On a day when the Sensex, a barometer of the economy for the middle class elite in India, touched 20,000, your 30 September edit, “My little acre”, on the peaceful march by an approximately equivalent number of people from Gwalior to New Delhi perfectly brought out the paradox of emerging India.
Not many readers, and I hope I am wrong, may have been interested in reading of the plight of the landless, on a day when the feel-good factor of Ambani’s climb to the pinnacle of the global wealth pyramid made some of us proud. Without deriding the achievements of the Ambani brothers, whose story is no doubt remarkable and needs its appropriate place in Indian entrepreneurship, giving voice to the plight of those who do not have any human or material capital to eke out a decent meal is equally important.
The most remarkable feature of this “long march” was that it was peaceful and highly organized. As one who has been closely watching its progress from Gwalior, I expected law and order problems especially after a tragic accident in which a few marchers were mowed down; yet, their discipline and orderliness demonstrated the best traditions of Gandhian protest. No doubt this rectitude may have one of the factors which won over the babudom in the inner sanctums of decision making in the Capital, though one is sceptical about the follow-up of the “time bound” (sic) mechanism to “commission” land reforms. A few related issues also deserve mention. Organizer P.V. Rajgopal’s assertion that 172 districts of the 600 (actually 602) are affected by Naxalism is not an excessive estimate. The home ministry’s annual report for the past two years indicates that approximately 76 districts are badly affected by Naxal violence in “varying degrees”. Many analysts have indicated the total number of districts affected to be 165, is close to Rajgopal’s figures. What is alarming, however, is the rise in the level of Naxal violence from 2003 to 2006 by 30%, with a total of 950 persons killed—more than half of them civilians—in 2006 against 731 three years back.
A major reason for this increase is usurpation of land rights of the underprivileged, either by the state, private contractors or the local mafia. Ironically, reservation of forests has also been one of the factors which have made many tribal hostages to the whims of forest guards and timber mafia. Thus, Naxalism should be seen as the messenger; the message is deprivation of rights of tribal and rural communities.
Restoration or redistribution of land rights is no doubt one of the major reforms essential to provide this large swathe of population a dignified means to earn a livelihood. However, I am glad you have drawn attention to the need for reskilling them from agricultural or land based to other forms of livelihood which, to my mind, is the key to slashing our huge poverty bubble. And here the example of the Ambani family may be very appropriate. Had they stuck to their father’s business, making and selling Vimal fabric, Anil and Mukesh may have been fighting over a yard of cloth. Their successful transition at each stage of our economic shift from fabric to yarn to refining to communications, to finance and now consumer retailing, speaks volumes about their entrepreneurial ability to stay at the top of the heap.
The solution to the rural deprivation in India is thus twofold land and forest reforms to provide assets to people for livelihood creation and reskilling a large mass from the agricultural to other sectors, be it infrastructure, industry or services. A visionary leader who can take us through these politico-economic reforms of rural labour is perhaps the need of the hour.
Rahul Bhonsle is security analyst & editor, South Asia Security Trends, a monthly journal. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org