A major offensive against Maoist rebels by the CoBRA (Commando Battalion for Resolute Action) paramilitary force is under way in the forests and tribal homelands of southern Chhattisgarh.
Besides being the present-day heart, as it were, of the rebellion, it is also a region where the government of Chhattisgarh has agreed in principle to locate nearly $30 billion (Rs1.44 trillion) of investment in minerals, metals, and electricity.
If the body count swings against the rebels and their support militia, government will declare victory. If it goes against CoBRA, Maoists will crow. TV crews will move in. People who track such phenomena—the Maoist rebellion in India as well as prime ministerial pronouncements as to its demerit—will receive calls for commentary on the who, what, why and where of it all. It will be a circus, as always. And key truths will, after a time, be reburied.
Maps detailing the current spread of Left-wing rebellion usually show the overlap in forested areas, which provide rationale, recruits and shelter. But the Maoist movement has long ago moved beyond the jungle. Maps that detail other characteristics and topography are hence more productive.
I’m fond of quoting at such times Omkar Goswami, who runs the New Delhi-based CERG Advisory Pvt. Ltd. He was struck some years ago by what current minister for environment Jairam Ramesh told him about an “east of Kanpur characterization of India”.
Also Read Sudeep Chakravarti’s earlier columns
Ramesh’s point: the regions west of Kanpur, marked by the longitude 80.24 (east), were doing better, while those to the east of it were “withering away”.
Goswami decided to check Ramesh’s hypothesis by collecting data on India’s districts, development blocks and villages. His colleagues and he pored over this data for two years, and alongside, used data from the Census of India 2001 to map an India based on ownership of, or access to, 11 assets and amenities: Whether the household had a bank or post office account, a pucca house, electricity connection, owned a TV set; owned a scooter or motorcycle; used cooking gas, had an inhouse drinking water source or one within 500m; had a separate kitchen area, a separate toilet, a separate and enclosed bathing space, and a telephone.
CERG then took the results of these indicators of necessity and basic aspiration, what it termed the Rural India District Score, and mapped it. The districts were ranked in six grades, with accompanying colours: Best (dark green), Good (light green), Better than Average (very light green), Average (white), Worse than Average (orange) and Very Poor (red).
Central India showed great patches of white and orange, and splashes of red. Moving east into Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, eastern Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, West Bengal and most of north-eastern India, it’s a sea of red and orange with peripheral white and 10 islands of varying shades of green—one being Kolkata.
The white bank of “average” spreads south into peninsular India, with some orange penetrations of “worse than average” in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
The “east of Kanpur” districts are dropping off the development map, Goswami concluded. “Getting the benefits of growth to these districts is the greatest challenge of development and political economy.”
If political leaders and policymakers were to open similar statistical tables of socio-economic growth and demographic spreads of the marginalized and the dispossessed, and look at maps of attacks and penetration by the disaffected in general and Maoists in particular, they would see the current and future course of what they label “menace” and “infestation”. They would see how they are privileging violence, by denying development until violence forces the hand.
There are several studies that prove it. A particularly striking one is by a senior police officer, Durga Madhab (John) Mitra, who published a paper in 2007 called Understanding Indian Insurgencies: Implications for Counter-insurgency operations in the Third World, during a sabbatical at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College.
The Planning Commission received an excellent report last year from an expert group it commissioned, comprising political economy, security, and legal specialists, some of them former senior police and intelligence officers.
Titled Development Challenges in Extremist Affected Areas, the report’s frank expression pleasantly stunned even cynical human rights activists long used to government’s blinkers.
Mitra received polite attention at the ministry of home affairs. The Planning Commission report is filed away—as such things often are. I hope to draw attention to key outlines and recommendation in these and other documents in future columns.
Sudeep Chakravarti writes on issues related to conflict in South Asia. He is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country. He writes a column alternate Thursdays on conflicts that directly affect business.
Respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org