Some reflections on the Maoist issue. We are facing not just a destructive ideology but also the wages of our own insensitivity and neglect.

The media imagery of a “liberated” Red corridor extending from Andhra Pradesh, cutting across the heart of India, all the way to Nepal is the most vivid representation of the threat that Maoists pose to our country. The Prime Minister describes the Maoists as India's most serious internal security challenge and the Home Minister rates it as a “problem graver than terrorism.”

In search of an effective response, official committees have, from time to time, studied the phenomenon of Naxalism/Maoist violence. In the early 1980s, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent a team headed by the Member-Secretary, Planning Commission, to conduct field studies in the Naxal-affected areas of Bihar and Andhra Pradesh, and recommend solutions to both the Centre and the States. The report's author is, incidentally, the Prime Minister. The recommendations were many but the thrust was that urgent and long-festering socio-economic concerns of the weaker sections of society must be addressed meaningfully if Naxal influence is to be countered.

Three years ago, the Planning Commission published a report by its 17-member expert group on development challenges in extremist-affected areas. It included Debu Bandopadhyay, S.R. Sankaran, K. Balagopal, B.D. Sharma, K.B. Saxena, Ram Dayal Munda, Dileep Singh Bhuria and Sukhadeo Thorat, basically all the people one would want for this exercise. The group produced an extraordinarily detailed report. It provided the historical, political, social and economic contexts to the issue, reviewed government efforts to deal with the problem and recommended policy and programme changes to vastly and visibly reduce, if not totally eradicate, the effects of Left-wing extremism (LWE).

My own engagement with the issue has grown — from an intellectual interest as a student of India's political dynamics to a more direct involvement since becoming a Member of Parliament from Andhra Pradesh. Put together, it has become clear to me that Naxals are exploiting tribals and that tribals themselves want peace, not war.

Two-track approach

What we need is a two-track approach — one that deals with the Naxal leadership, which wishes to overthrow the Indian state and the other, focussing on the concerns of the people the Naxals claim to serve. There is a clear need to recognise tribal populations as victims — first, of State apathy and discrimination and then, of the Naxal agenda. My firm belief is that a complete revamp of administration and governance in tribal areas, particularly in central and eastern India, is the pressing need of the hour. Andhra Pradesh attempted to do this through its Integrated Tribal Development Agency model but much more needs to be done. We must come to grips with the sad reality that affirmative action programmes like reservation have had a marginal impact on the welfare of the central and eastern Indian tribal communities.

In devising our approach, we must recognise the unique characteristics that define the 60 districts, across seven States, identified by the Union government as affected by LWE. When you look at these districts — 15 in Orissa, 14 in Jharkhand, 10 in Chhattisgarh, eight in Madhya Pradesh, seven in Bihar, two each in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh and one each in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh — on a map of India, five characteristics stand out, each calling for a policy response. First, an overwhelming majority of these districts have a substantial population of tribal communities. Second, an overwhelming majority of the districts have a significant area under good quality forest cover. Third, a large number of these districts are rich in minerals like coal, bauxite and iron ore. Fourth, in a number of States, these districts are remote from the seat of power and have large administrative units. Fifth, a large number of districts are located in tri-junction areas of different States.

In some cases, the administrative response is being taken but the real challenge comes next. How do you transform administration in tribal areas so as to give people a sense of participation and involvement but, more fundamentally, to preserve and protect their dignity? How do you address their continued victimisation, first by the State and now by the Naxals? Empowering tribals, who are essentially victims, by giving them access to basics, by giving them what is theirs by right and by securing their livelihoods, is to my mind, an absolute undiluted must.

An important step has been the Central government's administrative innovation providing untied funds to a troika comprising the Collector/District Magistrate, the Superintendent of Police and the District Forest Officer in these districts. The idea is that the triumvirate, representing the face of the Indian state, is better placed to identify critical developmental works that can be completed quickly so that the people begin to see the government in a new light. In 2010-11, Rs.25 crore was released to each district and in 2011-12 another Rs.30 crore will be released. This initiative has spurred unprecedented development activity and should continue on an expanded scale. The challenge now will be to give elected representatives and local elected institutions a role in the selection and execution of works without sacrificing the flexibility and speed of execution.

Rural roads plan

The rural roads programme or the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) is the single-most important rural development intervention that can significantly transform the ground level situation in these districts. The Naxals realise this, and so they first target roads. This is explains why the PMGSY is severely lagging in the LWE-affected districts.

To counter this, a level of security cover by paramilitary agencies like the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) is essential to expedite PMGSY works. I also accord high priority to interventions to ensure speedy settlement of land-related disputes. In many places, the ability of Naxal cadres to resolve land disputes in favour of tribals and mete out what appears “instant justice” has given them a foothold and acceptance among the people at large.

The might of the Indian state is in Naxal-affected areas — 71 battalions of central paramilitary forces, nearly 71,000 personnel have been deployed. They have a vital role in backing the State police and in developmental activities. But paramilitary and police action cannot and should not be the driving force; that has necessarily to be development and addressing the daily concerns of people, who have every reason to feel alienated. Massive reform of the police and forest administration at the cutting edge is the need of the hour. A more humane land acquisition policy with focus on effective rehabilitation and resettlement is urgently needed. It was sociologist Walter Fernandes who estimated that over 30 million people in central and eastern India have been displaced over the past five decades due to development projects. Rehabilitation and Resettlement (R&R) for large numbers of people has yet to be completed. Worse, there are large numbers of tribals who have been subjected to repeated displacements.

It is not the Naxals who have created the ground conditions ripe for the acceptance of their ideology — it is the singular failure of successive governments in both States concerned and at the Centre to protect the dignity and the Constitutional rights of the poor and the disadvantaged that has created a fertile breeding ground for violence and given the Naxals the space to speak the language of social welfare, which, in reality, is a cloak to build their guerrilla bases and recruit, most tragically, women and children.

Where do we go from here? Let us not underestimate the seriousness of the threat. I, for one, do not believe that a “developmentalist” strategy alone will do. Nor do I believe that a strategy based on the primacy of paramilitary and police action will yield long-term results. The two must go hand in hand deriving strength from each other. We are combating not just a destructive ideology but are also confronted with the wages of our own insensitivity and neglect. We need to rise above partisan political considerations and set aside old Centre versus State arguments and work concertedly to restore people's faith in the administration to be fair and just, to be prompt and caring, to be prepared to redress the injustices of the past, and to be both responsible and responsive in future. Only then will the tide of Naxalism be stemmed.

(This is an edited version of the Sardar Patel Memorial Lecture organised by Prasar Bharati, New Delhi, on October 11. Jairam Ramesh is Union Minister for Rural Development, and Drinking Water and Sanitation.)

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