November 20, 2009

by Praful Bidwai

If the media is right, former Jharkhand Chief Minister Madhu Koda amassed a mind-boggling Rs 4,000 crores in just three years, and has invested it in assets the world over, including shipping, hotels and Swiss bank accounts. Much of this was reportedly collected as bribes for clearing mining projects in Jharkhand, one of India’s three minerals-richest states. Many of the projects were illegal and involved mining beyond the licensed period or area. Some would intrude into the land of the Adivasis, Jharkhand’s original inhabitants, who have progressively lost control over their habitat.

Mr Koda’s rise from a daily wager to riches through corruption must be condemned without ifs and buts. But his culpability should not divert attention from the Elephant in the Living Room—the scandal’s business dimensions, and its consequences for the exchequer. If businessmen paid Mr Koda Rs 4,000 crores in bribes, their profit from the approved projects must be at least Rs 10,000 crores. This would correspond to a minimum business turnover of Rs 50,000 crores, assuming a 20 percent margin. This staggering figure is three times higher than the entire revenue of Jharkhand!

If Mr Koda alone plundered, as alleged, a sum equalling one-fourth of Jharkhand’s annual budget, then it would be utterly unsurprising if the state doesn’t provide the barest minimum of public services. That’s indeed the case. Jharkhand has the lowest Human Development Index among all Indian states. It has failed to invest in roads, drinking water schemes, schools, primary health, sanitation and other services that matter to the people. Jharkhand desperately needs investment in roads and irrigation. But it returns a huge chunk of these programmes’ budgets unspent. Last year, it only spent Rs 132 crores of the Rs 640 crores earmarked for roads, Rs 197 crores of the Rs 1,021 crores allotted to rural development, and Rs 93 crores of the Rs 460 crores earmarked for irrigation.

The state of Jharkhand is not only super-corrupt, kleptocratic and dysfunctional. It is illegitimate in the eyes of the people. It cannot protect the citizen’s life and limb or his/her land, which it’s busy handing over to mining and industrial interests. The state machinery has been suborned by entrenched interests. The police are inimical to the people and harass them. No mainstream political party defends poor, underprivileged, marginalised Adivasis.

The spread of Naxalism is a logical response to this situation. The Naxals, with all their faults, are the only organised political current that defends underprivileged and exploited people against the depredations of the powerful and who offer resistance to the mineral-grabbing mafia which is denuding Jharkhand of its valuable resources. The Naxals’ influence has grown because the people have no one else to turn to. The context for Naxalism is set by Jharkhand’s counter-development, pillage and loot, coupled with collapse of the rule of law.

What’s true of Jharkhand is also true of Chhattisgarh, tribal Orissa and parts of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. Public resources are being looted in the entire Adivasi belt. In Orissa, a Rs 16,0000-crore mining scandal has just broken out. Even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh admitted (November 4) to a “systemic failure in giving tribals a stake in modern economic processes that inexorably intrude into their living spaces” and said the “alienation built over decades” is “now taking a dangerous turn…”. He said the “systematic exploitation and social and economic abuse of our tribal communities can no longer be tolerated. … the criminal justice system has become a source of harassment and exploitation” through the registering of false cases. He recalled that the Jharkhand government recently withdrew “over one lakh such cases”, as did Madhya Pradesh.

Dr Singh also bemoaned the “losses suffered by tribals displaced as a result of acquisition of land for various purposes …”. He also said: “It cannot be said that we have dealt sensitively and with concern with these issues … It is not just the displacement and disorientation caused by separation from the land that is at issue. One can only imagine the psychological impact of seeing the cutting down of the vast forests that have nurtured … these communities for centuries.”

Dr Singh isn’t the only government functionary to admit to “systemic failure”. The Bandopadhyay committee appointed by the Planning Commission holds the government squarely responsible for the growth of Naxalism. Another committee recently appointed by Union Rural Development Ministry speaks of the Chhattisgarh government’s role in “the biggest land grab ever”. Tata Steel is building a Rs 19,500-crore steel plant on 5,000 acres in Chhattisgarh, which will empty out 10 whole villages. Essar Corporation is muscling its way into Chhattisgarh’s Bastar tribal heartland.

