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Economics of ending Naxalism

Economics of ending Naxalism
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First Published: Thu, May 20 2010. 12 30 AM IST

Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI
Updated: Wed, May 26 2010. 05 28 PM IST
The recent series of Naxal attacks highlight the paradox of the internal security in India. Unlike virtually any other country in the world, we face daunting security challenges while being presented with extraordinary economic development opportunities. Our globally acknowledged growth story is marred by a very real and present danger in the form of Naxal militancy and fundamentalist terrorism, which are two distinct show-stoppers if not dealt with a sense of determined and sustained urgency. The sheer scale of the challenge, however, poses the fundamental question of whether we should be thinking of incorporating new stakeholders into the campaign.
Photo: PTI
Taking a page from the US operations in Iraq—where an overwhelmingly powerful army crushed the existing regime, only to find itself struggling to manage the ensuing peace process—brings a realization that perhaps a transition phase is imperative between phases of conflict and prosperity. But managing a conflict and facilitating prosperity require very different skill sets.
As Thomas Barnett, adviser to the Pentagon, points out, the strategic purpose of security forces hinges on menacing and punitive response to events threatening national security. By their very nature, such a response is focused on rapid, and, if necessary, violent degradation of opposing forces. In our case, these would be operations against the Naxal militants. The emphasis is on speed of operations, often unilateral in nature, using a young force whose core training is in destructive operations.
Building prosperity, however, requires different mind and skill sets. This calls for non-threatening, long-term, continuous and economically self-sustaining operations. It focuses on capacity-building rather than capturing power centres. This has to be a deliberate, multilateral and inclusive set of activities carried out by a mature body of people. People who can spot growth opportunities and empower the affected districts to create an environment that is preventive to militancy, rather than punitive towards it.
Fortunately India has an opportunity to leverage the proven wealth generating capabilities of its entrepreneurs, companies and non-governmental organizations and use burgeoning economic growth as a weapon against militancy and anti-national activities. Devil’s advocates could have arguments against this. Primary among them would be a concern of exploitation by companies, which is also advocated as a raison d’être of militancy in the first place. Conflicts of interest between industries such as mining and the population of forested areas are a fact. That argument, however, is facetious in the face of mobile penetration, microfinance and information technology-assisted education and several other similar transformations that have multiplied the wealth of countless districts—with minimal collateral consequences.
Another argument could be concerns for safety of the participating firms. There have been instances of losses suffered by the latter in projects because of the insecure operating environment in militancy-prone areas. But there are also success stories of businesses thriving in Jammu and Kashmir and the North-East, which illustrate the point that a business model co-opting and including the masses has the power to turn them towards a brighter future. India with its successful resolution of the Punjab militancy— which is not even a memory for Gen X—should know this. So the argument that the environment must be completely secure before companies can enter has a corollary that entry of business opportunities contributes to creating a secure environment.
The question for companies is not whether there is a return on investment in such projects. It is about whether they can afford not to get involved. There is clearly a limit to the growth potential in “secure” zones.  When one-third of India’s land mass is in the grip of some form of disturbance, it is only a matter of time before economic growth of the private sector starts hitting a ceiling. Moreover, it is also only a matter of time before militancy from the hinterland spills over into urban “secure” areas.
The challenge for the private sector is to reorganize its business paradigm to specifically target disturbed areas. The numbers work in its favour. Almost all such areas have only a fractional militant composition. Eventually majority of the local population will rally around income generating opportunities. Because militancy by itself cannot generate sustained income. Income brings access to communication facilities such as mobile phones and television, resulting in knowledge and aspiration. Militants focus on disrupting communication networks precisely for this reason.
The recent initiative of rapprochement with Pakistan—Aman ki Asha— initiated by private organizations illustrates the viability of a similar model with internal security as well. If lack of prosperity and development is the foundation of Naxal ideology, then it is an easier nut to crack than differences with Pakistan. And, therefore, if a group of eminent entrepreneurs whose credibility is beyond question were to assure sustainable poverty alleviation programmes in affected areas—after they became peaceful—the ideological platform of Naxal leadership would have no locus standi. The masses would then realize that militant leaders are standing in the way of progress or delaying it for purely selfish purposes. The key is to bridge that trust deficit so that prosperity gets a chance.
Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security
Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com 
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First Published: Thu, May 20 2010. 12 30 AM IST