Green reasons for red rage

30 06 2008

By Richard Mahapatra

from: infochange environment

An expert group of the Planning Commission establishes a strong correlation between social unrest and the spread of Naxalism and poverty, landlessness and inequitable management of natural resources

An expert group on development challenges in extremist-affected areas (read: Naxalite-affected districts) set up by the Planning Commission of India in May 2006 has submitted its report to the Commission. The still-to-be-publicised report attributes the spread of Naxalite violence — which the prime minister has called the “biggest internal security threat India has ever had to face” — to centralised forest management, abandonment of land reforms and the disempowerment of panchayats in tribal areas. It calls for radical changes in India’s natural resource management regime.

The 18-member expert group held extensive discussions and reviewed development programmes and socio-economic status in Naxalite-affected areas. D Bandopadhyay, Executive Chairman of the Council for Social Development, Kolkata, chaired the expert group. Interestingly, of the 18 members only one represented the Planning Commission. Members included B D Sharma, noted human rights activist, and Bela Bhatia, Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.

Terming discrimination against scheduled castes and scheduled tribes “structural violence in society”, the expert group recommends changes in the development model in Naxalite-affected districts. “While not condoning the radical violence (of Naxalite groups), an honest response to it must, therefore, begin by ameliorating the structural violence in society,” the report says.

“Encouragement of vigilante groups such as Salwa Judum and herding of hapless tribals into makeshift camps with dismal living conditions, removed from their habitat and deprived of livelihood as a strategy to counter the influence of the radical Left is not desirable. It delegitimises politics, dehumanises people, degenerates those engaged in their ‘security’, and above all represents abdication of the State itself. It should be undone immediately,” the report continues. “It should be replaced by a strategy which positions an empowered taskforce of specially picked responsive officials to execute all protection and development programmes for their benefit and redress people’s grievances,” the report adds.

The expert group’s report is currently with the Planning Commission. Officials are giving it the final touches before sending it to the prime minister’s office.

Just a few months ago another Planning Commission group — the working group on land relations, set up to contribute to the preparation of the Eleventh Five-Year Plan — also termed Naxalite violence a symptom of brewing socio-economic turmoil in India’s poorest areas. “They (Naxalites) are proving to the hilt the doctrine of Mao Zedong of ‘fish in water’, where fish are militants and water is the mass of disgruntled and dissatisfied peasantry and landless agricultural workers,” the report says.

The geography of poverty

Naxalite activities have spread to 16 of 28 Indian states. According to the Union home ministry, Naxalite groups have an influence in at least 165 districts out of India’s 600-plus districts. The red corridor stretches to 92,000 square kilometres, from the Nepalese border to India’s southwest coast. It is estimated that 180 million people in the country are impacted by Naxalite insurgency. That is, every sixth Indian citizen lives in the Naxalite shadow.

Since 2003, more than 2,500 people have been killed in Naxalite violence while 7,000 incidents of violence involving Naxalites have been reported. In the last four years, more and more civilians are being killed in the violence; most of them belong either to the scheduled tribes or scheduled castes. Naxalite violence and the number of casualties are the highest in Chhattisgarh. While it has declined in Andhra Pradesh, it is on the rise in Orissa. The increase in Naxalite violence in Chhattisgarh is attributed to Naxalites targeting the Salwa Judum campaign to counter the movement.

The 165 Naxalite-affected districts are among the country’s 200 poorest and most backward districts, as ranked by the Planning Commission of India. The irony of this is not lost: if you superimpose a map of India’s forests, its minerals, its watersheds, and its poorest people (specifically tribal people), you will get a map of the spread of India’s Naxalite movement. According to a research paper from the Prem Bhatia Memorial Trust, New Delhi, Naxalites control close to 19% of India’s ‘good’ forests. This is because Naxalite-affected districts account for around 40% of India’s forest areas. India’s major mineral producing districts are also its poorest and most underdeveloped districts. Forty per cent of mineral-rich districts are Naxalite-affected, says a report by the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).

