New Delhi: Rural development minister Jairam Ramesh is advocating a new approach to fighting the Maoist insurgency that has gripped 78 districts so far. Apart from development and security, the approach involves politics and justice, he said. In an interview, Ramesh warned that in the rush to attain high growth rates, India was placing the interests of tribals below that of mining firms. The minister suggested the setting up of a new empowered group of ministers to ensure coordination among the rural development, tribal affairs and home ministries in tackling the menace. Edited excerpts:
What are the gaps in the strategy to tackle Maoist insurgency?
First of all, we are faced with a very serious challenge in central and eastern India. There are certain factors that are common to all the 78 LWE (left-wing extremism)-affected districts—many of them are forest-rich, many of them are mineral-rich, many of them are remote districts, most of them are in tri-junction areas, and many of them are tribal-populated. So there are some general characteristics.
I have now gone to 30 of these 78 districts and spent considerable amount of time. The fact remains that there are many factors that are unique to each district, unique to each region, which we are not able to capture in a national strategy. I think we need to do far greater pinpointing of the specific causes. There are general causes and there are local causes. The local causes very often become more important.
One forum: Ramesh says India needs a new empowered group of ministers for coordination among the rural development, tribal affairs and home ministries in tackling Maoism. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Our approach has been security-centred. It has been police-centric, and rightly so because unless you capture an area, dominate an area, give people the confidence that they can go about doing their work, you are not going to implement your programmes.
I think what has been lacking is a political strategy of political mobilization by mainstream political parties, which will offer productive and constructive employment opportunities; otherwise,the Maoists are just going to attract them (the tribals). The fact is that young people, young men and women form the bulk of the Maoist cadres today.
The political mobilization, in my view, has been missing. This, I think, is the failure of political parties, the normal political activities, the political campaigns, the use of politics as a vehicle to redress grievances, so on and so forth.
The second thing that has been missing so far, (and) which we have been trying to redress, is a sharp development focus. Rural development is one, but there are other areas wherever I have gone—electricity, people have complained about doctors, these are all malaria-endemic regions, schools, teachers not being present, for example. Every ministry has to give these LWE areas sharp focus.
I was in Sukma recently. There is a national highway there—Sukma to Konta, 180km; Rs.160 crore has been earmarked for it, but for the past three-four years, it has been tendered and re-tendered, but there has been no response. When a contractor has come, he has not started the work. So the ministry for road transport needs to take these areas on board and think of a different way of awarding contracts, by perhaps breaking it into smaller packages in order to get contractors.
So it’s not just rural development alone, although rural development, I think, is an important anchor for development activity—rural employment through Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS); rural roads through PMGSY (Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana); rural housing through the Indira Awaas Yojana; and the rural livelihood programme through the National Rural Livelihoods Mission. So I think it is the PDS approach—politics, development and security. They all have to go hand in hand.
How far has a programme such as MGNREGS helped wean away youth from the Maoists?
In many of these areas, the demand for MGNREGS had fallen very, very significantly because payment delays were endemic, payments were delayed for five-six months. So now we have made cash payments. One of the things I decided last September was that in these areas, we should allow for cash payments, so that people work and get paid. And in many districts—Paderu in Andhra Pradesh, Balaghat in Madhya Pradesh, Bijapur and Bastar in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand also—MGNREGS demand has picked up, people are now coming forward.
Balaghat is a good example. Balaghat was one of the badly affected areas. After CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) was able to dominate, people started coming forward. In Saranda in Jharkhand, which CRPF was able to take away from the Maoist control after 11 years, people are coming for employment under MGNREGS. So it’s a fact that in many of these areas, the demand was not visible because there was a fear factor, the threat factor, but also because of our own problems. If people are not paid for six, seven or eight months, why would they want to come and work?
I think we have addressed these issues. Take rural roads, for example. In Malkangiri district of Orissa, which is one of the worst-affected districts, hardly 35% of the expenditure has been incurred on rural roads because people don’t come forward. When they do, they are threatened. So I think what we need to do is to sit down and find solutions.
