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The upsurge of Naxalism is an indication that the government?s attempts to reconcile growth with equity are not succeeding.

india Updated: Apr 07, 2006 02:07 IST
By Prem Shankar Jha
By Prem Shankar Jha

The government is aware that without a huge improvement of infrastructure, the country will not be able to sustain its present rate of growth of 7-8 per cent a year. But all infrastructure, and most industrial projects, need large amounts of land. That land may soon not be available at any price.

The reason is the resurgence of Naxalism. The November 13 attack on Jehanabad town and jail has been followed by the capture and loot of an entire train, the capture of another jail and the blowing up of a jeep full of local traders. These are only the incidents that have made headlines in the national press. Attacks upon policemen, the killing of informers and the kidnapping of local notables for ransom have multiplied to the point where, if they do not involve a minister, MP, MLA or prominent industrialist, they are no longer treated as news.

Arms and money are also flowing into the Naxalites’ coffers. A joint study by Oxfam, Amnesty International and the International Network on Small Arms came to the startling conclusion that 40 million of the 75 million small arms in private hands around the world are in India, and the bulk are not in Kashmir or the North-east, but in Bihar, UP, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh. While a sizeable proportion are with local mafias, more and more are finding their way into Naxalite hands.

The threat that Naxalites pose today is, therefore, of a higher order than anything the Indian-State has faced in the last 35 years. The immediate cause of the upsurge in Naxalite threat is the merger, in 2004, of 22 local Naxalite groups into a single pan-Indian organisation, the CPI(Maoist). This has given the movement a sharp ideological focus and enabled it to coordinate massed attacks in a way not done before. But the underlying reason for its resurgence is the support that it is now receiving from ordinary people.

In Jehanabad, approximately half of the 1,000 invaders were not Naxalites but adivasis whom they had been able to recruit for the operation. This seems to be part of an evolving strategy. In an interview that the Maoist Central Committee gave to selected journalists in December in Nepal, it claimed that it had been able to turn thousands of sympathisers into “action-oriented squads of the Peoples’ Liberation Guerrilla Army”. This is the armed wing of the CPI(Maoist).

The renewed impetus is an unfortunate by-product of economic liberalisation and the consequent acceleration of economic growth. This has created a new middle-class, but has also further immiserised the already poor and marginal groups in society. Adivasis of the mineral and forest-rich central belt have been the main victims.

The fact that development actually impoverishes large chunks of society is one of the better-kept secrets of economics, but it has been happening since the birth of industrial capitalism. Development requires roads, railways, airfields, dams, power stations and mines. Development also puts a price tag on essentials such as land, water, firewood and timber, all of which were once available free of cost. Those who lose these ‘free goods of nature’ without acquiring the means to purchase them become its victims.

The government has tried to compensate those who have lost their land. But this has been so niggardly, and its disbursement so tardy, wrapped in red tape and diminished by inflation and the need to pay kickbacks to petty bureaucrats, that most have been reduced to penury.

The Supreme Court conceded this truth when it passed an order specifying what constituted satisfactory resettlement and prohibiting the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) from raising the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam from 100 to 110 metres until all those displaced at the former height had been satisfactorily resettled. But faced with a paucity of unoccupied land, the NCA devised a score of stratagems to get around it. One of these was laid bare by the Narmada Bachao Andolan in its submissions to the SC. This was to draw a distinction between permanent and ‘temporary’ submergence and deny replacement benefits to the latter. This allowed it to reduce the number of families to be resettled from 12,681 to 5,607.

If this is the fate that has befallen those with clear titles to the land being taken away from them, then one can imagine what’s happening to those, such as tribals of the forest villages, who have enjoyed only customary rights to the produce of the land and forests in which they live.

The privatisation of mining and infrastructure development has given the long-simmering discontent an identifiable target. The villain, the adivasis are being told, is the exploitative capitalist. “MNC interests,” the Maoist Central Committee told journalists, “have triggered brutal area domination exercises to sanitise tribal-held lands so that industries can be set up there. We intend to hit back strongly”.

If they carry out their threat, they could easily bring much of infrastructure development to a halt. In his budget speech, P. Chidambaram said the government had identified 342 sites for hydel projects. These will submerge hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of hectares. By the same token, the 148 Special Economic Zones that state governments have so far notified will consume 40,000 hectares of land. Then there are the coal, iron ore and bauxite, limestone, uranium, thorium and other mines that are being planned. All of these require contractors and it takes only one concerted attack to drive them away.

The way in which the mere threat of violence can drive contractors away was demonstrated by the fate of the Rs 1,000 crore special revival package that the Vajpayee government sanctioned for Bihar five years ago. Three of the four infrastructure schemes never got off the ground because there were no bidders.

So far, the central and state governments have been playing ostrich. Their only response has been to strengthen their police forces. With no understanding of what is happening, the conference of state home ministers held in Delhi last week decided to minimise the Maoist menace by claiming that it was serious only in Chhattisgarh. But the Maoists themselves have identified Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand as their primary areas of activity and recruitment. And Jehanabad is in Bihar. The truth is the Maoists cannot be treated as criminals. They have a cause, and have tapped successfully into a deep well-spring of anger and desperation. As the pace of capitalist development accelerates, the expropriation of tribals speeds up and the crisis in agriculture deepens, their pool of potential recruits will also grow.

The upsurge of Naxalism is an indication that the government’s attempts to reconcile growth with equity are not succeeding. The only antidote it has come up with so far, the rural employment guarantee scheme, is doomed to failure because its underlying philosophy is to first let capitalism do its worst, and then try to assuage the pain just enough to make it bearable. The right way to go about it is to prevent capitalism from doing the damage in the first place, and the only way to do that is to make the poor stakeholders in economic development from the very start. In the case of infrastructure projects, it can do this by reserving a small portion of the annual revenue for distribution as royalties for those who lose land or customary rights. If small, highly industrialised countries in Europe can do this, why can’t India?

First Published: Apr 07, 2006 02:07 IST