical facilities, transport networks, townships, markets, etcetera. The local population can and must be made partners in this enterprise and trained to occupy positions of ever greater responsibility.

The socio-economic development required alongside the restoration and maintenance of law and order and good governance of Fifth Schedule and other areas is better achieved by such a holistic approach than by police action alone.

Fighting LWE is an eminently winnable war given the right approach.

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