Reasons for the rage

The expert group compared 20 severely Naxalite-affected districts in five states — Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa — with 20 non-affected districts in the same states to establish a correlation between certain human development indicators and their links to social unrest. It found 10 important factors that apparently trigger the spread of Naxalism. These include a greater share of forest cover, greater share of agricultural labour in the workforce, and low per capita foodgrain production (see table below).

Identified factors which distinguish between affected and forward districts

 

Orissa
Jharkhand
Chhattisgarh
Bihar
Andhra Pradesh

 

Affected
Districts
Forward
Districts
Affected
Districts
Forward
Districts
Affected
Districts
Forward
Districts
Affected
Districts
Forward
Districts
Affected
Districts
Forward
Districts
Share of 
SC/ST 
(%)*
65 23 45 30 69 36 19 18 26 22
Literacy rate
(%)*
44 76 40 51 50 68 46 48 56 68
Infant 
Mortality
rate (%)
(1999)
123 73 n/a n/a 76 57 n/a n/a 34 28
Urbanisation
(%)*
17 23 10 37 7 29 12 8.6 24 27
Forest 
Coverage
(%)**
39 15 38 16 53 28 8 1 17 14
Agricultural 
Labourers 
(%)*
35 25 29 20 26 34 52 46 40 51
Per capita 
Foodgrain 
production
(Kg)*
151 95 n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a 121 293
Road length
per 100 
sq.kms@
n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a 44 70
Rural HH with
no Bank a/c
(%)*
81 80 77 74 83 82 83 80 69 72
Rural HH 
without 
specified 
assets (%)*
63 37 46 36 47 31 53 50 56 41

* : Figure based 2001 census.
**: Figure based on FSI 2003.
@ : Figure based on 1996-97

Alienation from land

Bringing land reforms back onto the national agenda is the expert group’s most important recommendation. “Efforts at implementation of ceiling laws stopped about two to three decades ago. A serious effort must be made to continuously implement the land ceiling laws, so that the ceiling-surplus land obtained is made available for distribution,” the report says. Most Naxalite-affected districts have a high percentage of landless people and marginal farmers.

The country’s land reforms initiative was, in fact, a response to growing tenant unrest, and also the Naxalbari uprising. India’s land reform laws took shape in the early-1960s and 1970s, with governments affording their implementation top priority. In 1972, when then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi met with chief ministers to discuss the growing Naxalite problem she brought land reforms back onto the national agenda. Then home minister Y B Chavan said: “We will not allow the green revolution to turn into a red revolution.”

During the 1980s and 1990s, however, the issue of land reforms went off the policymakers’ radar. Interestingly, this coincides with the opening up of India’s economy and liberalisation in the industrial sector. Most studies indicate that inequalities have increased rather than decreased. The number of landless labourers has gone up and the top 10% monopolise more land now than in 1951. It’s no wonder that Naxalism spread the most during this period: 120 districts out of 165 reported a Naxal presence during this period.

Over 170 million are estimated to be landless labourers in India; another 250 million own less than a fifth of a hectare.

The working group on land relations appointed by the Planning Commission called land reforms in India a “forgotten agenda”. “The policymakers are finding existing land reforms that were enacted on the basis of central guidelines of the early-’70s not only unwanted roadblocks but also obnoxious to the free play of capital in the land market,” said the group.

Land acquisition for industry and other development projects is another issue that has fuelled support for the Naxalites, says the expert group. It not only blames mindless land acquisition by the government for industry and other development works but also rejects the latest Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill, 2007 as being “not effective” enough to hinder land alienation. The proposed Act is under consideration by Parliament. “Public purpose as defined in the Land Acquisition Act should be revised further and restricted to projects taken up for national security and public welfare implemented directly by the government. Public purpose should not be stretched to acquisition for companies and registered societies,” observes the expert group.

