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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 21, May 15, 2010

Daylight At The Thousand-Star Hotel

Friday 21 May 2010, by B.G. Verghese


Roy’s distorted Maoist idyll aside, tribals are non-development’s casualties

The CRPF massacre in Dantewada was brutal though avoidable, with two beheadings thrown in for bestiality. The Rammohan inquiry will tell us more about what happened. It was done, Arundhati Roy informs us (Walking With The Comrades, March 29), by “Gandhians with a gun”, with the timely reminder that there is no humbug about her Maoist Gandhians. They fight to protect beautiful tribal homelands against the state, which is an ‘Enemy of the People’, and corporate predators intent on ruthlessly realising their militarised, state-supported dreamland of mines, industrial plants and big dams. She will stand and fight against these “crimes against humanity”.

The Maoists have said, through Arundhati, and directly, that they seek dialogue. What is the Maoist notion of dialogue? Let’s listen to spokesman Azad, recently interviewed in The Hindu: “We want to achieve whatever is possible for the betterment of people’s lives without compromising on our political programme of new democratic revolution and the strategy of protracted people’s war.” Further, “talks will give some respite to the people who are oppressed and suppressed under the jackboots of the Indian state…” But the government must “release some leaders. Or else, there would be none to talk to since the entire party is illegal.” So the Maoists want the ban on the party lifted, detained leaders released, and respite for the “oppressed” (cadres) while planning to pursue “protracted war” with greater vigour. Is that a reasonable precondition that any state can accept without abdicating?

The Maoists pose as Robin Hoods but rule by fear and authoritarian command over cowed camp-followers. Many comrades have broken rank in disgust over the Maoists’ brutality and hubris. Arundhati speaks of exploitation and corruption in, and neglect of, tribal India. She is right. But it is preposterous to talk of “genocide”. The tribal population of India was 19.1 million in 1951, rose to 84.3 mn according to the 2001 census and is estimated to be just short of 100 mn (8.1 per cent of the population) today.

Tribal neglect and exploitation can only be addressed through better governance and development, which, first and foremost, requires connectivity, an administrative presence and a sound delivery system. Official and, indeed, national failure has been blatant in this regard, and yes, there are powerful vested interests that favour an iniquitous status quo and “structural violence”. But this is a running thread through the governance-development-modernisation debate and the solution does not lie in abandoning ship.

The struggle the Maoists are waging to capture state power is, Arundhati tells us, “a war for the soul of India”. The battle has been joined. Yet the Dantewada “model of alternative governance” that Arundhati eulogises posits little more than a parlous, uncertain existence. Many tribes, admittedly, have fine communitarian institutions and cultural traits. These must be fostered; but for the rest, the tribal people must be assisted to be equal citizens, as is their constitutional right. The journely started late. But it has begun.

Poverty is the enemy of human dignity and the environment and it is callous to glorify destitution as “beautiful”. Yes, schools in Naxal-affected areas are often occupied by security forces, not to prevent education but because schooling and other developmental activities, such as they are, have come to a halt. The Maoists, for their part, don’t want schools but only agitprop centres to indoctrinate the young. Development and connectivity threaten them. Hence they destroy roads, culverts, bridges. Hence the wanton attacks on railway and highway projects that would, if completed, connect and open up remote, backward areas. If education, health services, roads, irrigation, markets and communications are provided and poverty rolled back, the Maoists would be out of business. And what is their business? Demonised corporates can’t think beyond a steel or an aluminium plant or two, a power station, mine, port or dam. The Maoists have their sights on nothing less than reconstructing India as a totalitarian state. Read history for the evidence.

Arundhati’s poetry is beguiling. However, facts rudely intrude on the prosody. Dantewada’s Salwa Judum remains a savage blot that certainly became part of the problem. But “strategic hamleting” was confined to just this one district —bad enough certainly—and was prevented from being extended to any other district, even in Chhattisgarh. As for helicopter gunships, when and where were they ever used?

