In the summer of 2006, I travelled with a group of scholars and writers through the district of Dantewada, then (as now) the epicentre of the conflict between the Indian State and Maoist rebels. Writing about my experiences in a four-part series published in The Telegraph, I predicted that the conflict would intensify, because the Maoists would not give up their commitment to armed struggle, while the Government would not be able to ‘put the interests of a vulnerable minority—the adivasis—ahead of those with more money and political power’. Thus ‘in the forest regions of central and eastern India, years of struggle and strife lie ahead. Here, in the jungles and hills they once called their own, the tribals will find themselves pierced on one side by the State and pressed on the other by the insurgents.’
That my forecast appears to have come true does not give me much satisfaction. The scholar was obliged to draw a melancholy conclusion, but the citizen still hoped that one side would give up arms and the other more sincerely implement the provisions of the Indian Constitution. In the wake of continuing attacks by Maoists on security forces, and the killings of Maoist leaders in illegal ‘encounters’, it is even harder for hope to win out over cynicism. However, even if one cannot see a resolution of the problem any time soon, one can still seek a deeper understanding of its genesis. This can be had through two recent works of scholarship that take the tribal predicament as their point of departure.
Out of this Earth, co-authored by the anthropologist Felix Padel and the activist Samarendra Das, provides a comprehensive analysis of the social and environmental impacts of the mining boom in Orissa. The authors show how companies split tribal communities by bribes and coercion, such that a division emerges between ‘accepters’ and ‘refusers’. They document the extensive collusion between politicians and bureaucrats on the one hand and private companies on the other, which has forced tribals off the land they own but below which valuable ores are to be found.
As Padel and Das point out, the autonomous and non-violent resistance to destructive mining has been misrepresented by the state, corporate interests and even at times by the media as a ‘Maoist threat’. This latter label is then used ‘to crush all kinds of indigenous opposition based on the people’s refusal to be displaced, to allow their land to be snatched away and their communities to be torn apart.’
The Padel-Das work may be read in conjunction with a study conducted by the Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA). Closely researched and soberly argued, the study—whose principal authors are Ajay Dandekar and Chitrangada Choudhury—examines the workings of the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA). Passed in 1996, PESA conferred on tribal communities the ownership of non-timber forest produce, the power to prevent alienation of land to non-tribals, the power of prior recommendation in granting mining leases, and the right to be consulted in land acquisition by the Government. Assessing the impact of the legislation a decade later, the report found that ‘in most states, the enabling rules for the gram sabha’s control over prospecting of minor minerals, planning and management of water bodies, control and management of minor forest produce, [and] dissent to land acqusition are not yet in place, suggesting reluctance by the state governments to honour the mandate of PESA’.
The IRMA study passes strictures on the abdication by Governors of their responsibilities. Although they have been ‘accorded limitless power by the Constitution to ensure the upholding of PESA’, the Governors of different states ‘have slowly but surely been neglecting their duties towards the law, and towards tribal communities’. Tribal activists told the IRMA team that ‘Governors have not responded in a single instance to their petitions for interventions in crises that threaten them, such as deepening clashes over land, mining or police excesses.’
The Dandekar-Choudhury study speaks of the widespread transfer of tribal lands into non-tribal hands, through fraud and forcible occupation. Despite a long-standing promise to repeal or amend it, the colonial-era Land Acquisition Act of 1894 is still being used, or misused, to acquire land owned by households and communities and hand it over to the corporate sector. In the process, the state has sparked a series of bitter conflicts throughout eastern and central India.
‘When it comes to acquiring mineral resources for industry’, notes the study, ‘the stakes are … loaded against the functioning of the PESA Act. …[T]here is still no legal framework in place for communities to dissent in such activity in their area if they so desire, or to secure a direct stake in the earnings, through instruments such as jobs or debentures’. In one village in Orissa, the researchers found that a large police station had recently been constructed, whereas in the past five decades the State Government had not bothered to build a hospital or public health centre. The reason for this bias was immediately obvious—in the shape of a new aluminium factory that had come up near the village. ‘Do our people need better police facilities or better health care’, asked the village headman. ‘What is the administration’s priority?’, he continued, before supplying this answer: ‘This is being done only because the company wants police stations, which can beat us if we ever protest against land acquisition’.
In the past decade, it is in tribal districts that the Maoists have made the greatest gains, in good part because of the state’s own short-sighted and exploitative policies. The IRMA researchers are no sympathizers of the methods of the Naxalites. They see them (in my view, rightly) as a threat not just to Indian democracy, but to democratic values in general. They quote an activist who notes that while the Maoists might have, in the beginning, fought for greater economic and social rights for tribals, over the years they have ‘become corrupt, power hungry and intolerant of any difference[s]’. The insurgents are also deeply hypocritical; thus ‘while denouncing the “loot of adivasi resources”, the Party takes money from the mining industry to fund its operations’.
If, despite the brutality of their methods, the Maoists have yet gained ground, it is because the Indian state has treated its tribal citizens with condescension and contempt. A course correction would take the form of ‘implementing PESA with political will, urgency, and creativity’. The IRMA researchers suggest that memoranda of understanding with factories and mining companies ‘should be re-examined in a public exercise, with gram sabhas at the centre…’. Each industrial or mining project in tribal areas should be preceded by an environmental impact assessment conducted by qualified and independent experts. More broadly, through ‘financial and juridical devolution to gram sabhas, a model of participatory and community-centred development should be nurtured’, to replace the current model of top-down, industry-centred, resource-exploitative form of development being imposed on tribal areas.
Ironically, although it had commissioned this assessment of PESA, the Ministry of Panchayti Raj has thus far refused to allow it to be printed. If the Ministry is sincere about its mandate, it should have this study read by all its officials. The officials of the Home Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office would profit from reading it too. Perhaps four people in particular should closely read and digest its contents: the Prime Minister, the Home Minister, the Congress President, and the youngest of the Congress General Secretaries.
The IRMA study quotes an activist as saying that ‘the government might not be interested in talking to the Maoists without certain pre-conditions. But what stops it from talking to its own people and understanding their pain?’ Mahatma Gandhi once walked through the riot-torn districts of Bengal and Bihar—it may be too much to ask the leaders of today to walk through Dantewada, or Koraput, or Narayanpur, or Gadchiroli, or any of the other areas of tribal suffering and discontent.