The death of 24 policemen in Dantewada district in Chhattisgarh at the hands of Maoist rebels once again illuminates a dark spot: the absence of the Indian state from rural areas at large.
The problem has not received much attention from the government and where the government does intervene, it does in ways that are self-defeating. While confronting leftist rebels has to be a part of any strategy, it cannot become the strategy itself. Even if it deploys ever larger number of paramilitary forces, it cannot achieve its objective by this means alone.
In reality, the state has little or no presence in such far- flung places. The officials it posts to these regions function as petty tyrants. This is true of a huge part of Central India, encompassing parts of Eastern Maharashtra, Northern Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and parts of Orissa. The concept of service delivery seems unknown to these officials. Given the endemic nature of poverty in these areas, one would assume that they would have more doctors, school teachers and other service providers. This is not the case.
The neglect of this huge region since independence has serious implications for economic growth. With land being a scarce and politically dangerous commodity to handle, further expansion will halt after some time, unless virgin territories are opened up. This part of India represents that opportunity. Land, mineral wealth, cheap labour and other resources are abundantly available there. This opportunity has not been explored in the past and is unlikely to be in future unless, perhaps, the region’s people are convinced that the country’s growth process will not exclude them.
Unlocking this potential requires sustained state intervention in creating social infrastructure and clarifying the issue of property rights. Schooling and health services are felt more by their absence than by their presence. The area has lagged in administrative development since the British era. As a result, modern forms of property rights, enforceable through the judicial system, did not take root quickly. This was also due to the tribal nature of the social system. Unless importance of rights of people in the region is realized, exploitation, real or imagined, will continue feeding into leftist violence.
Precious little has been done to change this state of affairs. The strategy so far has been to prevent the incursion of outsiders into these areas and takeover of these resources. As if this is not enough, the “strategy” adopted in Chhattisgarh, that of uprooting villagers and pushing them into camps elsewhere, duplicates all the mistakes made in counter-insurgency situations and avoids the lessons learnt. It does not even help militarily tackle the rebels, as the experience two days ago shows. While the state government feeds people in the camps, it does not know what to do with them, save arming and pitting them against Naxalites.
Even some 40-odd years after the problem began, the state can begin by taking simple steps. Posting honest officials, ensuring that land and revenue cases do not get mired in endless judicial processes (say, by setting up fast-track courts), gathering better and near real-time intelligence on rebels and creating durable social infrastructure will go a long way in solving the problem.
There are reasons, however, to be pessimistic about such a course of events taking place. The “cost” of such a course is heavy, not only in monetary terms, but also in terms of political commitment. In a democracy where a legislator usually does not visit his constituents once he has been elected, this is almost impossible.
Unless, of course, the Union government is told that sustainability of growth in the long-run requires the inclusion of these regions into the wider economic network.
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