When I was in Malkangiri last week, I told the gram panchayat that the road is being built for you. It not being built for me or CRPF, but for you. You have to take the responsibility for building the road. Why don’t you take the responsibility? I am willing to say that the gram panchayat will take the responsibility for building the road. This is one solution that we are trying to bring forward.
But my approach for the last 10 months has been that let us use rural development as an entry point to reduce the trust deficit between the Adivasis and the local administration. If we are able to give people the sense that these programmes are working, their incomes are improving, ensure better livelihoods, maybe we will be able to change the environment. It’s a long haul. If you ask me if I have succeeded, I won’t be able to tell you. But there are areas where people are responding.
How do you deal with the fact that Maoists don’t object to MGNREGS, but don’t want rural roads under PMGSY?
We have to deal with this. People want roads. The Maoists can’t determine what’s good for people and what is not good for people. Connectivity is a fundamental obligation of the state to provide. And we have seen that in areas where roads have improved, one of the fallouts has been the improvement in health facilities. Better roads mean better links with markets, better prices. One of the things we have said under PMGSY is that we will take up cement-concrete (CC) roads in a big way in these Naxal areas. We have liberalized the norms for CC roads because CC roads are more difficult to blow up, unlike the tar bitumen road.
We are going to face problems. I have written to the home minister (P. Chidambaram). I have said why can’t CRPF raise an engineering battalion? Why can’t we use the paramilitary forces for building roads? I have spoken to the defence minister (A.K. Antony). I have asked him if the Army Corps of Engineers (can) help in building roads and bridges. But on the army, the defence minister is understandably very reluctant. He doesn’t want to involve them, but my request to him was, can we think of the highly affected areas of the 78 districts? There are about 25 districts where the problem is really serious, where we need roads, we need bridges. Can the army help build these bridges and roads? We have to think of unconventional solutions.
Is there a difference of opinion between your ministry and the home ministry in dealing with the Maoists? You are in favour of gram panchayat heads elected unopposed in Naxal-affected areas getting funds to carry out rural projects, but the home ministry wanted elections to such panchayats to be countermanded.
It is a fact that as far as Orissa is concerned, when local body elections were recently conducted, the home secretary wrote to us saying that there are many districts—Koraput, Rayagada and Malkangiri— where sarpanches (village heads) have been elected unopposed and we should stop funding to these gram panchayats.
I took a different view. I said no (to the suggestion). In fact, getting people into the gram panchayat system is the first step in mainstreaming disaffected people. It is a great opportunity for us in expanding the constituency for peace and democracy. It was a different point of view. We are not going to stop money. They wanted us to stop the money, and I said no, but we can have some stricter controls, some better audit systems, we can keep a special eye on panchayats, but I don’t agree with this view. People have been elected unopposed and frankly when I went there, I saw some of these people who had been elected unopposed. They didn’t look threatening or intimidating to me.
How critical are the tribals to resolving Maoist insurgency?
Absolutely critical. There are areas where it is not a tribal problem. (In) Bihar, it is not a tribal issue. In Bihar, it is a caste issue, it’s Bhumihars, the Dalits. In Chhattisgarh, it’s a tribal issue. In Orissa, it’s a tribal issue. Jharkhand, it’s a tribal issue. In Maharashtra, Gadchiroli, it’s a tribal issue. In Andhra, in Adilabad, Warangal, Khammam, it’s a tribal issue.
Now you can say there are tribals in Gujarat and in Rajasthan and they are not affected. True. Not all tribals are affected, but most of the affected guys are tribals. There are certain historical reasons for this because tribals in India were subjected to enormous hardship. They have suffered multiple displacement and they were in my view easy fodder for Maoist propaganda.
We have taken these tribal areas for granted, we see these areas only as mineral-rich areas, we see them from the view of coal, uranium, iron ore, bauxite. We don’t see them from the point of view of the tribals. We have 80 million tribals, not 10-20 lakh (1-2 million) of tribals. Our policy for the tribals is, thanks to Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, not the American model or the Australian model, which is to exterminate the aborigines and Red Indians. We are not doing that. Thanks to Gandhi and Nehru, we have a certain legacy of mainstreaming the tribals. There was a great sensitivity we showed to the tribal areas.
