Any strategy to win hearts and minds in tribal areas must focus on the rights of local communities over the forest lands where they live
The call for a national hostage policy after the recent hostage crisis in Chhattisgarh seems to have ignored that the government has formed a review committee to look into the pending cases against tribals. The media describe this move as a “concession” without understanding its import. While development work and policing are important, the defining feature of this low intensity conflict is that it is a response to the changes taking place in an area where the local people are dependent on the forests — their habitat — and it is the Central laws and the criminal justice system that are turning them against the State in desperation.
Observing that thousands of tribals had been put behind bars on various charges, Jairam Ramesh, Minister for Rural Development, recently said that the cases should be reviewed to ensure that no one was languishing in jail without a strong case against him, and the forest officials of different States should be directed not to register cases against tribals for entering the forests.
Kishore Chandra Deo, Minister for Tribal Affairs, has also recently directed the Governor of Andhra Pradesh to cancel mining leases as they constitute alienation of land to non-tribals, and cancelling them would “strike at the basic premise on which the Maoists have gained sympathy”. This would be the first time special powers of the Governor in Scheduled Areas are being exercised.
Does this recognition of governance failure amount to a new well thought out strategy? If it does, the shift in political will from only using development packages to win the “hearts and minds” of the local population to the centrality of the habitat – land and the forests on it — is long overdue, because the distinctiveness of these communities does not arise from “backwardness” but from reliance on their habitat and its natural resources.
A few years ago, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh rightly identified the expanding and deepening footprint of the Maoists as the most serious threat currently facing India. The response has so far been of a bureaucratic nature. The Tribal Sub-Plan soon morphed into enhanced budgetary allocations for police forces, including automatic weapons and drones, and development packages with decision making decentralised to the district level, without much impact on the ground.
National attention on the continuing crisis is also shaped by the perception that it is a law and order problem, and largely limited to periodic analyses of crises situations where the focus has been on the dynamics of the hostage negotiation process. Somewhere in all this are references to the good work done by District Collectors and the significant public support for them.
It is easy for the intelligence wing of the police to say that they had warned Alex Paul Menon that he was in danger, and he should not have gone to inaccessible villages. But then he was a target precisely because he was pushing development work in the remote areas, where the Maoists had established themselves. A new district, Sukma, of which Mr. Menon was the first Collector, was set up because the Chhattisgarh government wanted to reach inaccessible areas, and the district head was expected to push development into remote areas. The debate should really be on the priorities and policies the District Collectors should be pushing in the particular circumstances of these districts.
The Maoist problem is a case of governance failure, and has historical roots. When the British extended their administration into the inaccessible hilly and forest tracts of central India in the early 19th Century, they found that these areas were inhabited by socially and culturally distinct groups that had been living in relative geographical isolation, and called these groups “tribes”, on the analogy of similar groups in the American and African continents, and recognised them as a special category for administration. The first Census in 1872 categorised these communities as “Primitive Tribes”, while they were designated as “Backward Tribes” in the 1874 Scheduled Districts Act, and the Constitution in 1950 re-designated them as “Scheduled Tribes” while continuing to characterise these communities as socially, educationally, economically and historically backward, carrying forward the anomaly because these are really communities not tribes, internationally defined as units with an independent territory, and their distinctiveness is shaped by their habitat.
With the spread of colonial administration, a series of violent rebellions took place in this region between 1856 and 1910 against tree cutting by contractors, and were put down by the British army. As a partial response, the British enacted special protective laws implemented by the Collectors to safeguard the interests of this vulnerable section from commercial interests, who at that time were land grabbers, forest contractors and moneylenders from outside.
Currently, the habitat is being reshaped by designation of wildlife sanctuaries, timber contractors and, more recently, large mining and hydro electricity projects covering thousands of acres, under the Central Forest, Mining and Land Acquisition Acts with no special provisions to protect the interests of these communities over local resources. Simultaneously, a long period of corruption has weakened the regulatory structure leading to State ‘capture' by commercial interests. For example, Pravir Chandra Bhanj Deo got killed in a “police action” in 1966 when he virtually revolted against the government for the rights of tribals in his erstwhile principality of Bastar.
Even the Forest Rights Act, of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, meant specifically for these areas has not been implemented. For example, in Chhattisgarh, where Scheduled Areas cover nearly half the State, almost no action has been taken to settle community rights, cases related to national parks summarily rejected and minor forest produce not defined. The situation in the other States is no better.
On top of that, criminal cases under the Forest Act of 1927 are being instituted against entire villages, including women and children, for theft of government property, whereas they are only using the produce of community forests for domestic use. Those thus jailed are not able to find sureties to get bail. It is not surprising that a committee to review all these cases was the major demand of the Maoists.
So, what should be done, now that we are prepared to consider the habitat rather than backwardness and ideology as the defining factor of the so-called Maoist problem?
First, in the Scheduled Areas the priority task of the Collectors should be to implement the Forest Rights Act in letter and spirit, in the form of a fresh Settlement by deputing officers of the rank of Sub Divisional Officer to camp in the villages rather than rely on the forest department and field reports, and any implementation issues related to community rights should be resolved by the Governor issuing necessary notifications. The implementation of the Forest and Mining Act would then have to take account of this new reality, which would act as a safeguard of community interests, including provision of alternative land in cases of compulsory acquisition for industry.
Second, in these areas the District Magistrates and Sub Divisional Magistrates should be given judicial powers under the Civil and Criminal Procedure Codes, with appeals to the Sessions Courts, as had been the earlier practice, as the issues and disputes relate to tribal rights and lands vis-à-vis forest contractors and big projects, where the tribals are at a distinct disadvantage in litigation foisted on them by outsiders with the sole objective of browbeating them.
Third, a special purpose vehicle should be set up under each Governor for pushing all development works in a district through a single tender and through direct sanctions, so that selected infrastructure companies can take up works throughout the district, under police protection. The SPV will become the sponsor of the project and be responsible for securing all clearances before the project is put up for bidding and be a major change in the public systems mindset; it must include independent evaluation arrangements.
Only such a multi-pronged strategy that takes a holistic view of governance — the habitat, outside influences, administration and development — will undercut the popular base of the Maoists depriving them of the local support they need to survive and build capacity sufficient to challenge the State. It should be possible for normalcy to return within a period of three to five years, when the special arrangements would be discontinued. Extraordinary situations require extraordinary solutions.
(Mukul Sanwal is a former civil servant)