Monday, November 16, 2009

The real solution for Naxalism

17 Nov 2009, 0312 hrs IST, Abheek Barman, ET Bureau

Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, equipped with cameras, data and video links are the latest weapons to be deployed against Naxals in India.

Developed by Hindustan Aeronautics, each machine will cost at least Rs 18 lakh. Will they work to contain or subdue what the prime minister has called the “greatest threat to India’s internal security?” I doubt.

The Naxal — or Maoist — agitations in the country today are different from, say, the AASU-sponsored violence in Assam or the Khalistan-inspired violence in Punjab in the 1980s, or even the militancy in Jammu & Kashmir. The violence in Assam, Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir were orchestrated, at least initially, by close-knit organisations with a clear-cut agenda of breaking away from mainstream India on ethnic or religious grounds. Today’s Naxal movements have no such goals.

Reckoned conservatively, Naxal activity in India today spreads across 90 districts in 10 states: Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. A look at this list will convince you that these movements aren’t driven by the urge to break away from the country based on one geographical, ethnic or linguistic drive: at least six languages are spoken by the natives of these 10 states.

But cutting across this diversity, there are some startling similarities about the condition of people living there. To start with, they are poor. Studies show that 85 of the country’s 100 poorest districts are in seven of those 10 states. In the Naxal-affected districts, 32% of the population is below the officially-measured poverty line, compared to 24% elsewhere.

Second, in these districts, state governments have a terrible record of delivering public goods and services. Only 68% of homes in Naxal-affected districts get safe drinking water, in other places, the number is 74%.

Many of these problems have to do with one simple fact: the people living in these areas are tribals who, on paper, receive special rights and privileges but are actually subject to brutal discrimination in India’s caste-conscious society. Even in West Bengal’s so-called socialist utopia, in dry areas where a single source of water, like a well or a pond, has to be shared by many households, the tribal is the last person in queue to get her bucketful.

Babus in state and district administrations are mostly drawn from the local elite, and their sympathies lie entirely with ‘their’ people. So, they pour whatever resources they have in better-off, urban, upper-caste areas. The tribal areas remain backward. What else explains the fact that only 43% of women in tribal, Naxal-affected areas get skilled medical attention during pregnancy, when 51% of women elsewhere get the same care?

If you place a map of India listing its mineral resources over another map marking areas of Naxal influence, the two would overlap almost perfectly. The poorest areas of the country are rich in coal, iron ore and bauxite seams but the ‘curse of minerals’ has gripped the area.



Coal mining was nationalised in the 1970s and, almost immediately, most activities surrounding the actual mining were hived off to efficient private operators: the mining mafia. Around Dhanbad and Asansol in the east, the coal mafia controlled everything: trucking, transportation, the movement of railway wagons and labour contracts. With money came political power. We’ve seen something similar in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, where the Bellary brothers, who control large mining leases, have acquired enough clout to bring the BJP government of Karnataka to its knees.

None of that is good news for the people who live there. The power of local mining overlords makes it easy for them to muscle into tribal land, fell forests and sell off timber as well as the minerals under the ground. This robs locals of land and forest resources. Over time, anger builds up.

It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the Naxal areas are hotbeds of crime and violence. Research by economist Vani K Borooah, of the University of Ulster, throws cold water on that assumption. After comparing rates of violent crimes, crimes against women and against public order across all Indian districts with Naxal-affected ones, he finds that Naxal-affected areas are in many ways less crime-prone than other parts.

He also finds, unsurprisingly, that urban areas are more crime-prone than rural ones — where Naxals largely operate — that poverty has little role in influencing the number of violent crimes, but riots and arson were more likely in poorer areas. Conflicts over drinking water led to higher crime rates, as did discrimination against scheduled tribes.

Though Borooah finds it hard to explain why criminal activity is lower in Naxal areas than in others, he has a provocative suggestion: “Judging from the experience of Northern Ireland, it is plausible that Naxalites — like the Loyalist and Republican paramilitary forces in Northern Ireland — also enforce law and order in their areas of influence.”

The Naxal issue is complex, widespread and rooted in local factors. The government can’t end Naxalism by sending the military into villages and jungles. And it won’t help to club Naxals as terrorists and book suspects under harsh laws.

Last year, a report on Naxalism, published by the Planning Commission, made this accurate observation: “Mobilising the support of the people is also absolutely essential to weaken the support base of the Naxals. The political parties are not playing their role in this regard. The representatives of major political parties have virtually abdicated their responsibility.”

Perhaps the only exception to this was Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, which backed a police boycott movement called PCAPA in the western, tribal belt of Bengal. But as soon as the state cracked down on the PCAPA, Trinamool support for it withered.

To get Naxals into the political mainstream, the political mainstream has to make the first move. And to do that, the government has to take the first step to reconciliation. Otherwise, which politician would like to be seen hobnobbing with people branded as Naxals and terrorists?

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

while most of what you said is correct, i do not agree with your comments on development in these areas. The centre was ready to spend a lot of money on these areas; but the naxals do not allow the government schemes to be implemented in these areas. Contractors equipment is burned if he does not pay unjustified and unreasonable ransom demanded by the naxals. I toured some areas affected by naxalism and they do not permit developmental activities being undertaken by the government for reasons best known to them. Can a naxal sympathiser/ naxal member respond to this?

arvind singh said...

Spending of money on war machinery is not the solution to counter the naxal threat.
It can be done by two prong strategy.
1. Improving leadership of police forces.
2. Winning heart and mind of locals so that they do not align with naxalism.

This requires lots of hard decisions from both centre and state govt.

arvind singh said...

Spending of money on war machinery is not the solution to counter the naxal threat.
It can be done by two prong strategy.
1. Improving leadership of police forces.
2. Winning heart and mind of locals so that they do not align with naxalism.

This requires lots of hard decisions from both centre and state govt.

Anonymous said...

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