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‘A question of rights, not development’

Posted by Indian Vanguard on September 13, 2007


Interview with D. Bandopadhyay, Chairman of the Expert Group on Development Issues to deal with Causes of Discontent, Unrest and Extremism.

D. Bandopadhyay, Executive Chairman, Council for Social Development, New Delhi.

IT may be a coincidence, but the signals are far-reaching. After having witnessed for three years the State governments’ indifference to utilising Central funds meant for socio-economic programmes in the naxal-affected districts, the Planning Commission appears to have developed doubts about the efficacy of the New Delhi-driven development approach to tackling the Maoist challenge. On May 29, 2006, the Commission appointed a 16-member Expert Group on “Development Issues to Deal with Causes of Discontent, Unrest and Extremism”. The Expert Group, chaired by D. Bandopadhyay, Executive Chairman, Council for Social Development, New Delhi, has prepared a report. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

As the Chairman of the Expert Group, could you outline its terms of reference?

As specified by the Planning Commission while setting up this Group last year, we had to identify specifically the processes and causes contributing to continued tensions and alienation in areas of unrest and discontent, such as widespread displacement, forest issues, insecure tenancies and other forms of exploitation like usury, land alienation and imperfect market conditions, and suggest specific steps to reduce the tensions and causes of discontent. Our task was to identify the causes of persistent and abysmally low social and human development indicators and suggest steps to bring these on a par with the rest of the country in a time-bound manner. Our effort has been to examine and suggest an appropriate strategy to ensure peace and life with dignity and to resolve conflicts in areas of chronic unrest.

Naxalism is a common name. What used to be called naxalism has now become Maoism. Naxals have all come into the open. Their party, CPI (ML), is now fighting elections. The People’s War Group in Andhra Pradesh and MCC of Bihar have merged to form the Maoist group. Naxalism is a misnomer now.

Should the government meet the Maoist threat with the force at its command or view it as a socio-economic problem?

There are two aspects to the issue. One is the seizure of power through armed force. You ignore that. They are a small band of committed political militants. But how are they operating? According to the government’s own admission, there are today roughly 150 to 165 districts, spread over 12 to 14 States and challenging the jurisdiction of 550 police stations.

The naxal movement started in 1967 under the jurisdiction of one police station in West Bengal. For 40 years, the state’s response has been basically to treat it as a “law and order problem” and counter it with superior state violence. Thirty per cent of the Indian land mass, the Home Ministry says, is naxal-infested. How has the militancy survived over the past 40 years against the stupendous state power called the Indian state?

It is not a question of development, but of rights, which have been denied. Development is peanuts. Forget it. If you look at Central India, you have the largest mining projects, very big dams, very big industrial projects; these are the areas predominantly inhabited by the Scheduled Tribes. There is no official figure estimating the number of displaced people due to coercive acquisition of land for development purposes. Scholars’ estimates vary. One scholar, Walter Fernandes, has estimated that between 1951 and 2005, roughly 5.5 crores of the Indian population have been so displaced. Of these, only 28 to 30 per cent has been properly resettled and rehabilitated. In the case of tribal people, it is estimated that only 18 to 20 per cent of them have been properly rehabilitated. Thus, a vast number of displaced, homeless, landless, jobless tribal people are roaming about as flotsam and jetsam of our development process.

What specific reforms would the Group suggest to tackle the growing Maoist threat?

According to the terms of reference, we will suggest measures to upgrade the levels of governance and strengthen public service delivery in areas where the Maoists are strong, through suitable administrative and institutional reform and mechanisms for prompt redress of grievances.

We are also expected to suggest measures for ensuring time-bound achievement of livelihood security, health and nutrition security, food security, etc. and also suggest changes in Central and State legislation impeding the achievement of these objectives. Specifically, we will suggest measures to strengthen the implementation of the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA) and the functioning of Autonomous Councils in the Sixth Schedule and other areas to ensure empowerment of the communities.

The experience with the Backward Districts Initiative under the RSVY scheme is that the States are little interested in utilising the funds earmarked for development of naxal-affected districts. What is the reason for this?

This raises a basic question about the class character of the state. Branding does not change your character. There is no cap on finances. Yet, the States, whichever parties may be in power, are uninterested in utilising the funds for developing the infrastructure in the naxal-affected areas. It is a demand-driven thing. The more you want, the more the Centre will give. The States are not interested in looking at that segment of the population, which, according to them, are not part of the mainstream.

The Maoist crisis is like the proverbial fish in water. If water is taken as a metaphor for disgruntled peasantry and the fish for militants, so long as the peasants are disaffected and discontented, fish will move freely in that territory. If you can win over the peasantry to your side, fish will die for lack of oxygen. This is what West Bengal did within two years of the naxal uprising in 1967. Through massive programmes of wresting or sealing surplus lands within two and a half years, one million acres of land could be redistributed to the landless. What West Bengal achieved following that naxal uprising, other States failed to do.

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