Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Rise and rot of a rebel ‘state’

PRONAB MONDAL IN LALGARH

Lalgarh lesson 1: When the state withers away, another “state” fills the vacuum.

Lalgarh lesson 2: Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

After the state stepped aside in Lalgarh in November, the Maoists and the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities tried to run a parallel administration, promising jobs, homes, healthcare and “corruption-free” governance.

They rolled out substitutes for several central government projects such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, involving landless peasants in building kachcha roads and water reservoirs and paying them Rs 60-80 for each day’s work, nearly on a par with the official minimum wage.

Part of the money came from the extortion-fuelled coffers of the Maoists’ Jharkhand unit; the rest was raised forcibly from the middle class and traders in Jhargram, Binpur and Silda just outside the impoverished “liberated zone”.

But the landless tribals’ initial support began waning within months as their new rulers started favouring supporters and quelled all dissent, and the general economic costs of Lalgarh’s isolation began to kick in.

“It’s difficult to fault their (the committee’s) objectives but the politics was wrong,” a senior block official here said.

In November, the committee and its Maoist collaborators had claimed the region did not need state intervention and tried to showcase their ability to deliver development.

“Our project plans were drawn up on the basis of the villagers’ wish list. We planned 13 kachcha roads, 18 tube-wells and seven culverts and all these projects were rolled out and work was on till last week,” a senior People’s Committee leader said.

In a region where over 90 per cent people depend on strenuous labour, the committee’s approach was an instant hit. Most people in Lalgarh had NREGS job cards, but only CPM supporters used to get work. “I worked on the water reservoir project in Amdanga and received Rs 60 daily,” said a resident of Amdanga, around 2.5km from Lalgarh police station.

In the water-starved zone, the committee had planned two other reservoirs in Mohuldal and Barapelia. The government-provided tube-wells were running dry, so the parallel administration dug two.

If the road projects were meant to supplant the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana, the committee also brought medical teams (apparently of Maoist sympathisers from Calcutta) to villages bypassed by the National Rural Health Mission.

It also began lending money to the rural poor to renovate or build cheap houses. Under the Indira Awas Yojana, the government used to grant Rs 25,000 but panchayat-level corruption meant the beneficiaries received just Rs 5,000-7,000.

Yet, increasingly, the parallel administration that had promised to free the people from the clutches of CPM leaders and their cronies began following in the CPM’s footsteps. Those attending the committee’s show-of-strength rallies in and around Lalgarh were paid money. Only supporters got work. “Any dissenting voice was silenced the way the CPM leaders used to do,” a Barapelia resident said.

Then there was the extortion. “I was forced to pay Rs 70,000 and I know several traders who shelled out between Rs 30,000 and Rs 70,000 to committee members,” a Jhargram-based trader in sal leaves said. Many liquor sellers had to shell out Rs 1 lakh as a one-time “donation”.

A schoolteacher said he had to give the committee Rs 500 and 20kg of rice every month since December. “Many people from Jhargram, Silda and Binpur had to pay up regularly to finance the parallel administration. It was really unfair,” the teacher said.

A lot of the money was spent procuring weapons, ammunition and cellphones.

However, as the region remained cut off, the problems for the wage earners grew. All construction (except the parallel administration’s) stopped, so income dried up. Nor could the people go out for work.

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