Unfortunately, in this mad rush for economic growth, we seem to have put tribal interests secondary and put the interests of miners and the mineral wealth in front. That is not the way it should be and we are paying the price for that.
But the policy continues...
We are trying to change it. The land acquisition Bill, which I am hoping to (introduce in) Parliament for the final step in the monsoon session, says that in schedule-V areas—the standing committee has made very strong recommendations, which I propose to accept—permission from the gram sabhas (village councils) must be made a prerequisite before land is acquired. We must, at some stage, call a halt to this wanton disregard for rules and regulations.
This seems to be one arm of the government fighting another.
I think you are being unfair. The home ministry’s language is the language of law and order. It has necessarily to be the language of law and order. The rural development ministry’s language has to be that of rural development. The thing is to bring it all together as part of a coordinated strategy. Right from Day 1, we have been saying it has to be law and order and development. I am only saying it should be a three-pronged strategy. In fact, I think it should be a four-pronged strategy. So far, we have been saying development and security. The third thing that was missing was politics. The fourth element is the justice element. See, development by itself is not adequate. You have to assure the tribal justice and dignity. It has nothing to do with development. It has to do with rights. Fundamental rights have to be protected.
You said political activity has to supplement development and security.
The youth must see in the political process avenues for addressing their problems and avenues for advancement for their own economic interests. If they see political lines clogged, they obviously will be recruited by the Maoists. And what is worrying...in Orissa and Jharkhand, large numbers of girls are entering into the Naxalite cadres. I don’t think we have recognized the dimensions of this problem. It’s a very serious issue. Young girls in the age group of 12-15 years are recruited into Maoist cadre.
There is a crisis of faith in the political system.
Many people have crisis of faith. Some people go to Ramlila Maidan, some people go to Jantar Mantar (anti-corruption and other protest sites). Some people pick up AK-47s. How do we stop people from picking up guns? That is our challenge. Also, one should not romanticize the Maoist movement…(It’s) a motley collection of people who have an ideological compass. But they are also extortionists. They may be people who are motivated by genuine welfare for the tribals. But one should not romanticize this because they do not believe in the democratic path…the more people we get into the democratic system, better we are.
How do we strike a balance, because there is need for industry, and mines and minerals?
Look, if you make resettlement and rehabilitation commitments, you fulfil your commitments. You have acquired the land, you will say that you will pay adequate compensation and you have not paid the adequate compensation. Here the public and private section distinction breaks down. Everybody is guilty. There are people who have been displaced, have not been rehabilitated in the last 40 years. There are hundreds and thousands of families who are subjected to multiple displacements. I hope with the land acquisition Bill, the compensation package would be far more equitable for tribals and land users. There is a way of doing things. I am saying do not ride roughshod over institutions and laws. There are some cases where the balance may lie in not exploiting those resources, but in many cases it will lie in exploiting those resources in a sustainable manner and ensuring that local people get maximum benefit. That is why this new mineral amendment Bill and the mines Act, where there is a District Mineral Foundation, and 26% of profit in case of coal and amount equal to royalty in other minerals will accrue to this fund. Then the local tribals or the community will begin to see the direct benefits from mining.
You praised Mamata Banerjee (chief minister of West Bengal) for her work in Naxal-affected areas.
She did good, very good political strategy in the Jangalmahal area—going out, kissing babies, holding them up, and visiting families. This is what politics is all about. You need political outreach of that type.
How will you get the states on board?
I think what the government of India needs is a forum that brings the security and development guys together on the same (platform) to interact with the states. Today, what is happening is that the home minister is interacting with states on security issues, I am interacting with the states on rural development issues. Kishore Chandra Deo (tribal affairs minister) is interacting on the tribal development areas. What we do not have is a forum where the five or six ministers meet. I think what we need is an empowered group of ministers—a forum that brings all strands together.