Naxalite-affected districts host close to 80% of people displaced by so-called development projects. It is no wonder that out of 250 people’s protests against land acquisition or eviction from forests, 200 took place in Naxalite-affected districts.

Of late, battles between Naxalites and the police have become more intense. This is because there has been an unprecedented increase in land acquisition in Naxalite-affected districts for the scores of industries coming up. Estimates show that Naxalite-affected districts, due to their mineral and water resources, are attracting foreign direct investments worth US$ 112 billion. For this kind of investment, governments have to acquire an estimated 50,000 ha of land. This is apart from the forestland that has to be diverted.

“It is critical for the government to recognise that dissent or expression of dissatisfaction is a positive feature of democracy, that unrest is often the only thing that actually puts pressure on the government to make things work and for the government to live up to its own promises. However the right to protest, even peacefully, is often not recognised by the authorities, and even non-violent agitations are met with severe repression,” says the report in a scathing criticism of government policy.

From margin to mainstream

Blaming the government for the sorry state of the country’s scheduled caste, scheduled tribe and other marginalised populations, the expert group recommends the re-organisation of programmes and policies concerning these groups. It finds that they have been formulated in isolation, thereby minimising their impact. It recommends widespread consultations between the parties concerned, and the launch of joint initiatives for concerted and compulsory action on the joint recommendations; this should become mandatory for all chief ministers.

The expert group identifies four instruments — the Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act 1996, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest-Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006, and the National Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy 2007 (for which a Bill has been put before Parliament) — to help build a “protective shield” for marginalised groups. It argues that effective implementation of these Acts will curb the feeling of alienation among scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other marginalised groups, thereby keeping them away from Naxalite influence.

The following are the key recommendations of the expert group:

  • All debt liabilities of weaker sections should be liquidated, in cases (i) wherein the debtor has paid an amount equivalent to the original principal amount, and (ii) wherein the intended benefit for which the loan was advanced has not accrued to the borrowers.
  • Forest produce should be provided a protective market by fixing a minimum support price for various commodities, upgrading traditional haats, and setting up modern storage facilities to avoid post-harvest losses. At the same time, the public distribution system should be specially designed for the specific needs of forest-dwellers.
  • Clarifications in the draft rules, circulated for the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest-Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006, on June 19, 2007, for certain difficult points like “other traditional rights,”  “primarily reside in and dependent on forest or forest land,” “rights to minor forest produce,” etc, which were summarily deleted in the final notification of the rules published on January 1, 2008, should be fully restored to remove ambiguity and make implementation easy.    
  • All petty cases registered under forest-related legislation against tribals and other poor persons should be withdrawn.
  • Land tribunals or fast-track courts, under Article 323-B of the Constitution, should be set up for expeditious disposal of ceiling cases. Old cases should be unearthed and fresh inquiries conducted. Since landowners get a lot of time to manipulate and create false documents, no cut-off date for the re-opening of old cases should be prescribed.
  • The definition of land should be amplified to include government, public, forest, panchayat land and community property resources (CPRs), so that loss of use rights can be compensated.
  • Acquisition of agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes should be kept to the minimum through a land use policy with statutory backing. Social impact assessments should be strictly carried out in all cases to ensure that the impact of the project on the affected families is assessed in a holistic and transparent manner and ameliorative measures built into the rehabilitation plan.
  • The Planning Commission should consider devising a programme for the restoration of common property resources to provide sustenance to poorer communities.
  • The government should saturate rain-fed and dry farming areas with participatory watershed development projects to help conserve soil and water and develop natural resources, with suitable changes in cropping patterns under common guidelines issued by the ministries of agriculture and rural development for national watershed development projects for rain-fed areas.

(Richard Mahapatra is based in New Delhi and writes on environment and development. In 2006 he was awarded an Infochangeindia Research Fellowship for reportage on the impact of climate change in Orissa)

InfoChange News & Features, May 200

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