Manmohan Singh’s high-level panel to examine controversial issue of mining

The Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council will examine whether developmental interventions and constitutional safeguards — including Fifth Schedule provisions — have come to the aid of tribal people in Left Wing Extremism-affected districts in central India.

An NAC Working Group (WG) headed by tribal expert professor Virginius Xaxa — who also heads the Prime Minister’s high-level committee that is to produce a report on the socio-economic condition of tribals — will hold its first meeting on September 23. It is expected to zero in on the issues of displacement arising from the various development and mining projects and wildlife sanctuaries, and atrocities and redress of grievances of undertrials.

The key question the agenda papers pose is whether “industry, mineral exploitation and other infrastructure development projects that displace tribal communities are to be invariably resisted. Or to be worked out, ensuring overall interest of the tribal communities [livelihood security, environment, culture, improved quality of life, etc].”

The meeting coincides with the recent admission by the CPI (Maoist) Central Committee that the organisation’s strength — whether manpower, arms and ammunition or support of the middle class and intellectuals — stands depleted, even though sporadic attacks continue to be reported from the region.

Meanwhile, the high-level committee, set up last month by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, to prepare a position paper on the socio-economic, health and educational status of tribals, has also been asked to look at the controversial issue of mining in Schedule Five areas.

On September 9, when members of the committee met Union Tribal Affairs Minister Kishore Chandra Deo, he urged them to pay attention to this issue, as mining by private companies in Schedule Five areas has had an adverse impact on the lives, livelihoods and health of the tribals such as in Odhisha’s Keonjhar district. Mr. Deo also asked them to pay special attention to how money from the Tribal Sub-Plan is disbursed by the various ministries — in many cases, government sources said, these monies are used as discretionary funds rather than “to fill the critical gaps.”

UPA’s emphasis

In recent months, the UPA government — and now the NAC — has once again begun to lay a special emphasis on the condition of tribals: the PM’s high-level committee is expected to come out with a report similar to the one the Sachar Committee produced on Muslims, ahead of the general election in 2014.

The background note for the September 23 meeting admits that tribals “have veered in some areas to left radicalism either as cadres or sympathisers and supporters due to their exploitation and oppression by traders, moneylenders, land-grabbers…and [in the] absence of effective and sensitive civil administration.” The large-scale displacement of tribals in recent years, it says, “has reinforced the discontent… widespread in these areas for decades.” This has happened “despite the special constitutional and legal provisions for the protection of the tribal people in the Fifth Schedule,” as well as a slew of other laws.

The note lists three perspectives on LWE: It can be treated “as a national security problem to be addressed militaristically... [that] could result in… widening the trust deficit [and] end up strengthening the Maoists,” something the country can “least afford;” or the focus can be on the development approach that “co-relates the roots of Maoist influence in the areas to governance and development deficit;” or “a judicious combination of both the above perspectives” can be deployed.

The note asks the WG to “assess the impact of special programmes for the LWE areas, being implemented over the past 5-6 years” and “review implementation of provisions under the Fifth Schedule and PESA, 1996, the Scheduled Tribe and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006, and the Prevention of Atrocities Act.”

The mix of lawyers, activists and sociologists invited to the WG meeting includes Ajay Dandekar, Nandini Sundar, Himanshu Kumar, Professor Hargopal, Prafulla Samantara, Dayamani Barla, Sudha Bhardwaj, Sudhir Pattnaik, Abhay Xaxa, Bela Bhatia, Pradip Prabhu, Chitrangada Chaudhary, Vipul Mudgal and C.R. Bijoy.

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