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Is ignorance really bliss?

How well-informed are we? It?s a question I?m often asked by casual acquaintances. I daresay they?re only making polite conversation and don?t expect a detailed reply, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Apr 16, 2006 00:14 IST

How well-informed are we? It’s a question I’m often asked by casual acquaintances. I daresay they’re only making polite conversation and don’t expect a detailed reply.

But their queries have made me think and the conclusion I’ve come to is shocking. On many issues — usually the ones that matter — we know very little. And because we’re ignorant we’re also unconcerned.

For example, although we’re aware of farmer suicides, are we really informed about the agrarian crisis that has reduced India’s agricultural productivity below 2 per cent for the last eight years? Are we aware that the extent of malnutrition has led Amartya Sen to comment that India’s record is worse than sub-Saharan Africa? That perhaps 300 million of our countrymen go to bed hungry every night? Or, to pick another subject, we welcomed the passage of the Patents Bill but were we told it could, over the next few years, sharply increase the price of medicine? That as new and better drugs come on the market — which is both inevitable and desirable — they could be sold at whatever price the patent holder wants to charge? And as a result of similar patents, which phased out cheap generic medicine, prices rose in Pakistan and Indonesia perhaps ten or twenty fold?

Well, today I want to touch on another subject about which we know very little: the Naxalite threat. No doubt in recent weeks newspapers and television channels have awakened to it, but do they convey the scale and spread of the problem? Only if you read and view all of them and tease out the information. If you can’t be bothered to do that the conclusions will shake you.

First, the facts. The Naxalite threat covers 170 districts in 15 states stretching from Nepal to Sri Lanka. This amounts to 40 per cent of the country’s geographical area and 35 per cent of its population. In contrast, the insurgencies in Kashmir and the North East only cover 11 per cent of the country’s area and 4.5 per cent of its population. Clearly the Naxalite threat is far worse. But did you know that?

A status paper presented in Parliament last month by the Home Minister reveals that the total number of people killed by Naxalite violence rose by 30 per cent between 2003 and 2005. The number of policemen killed jumped an astonishing 53 per cent between 2004 and 2005. Clearly the Naxalites are getting the better of their encounters with the security forces. But did you know that?

Yet wait, there’s more. It’s said that Naxalite strength has grown by over 50 per cent since 2001. Last year around 1,000 new cadre joined their ranks. They now also have access to quality weapons. Till 2001, 60 per cent of their weaponry was country-made guns. Today, they have AK series rifles, grenade launchers, stenguns and carbines. Finally, their command structures have also evolved and modernised. Earlier loose and nebulous formations have been replaced by formal companies, platoons and sections, which are almost military in character. Clearly they’re no longer a rag-tag bunch of revolutionaries. They’ve become a hardened well-equipped, tightly-structured force. But did you know that?

Most surprisingly of all, guess where they get their funds from? From us. I don’t simply mean intimidation and extortion from civil contractors, transporters or quarry and mill owners, nor the ‘taxes’ imposed on forest and coal produce. I’m referring to the fact that each time the government spends on development in the affected areas a sizeable portion leaks into Naxal hands. In fact, the more we spend to ameliorate the deprivation they feed upon, the more they gain directly from us. But did you know that?

All these facts have been gleaned from newspaper articles published in the past few months. None of them is classified. None required great research to ferret out. But very rarely do we find them together in a single easy-to-read, simple-to-understand article. And that’s why they’re not known to most of us. It’s another example of how poorly informed we are. And, of course, of what we don’t know we can’t really worry or care about.

It came as a real surprise to discover that way back in November 2004 the Prime Minister had said that the Naxalite insurgency was “an even greater threat to India than militancy in Jammu and Kashmir and the North East”. Now I’m perplexed why he hasn’t done more about it. Simply saying it is not good enough.