Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Those blurred red lines

Bibek Debroy Posted online: Thursday , Feb 04, 2010 at 0042 hrs

Khammam (Andhra Pradesh); Arwal, Aurangabad, Gaya, Jamui, Jehanabad and Rohtas (six from Bihar); Bastar, Dantewada, Kanker, Rajnandgaon, Surguja, Narayanpur and Bijapur (seven from Chhattisgarh); Bokaro, Chatra, Garhwa, Gumla, Hazaribagh, Latehar, Lohardaga, East Singhbhum, Palamau and West Singhbhum (10 from Jharkhand); Balaghat (Madhya Pradesh); Gadhchiroli and Gondia (two from Maharashtra); Rayagada, Deogah, Gajapati, Malkangiri and Sambalpur (five from Orissa); and Sonebhadra (Uttar Pradesh). This is a list of 33 districts from eight states and it is a list of those districts, as identified by the home ministry, that suffer most from left-wing extremism (LWE) or Naxalite violence. Estimates of the number of districts suffering from such violence vary widely, with a maximum of something like 180 districts. The home ministry’s annual report for 2008-09 says 87 districts from 13 states faced LWE violence in 2008. Especially if one includes parts of Karnataka, West Bengal and even Uttarakhand, and goes beyond the 33, there is a set of geographically contiguous districts that forms a red corridor. Even if governments have erred on the side of viewing LWE as a pure law and order and internal security problem, and police excesses have aggravated rather than ameliorated the problem, there is now greater recognition about the development dimension.

There was the 2008 Planning Commission Task Force report on development challenges in extremist-affected areas. In addition to narrowly-defined development-deprivation, this flagged absence of justice delivery and rights over natural resources and forests. A bit more obliquely, the eighth report of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission said similar things. To paraphrase Mao Zedong, fish of LWE require water of deprivation. There is yet another problem in equating LWE with violence and addressing it through the law and order machinery alone. In fighting for economic and social rights,

LWE doesn’t always use covert violence. Overt use of non-violent tools (meetings, boycotts, marches, roadblocks) does have a groundswell of popular support. There is a statistical paper by Vani Borooah ( 19425/). This correlates Naxalite activity (in 88 districts) with crime data and socio-economic variables. On crime, there is an interesting finding. Districts with Naxalite violence had lower violent crime and crimes against women. Leaving that intriguing finding aside, Naxalite activity is higher in districts with higher poverty, lower literacy, larger population of adult males, higher female work-force participation and smaller coverage of drinking water. UPA-I produced enough reports to justify development-intervention in these backward districts. This doesn’t mean 33 districts alone. Indeed, there is subjectivity in the home ministry’s identification of those districts, with presence of tribal populations playing a major role.

Towards the end of UPA-I’s term, that public expenditure initiative became more concrete. A special development package of Rs 20,000 crore (over three years) for those 33 districts and an additional 22 contiguous ones was announced. Most of this was for infrastructure development, though there were health centres, schools and hostels too, with skill development thrown in. There was a special housing scheme under the Indira Awaas Yojana. That apart, there is road (PMGSY), telecom and power (RGGVY) connectivity, NREGA and some splicing with MPLADS. Government employees have been given additional incentives for working and posting in LWE areas. Inevitably, additional Central resources for 33 districts create state-level perverse incentives for inclusion in LWE lists. For example, apart from Khammam, Andhra wants Srikakulam, Vizianagaram and Visakhapatnam to be included. So far, results have not been spectacular. Money has not been released on time and when Central resources are available, states have not provided matching grants (25 per cent). Even when resources are available, they have not been utilised. When data are available on physical outcomes (such as IAY), they fall short of targets. This is also true of NREGA indicators.

One should be charitable. This lacklustre delivery is UPA-I legacy. UPA-II seems to have taken stock of constraints and a variety of reasons are cited, some bizarre, others less so. First, LWE allows NREGA, but resists any development work (especially infrastructure) that removes the poverty base and facilitates the security apparatus. Second, contractors (roads) have security concerns. The road transport and highway development ministry has now divided roads into three categories. Category 1 requires limited police protection, category 2 requires some police protection and local intelligence support, category 3 requires extensive police protection and specially-trained commandos. Since categories 2 and 3 will be difficult, road development will concentrate on category 1 rather than the other two. This of course begs the question of why Andhra seems to do better on road construction than Maharashtra. Third, LWE imposes levies and presumably this jacks up costs. These levies are imposed for assorted economic activities, and for road construction contractors are believed to be 10-15 per cent. Oddly, there are also isolated reports about contractors voluntarily offering LWE money. This is because many roads have been built with shoddy material and this will show up in quality inspections. Far better to offer LWE money to blow these up.

Decades of neglect cannot be resolved overnight. “The Central government views the Naxalite menace as an area of serious concern. The government remains firmly committed and determined to address the problem. The current strategy is (i) to strengthen intelligence set-up at the state level; (ii) pursue effective and sustained intelligence driven police action against Naxalites and their infrastructure individually and jointly by the states; and (iii) accelerate development in the Naxal affected areas. The Central government will continue to coordinate and supplement the efforts to the state governments on both security and development fronts to meet the challenge posed by the Naxal problem.” This sounds like something the PM, home minister or deputy chairman, Planning Commission might have said today. But this is from a Status Paper on LWE that the then home minister presented to Parliament on March 13, 2006. Four years down the line, while the diagnosis remains the same, we haven’t made much progress. Perhaps in addition to broad-brush development initiatives, one should take cognisance of what the Planning Commission Task Force also flagged — decentralised planning, land, natural resources (mining) and common property rights and abdication of law and order delivery by the state. As in other areas of development, throwing money and public resources at a problem is never the answer. Had public expenditure alone been the answer, there would have been no LWE problem today. We need governance, not public expenditure per se.

Consider two rhetorical questions. Collectors from 25 districts have just (February 2) been given awards for implementing NREGA. From that list of 33, why do only Bastar and Gadhchiroli figure? How has Dang (Gujarat) been able to resist LWE influence?

The writer is a Delhi-based economist

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