Business as usual in Maoist India? Not really

Business as usual in Maoist India? Not really

What happens to local and global businesses in mining, metals, and power that have over the past near-decade signed memoranda of understanding with states such as Chhattisgarh—nearly Rs150 billion worth and counting—and other strongly Maoist foot-printed states such as Orissa, Jharkhand and West Bengal. The designated project areas are nearly all within rebel territorial ambit. These who’s-whos—and not a few who’re-theys?—of business have some questions to answer.

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Did these businesses sign up knowing there was a deep or deepening conflict that involved forced displacement of residents in lands marked for projects, and the use of absolute force to quell dissent, Maoist-led or otherwise, that would involve massive collateral damage: the death, dismemberment and abuse of people by local police, and paramilitary? Were they taken in by the blinding charm of the chief ministers of these states, who promise a quick peace for return on proposed investments, the states’ political and policing muscle to be freely used in pursuance of such goals?

Or did they sign up believing these were actually zones of abiding peace?

Every which way: bad move. Being seen as participating, wilfully or inadvertently, in conflict lays business open to prospects of litigation and financial payout if suits stand up to scrutiny in any Indian or overseas court open to dealing with issues of conflict and corporate liability. Such suits can these days be brought against globalized business in practically any area of registration, operation, or equity listing.

Businesses ought typically to be more farsighted, less prone to believing in hype, and more aware of liability.

For instance, if businesses, or consultants to these businesses, read the Chhattisgarh Human Development Report of 2005, they would find that: “The role of forests in people’s lives and their livelihoods is the defining characteristic of Chhattisgarh state… It is apparent that for many people, forests are not just a supplementary source of livelihood but are central to their lives."

The report added: “This high dependence is found mainly in the three southern districts"—Maoist-heavy districts of Dantewada, Bastar and Kanker—“as well as in Surguja, Korea and the forested belts of Kabirdham, Janjgir-Champa and Raigarh. Access, is however, increasingly regulated and governed by policy and unsympathetic policymakers. The control of the state is all pervasive and is operationalized through the forest guards and their administrative hierarchy." This is the root of harassment of tribals, corruption—and so, the source of Maoist ammunition.

Nearly one-third of Chhattisgarh’s population is tribal, this report said. Twelve per cent more are low caste, spread in the periphery of forests, rural areas, and at the bottom of the urban heap. Eighty per cent of the rural population, including the tribal populace, depend on primitive mono-crop agriculture. Chief minister Raman Singh wrote a message for the report, saying “social indicators coupled with economic parameters" is the way to go.

It is another matter that, the same year as the report was published, his government unleashed Salwa Judum, a controversial, brutal system of vigilantism that exposed hundreds of thousands of innocents to two-way violence—state-led as well as Maoist-inflicted—and uprooted more than 50,000 to be deposited in slum-like “concentration" camps and rehab shelters. Several Maoist-affected states have steadfastly refused to adopt Salwa Judum-like approaches. Several senior police officers have told me on the record as to what a disaster Salwa Judum has turned out. A further point: if proven, some corporations could be liable for the excesses of Salwa Judum.

In February 2007, I heard chief minister Singh boast in Hindi to a room full of incredulous security analysts and police officers from Chhattisgarh and elsewhere, “Salwa Judum cannot be defeated." He carried on: “It will be written a hundred years from now. Salwa Judum is showing Gandhi is alive, showing non-violence is alive… Salwa Judum is like the fragrance of the forest in summer."

Thinking folk resist the temptation to participate in the theatre of the absurd on account of propriety. Thinking businesses too must resist, if only for the sake of the long-term protection of image and bottom line.

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.

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