Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Talk To Naxals; Focus On Development, Land Reform

A team of experts constituted by the Planning Commission has cottoned on to something the Prime Minister doesn’t seem to comprehend. It has pointed out that Left-wing extremism is not just ~ we could go further and say not at all ~ a law-and-order problem. It is a phenomenon that arises from a complete lack of development, desperate poverty and the dehumanisation that arises from it, and injustice and inequality. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh does not agree, of course ~ not long ago he had characterised extremism as the most virulent disease that afflicted India's body politic and Naxals as the Public Enemy # 1. He should take time off his admittedly onerous duties to pore over the report.
It must be said at the outset that none of the points that the report seems to have made is particularly new ~ they have been made many times before, by many people, not all of whom are apologists for or supporters of the radical Left. Thus, for instance, the report points out that at the root of ultra-Left radicalism is landlessness and bad governance ~ and that Naxals, broadly speaking, have a big constituency among the landless, small and marginal farmers and Dalits, especially tribals. In other words, exactly those people who are the most exploited and marginalised, whose rights, in some ways, existence, the establishment ~ polite society, should we say ~ takes no cognisance of.

Agrarian question

It isn’t too much of a stretch by any means to argue, as the report seems to have done, that the most effective way to tackle Left-wing extremism is to put in place a land reform programme that works. Look at West Bengal. The Naxal movement, as we all know, originated in North Bengal in the late sixties. But by the early eighties it had all but died in the state where it began its career, though it had spread to, and was alive and well in, many other parts of India ~ Bihar and Andhra Pradesh first and in time Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, mostly the parts that are now in Chhattisgarh, and Maharashtra. Many factors contributed to the death of the Naxal movement in Bengal ~ state repression, and the infiltration of idealistic but ineffectual students, and lumpen elements.
But what was crucial to the Naxals being doomed for decades to a future consisting mostly of sipping tea and smoking bidis in College Street while plotting revolution, was the fact that in its early years the Left Front succeeded in putting together the first credible land reforms programme the country had seen. It will come as no surprise that the IAS officer who was instrumental in implementing the reforms ~ Mr Debabrata Bandyopadhyay ~ was the man who headed the committee instituted by the Planning Commission.
It should occasion no surprise either that the revival of the radical Left in West Bengal comes at a time when, in its eagerness to industrialise the state, the Left Front government has ridden roughshod over the constituency that has kept the front in power for over three decades ~ the peasantry. The most vulnerable strata of that, using the term loosely, class ~ the marginal and small peasants, and the landless ~ are, in fact, hit the hardest by the state government's policies of land acquisition.
The report submitted to the Planning Commission makes an interesting point ~ that there are 10 indicators that distinguish the districts in which Naxals are a potent force: among them are a preponderance of people belonging to the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes; large tracts of forests; high incidence of agricultural labour; and low per capita foodgrain production. This finding not only buttresses the point made above but also points in another direction.
It is a matter of the utmost, and unfortunate, irony that some of the richest stretches of territory in this country ~ rich in forest resources, water resources and minerals, for instance ~ are populated by some of the poorest of people in this country.
If you superimposed a resource map of the country on a map of poverty and a map of Naxal-held areas, you would find an astonishing degree of convergence. Which leads to the point that the people who live in, say, mineral-rich areas, never benefit when these resources are utilised ~ either the government or private, and usually extremely exploitative and unscrupulous, mining companies benefit. It is no coincidence that Naxals fight against land acquisition, or appropriation, for projects in such areas.
The report submitted by Mr Bandyopadhyay’s team presents a window of opportunity, especially as it arrives soon after another significant development. The Janadesh rally from Bhopal to New Delhi: 25,000 people, by conservative estimates, including activists, and peasants and landless labourers, marched to the national Capital to demand a resolution of the land question. The government agreed to set up a national land commission, after representatives met the chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance, Ms Sonia Gandhi. This is the time to act. If the government can put together a land reform programme throughout the country not only will it have put a step in the right direction towards alleviating poverty, it might just find that the problem of industrialisation and land acquisition will also lessen. No one in his or her right mind will suggest that land reform alone will solve all problems.

Not by force

For significant progress, other problems in the almost stagnant agricultural sector will also have to be fixed. But land reform has to be the starting point ~ if for no other reason, at least because it is an equity issue and implementing land reform will establish at least some of the good faith that is needed to legitimise the state-society compact.
There is another matter Mr Bandyopadhyay and his colleagues touched upon that is related to the narrow vision of policy-makers. Since the Naxal movement is seen largely as one connected to law and order, the government has tried to counter it in Chhattisgarh by raising the notorious Salwa Judum, a disastrous experiment involving press-ganging tribal people into militia camps to fight the Left extremists.
Some of the ‘volunteers’ of the Salwa Judum are barely in their teens. Chhattisgarh does not need militias and it does not need child warriors ~ it needs land reforms and the kind of development that benefits people in the shape of jobs, land, education, healthcare, shelter, etc, not the kind that is brought about by chicanery, force and fraud and only benefits industrialists, contractors, bureaucrats and politicians while destroying the natural resources base that people are perforce dependent upon.

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