The Adivasis have suffered depredations for decades. But what’s new is pressure from investors in minerals and extractive industries, who want free access to the tribal belt. The state governments have signed hundreds of Memoranda of Understanding with Indian and foreign corporations for leases on minerals, land and other resources. They want to enforce these by any means, including—indeed, preferably—violent means, which will terrorise the Adivasis into submission.

The judiciary is largely complicit in this and some top corporate lawyers would like the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution—which gives tribals statutory protection—to be scrapped so that destructive “development” projects can go through and investors prevail.

That’s the rationale of Operation Green Hunt, a large-scale military offensive being launched to “sterilise” and “pacify” the tribal belt. In reality, this is a war waged by the state against the people. The Naxalites are a only proxy or surrogate target. The offensive will be launched in Bastar, and last five years. It will involve up to 60,000 armed personnel including 27 battalions of the Border Security Force and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police. It will be aimed at a thickly-forested 4,000 sq km area called Abujhmarh (the unknown forest) in Bastar. The Indian Army will set up a brigade headquarters at Bilaspur which could participate in future anti-Maoist operations. The Indian Air Force will deploy helicopter gunships manned by its special forces, called GARUDS.

This is the first time that India’s regular armed services, meant to protect us from alien enemies, will be deployed in a large-scale offensive against Indian citizens in the heartland. New “rules of engagement”, typical of armed invasions like in Iraq and Afghanistan, are being worked out. There’s some resistance within the IAF to the idea of firing upon civilians. But the Home Ministry is trying to counter the resistance.

This offensive operation will brutalise innocent civilians on an unimaginable scale and exacerbate their privations and pain. All sensible citizens who respect elementary human values must feel distressed and anguished at this terrible development. We must make a stand against Operation Green Hunt not because we support the Maoists, but because fundamental democratic values are at stake. The Maoists’ obsession with violence cannot be defended. They have cynically exploited tribal discontent to narrow ends.

Yet, the Maoists are not terrorists, who kill ordinary citizens indiscriminately. Their violence is targeted at the police and state functionaries. Contrary to the claim in the obnoxious media campaign launched by the Home Ministry with gory pictures, the Naxals are anything but “cold-blooded murderers” without a purpose. They do have a purpose. Their methods are condemnable. But so are the wanton killings of innocent tribals by security forces and state-supported militias like Salwa Judum. Those who feel repelled by the Naxalites’ violence must equally deplore the violence of the state—if they are logical and consistent.

The whole idea of the state waging war against its own people as a form of collective punishment (say, for harbouring Naxalites) is obnoxious. Collective punishment is prohibited under international law even during wars declared in the cause of justice. The Indian state will diminish itself and undermine its claim to being minimally civilised if it resorts to organised, large-scale and deliberate violence in which civilians will be the main casualty.

However, there is an alternative. We must draw up an agenda to tame and civilise the state and fulfil the Adivasis’ rights to their land, habitat, way of life, and collectivist values based on the sharing of the commons. This means scrapping projects which are imposed on them—even if that displeases investors. India offers many opportunities for non-invasive and non-destructive investment. The agenda must promote genuine development by providing public services and real entitlements to food, safe drinking water, healthcare and education to help people realise their human potential.

Only such a transformative agenda will allow the participation of tribals in decisions that vitally affect their life—and eventually help isolate the Maoists. Its implementation cannot follow Operation Green Hunt, which will only aggravate injustices and make participatory development impossible.

Right since Independence, the Indian state has given a raw deal to the Adivasis and undermined both development and democracy in the tribal areas. It must undertake course correction and make a qualitatively new, different gesture. If it fails in its duty by its citizens, it will demolish its own legitimacy. There must be no Operation Green Hunt.