Why scoff at a cancer hospital built near Raipur by Vedanta, the aluminium corporate, or the proposed Vedanta University in coastal Orissa? Are these by definition all wicked enterprises? Arundhati extolls the joys of sleeping in her private open-air jungle suite in a “thousand-star hotel”. And then she meets the doctor, obviously a dedicated soul, who serves this tribal area. The health conditions in Dandakaranya he describes make her “blood run cold”. It’s a terr5ible tale of chronic anaemia, TB, kwashiorkor (extreme malnutrition), malaria, severe eye and ear infections… “There are no clinics, no doctors, no medicines” in this beautiful place for these beautiful people. (The word “beautiful” appears like a recurring decimal.) So where do we begin? By burning down the Vedanta hospital?

Are these corporate social responsibility (CSR) actions merely to be seen as bribes to fulfil Arundhati’s prophecy that tribal people will be moved to make way for steel plants, aluminium refineries, mines and dams. Yes, there will be land acquisition and displacement—that is the story of civilisation; but there will also be resettlement, compensation and training for new vocations. Admittedly, this has not always been done wisely or well. But times are changing. New legal frameworks, better norms, closer monitoring, improved R&R and livelihood packages have continuously been put in place.


How much land has been acquired and how many have been displaced? Doomsday figures of displacement from all development in India since the First Plan touch 60 million. Official approxi-mations are far less. Yet, on another calculus, 30-40 million destitute move annually in distress migration. These are Nowhere People for whom there is no one to raise a voice. No R&R, no compensation packages and no warriors to win stay orders or do dharnas for them. These Malthusian refugees are casualties, not of development but of non-development.

The country needs to lift itself out of poverty and create 12 million additional jobs every year to cope with the population bulge. This requires wherewithal—financial, human, natural resources, managerial, marketing and technological. The vast bulk of the country’s mineral resources and headwaters of major rivers are located in Fifth Schedule areas, where tribal people live. Are these not to be exploited? The corporate world, both public and private, has been dubbed predator—the Maoists have repeatedly attacked the National Mineral Development Corporation in Chhattisgarh. However, the tribals themselves are incapable of working the minerals, apart from scratching the surface. Yet they have a vital stake in the land, forests and environment and must be made stakeholders and partners and trained for ever higher levels of participation. Unfortunately, every effort has been made to stall any kind of development.

There is much virtue in translating Gandhi’s concept of trusteeship in a new and evolving idiom of CSR to which corporates, the state and courts have variously given expression. The new deals being worked out by the POSCOs, Vedantas, Tatas, Mittals and others are greatly in advance of what was on offer even five years ago. These packages and the legal framework around them will keep improving too. India’s diversity defies “one-size-fits-all” solutions; it is in variety and experimentation that best practices will keep emerging.

The corporates may have something to answer for too. Fly-by-night operators are part of the problem but the more responsible entities are becoming part of the solution as huge long-term stakeholders in the enterprises, people and environment they work in. They command the resources, manpower, technology and organisation to deliver. Various partnerships involving community and area development can be forged. This is happening. ‘People’s Tribunals’ keep mouthing yesterday’s tired slogans. They do not see tomorrow; may be they even fear it.

On another battlefront, the Sardar Sarovar project, Arundhati and her friends in the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) have consistently been proved wrong in their predictions and pronouncements. They have revelled in scoring small points but have missed the wood for the trees. Whenever benefits were within reach, with every raising of the dam, they have tried desperately to halt progress. The theory they cling to is that the Sardar Sarovar project does not benefit anyone, so the realisation of benefits must be stopped at any cost. Once benefits flow, the NBA and its friends will be silenced and out of business. Indeed, drinking water is already being supplied to 25 million people. There have been significant improvements in health, women’s time disposition, distress migration, livelistock, agricultural productivity, incomes, employment and land values and living conditions.

It is these benefits the NBA rejected as a bad dream, then faulted and sought to delay. Arundhati has conjured up another bad dream in Tribal India and, perhaps unwittingly, is working overtime with other misguided ideologues to make it come true. That won’t happen. The Maoists will fade away, democratic India and the Constitution will prevail, despite the time it takes and the pain involved. But both state and society have much work to do to right past wrongs and make Tribal India a truly just and beautiful place.

(Courtesy: Outlook)

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