Pull the land issue out from under the Maoists

Pull the land issue out from under the Maoists

India is girding for war against an internal enemy, the Maoist guerrillas known as Naxalites. This conflict will inevitably be bloody—in the last three years alone, around 2,500 people have died in Maoist violence, around one-third of them civilians. However, counterinsurgency operations are won not only on the battlefield, but also in the hearts and minds of the people. While the government beefs up the security forces, it shouldn’t neglect the main complaint of the population from which the Maoists recruit their fighters: a lack of land rights.

The Maoists thrive mainly in forests amid tribal villagers whose right to land is poorly defined. The origin of the problem lies in colonial times, when forests were seen as royal estates, and the tribal people were at best tolerated, at worst seen as pests. There were no surveys to try to settle the land claims of indigenous populations who had lived there for longer than anyone could remember. After Independence, the Indian state recognized these people as citizens, but their right to the land was largely ignored.

India’s Maoists capitalize on the anger and frustration of these marginalized groups by promising to protect their land. This highlights one of the greatest ironies of Indian democracy: The state, whose primary task is to protect the life, liberty and property of its citizens, is resented by a section of the tribal population. And the Maoists, who have no respect for individual life, liberty or property, pose as protectors.

However, there is precedent for this. Land rights and property ownership have fuelled the drive towards political participation and democratic governance ever since the ancient cities of Greece discovered democracy. Sixty years ago, Mao Zedong successfully mobilized Chinese peasants by promising to give land to the tiller. Of course, after taking power Mao broke that promise and extinguished private property. His experiment in communal farming led to the starvation of tens of millions in the worst man-made tragedy in human history.

The Indian government has been trying to bring economic development to the indigenous tribes, but it has been going about it the wrong way. In the past few years, it has invited companies to invest in large projects in some of these remote areas. Governments at the state and national levels believe that the projects will benefit the local population.

But the projects may be making the situation worse because they involve forced land acquisitions. The tribal groups then protest against the projects, fearing displacement and loss of livelihood. Given the record of extremely tardy compensation and inadequate resettlement policies for such projects in the past, their suspicion is hardly unjustified. Consider that indigenous tribes constitute only around 9% of India’s population, but over the past few decades around 40% of land acquisitions have affected them. Coupled with lack of basic amenities, collapse of law and order, and appalling blindness to injustice, the alienation of the population from the state seems complete. Today, the Maoists are claiming to defend the land rights of the tribals for tactical reasons, just as they have tried to ride other popular movements that express resentment against some state policies in the hope of expanding their support base. For them, power only flows from the barrel of the gun. Indeed, the Maoists are profiting by extorting protection money from the companies, their agents and contractors operating in these areas, even while accusing them of land grabs.

The government’s bleak record on land rights is beginning to change, however. After years of political struggle, the Forest Rights Act was passed in 2007, for the first time recognizing the land rights of the tribal people, despite opposition from various environmentalists. Under this law, every nuclear tribal family can claim up to 4ha if they were working that land prior to 2005.

While the law has many shortcomings, it does have the potential to empower some of the most deprived sections of Indian society. If it improves the economic condition of these people, it would dramatically alter the political equation. The Maoists’ support base would be undercut.

Unfortunately, the Indian state has been slow to appreciate the law’s importance, and little attention has been paid to its implementation. A few non-governmental organizations, such as ARCH Vahini in Gujarat, are using low-cost GPS devices to plot the land and then are transferring the coordinates to Google Maps. This is being done with active participation by local communities, which have shown great maturity in trying to resolve any disputes over boundaries of each other’s land. For the first time, they hope to secure a clear title over the small plots on which their ancestors have lived for centuries.

These initiatives can and should be replicated across the country. If the state were to take its primary task of protecting property rights more seriously, the Maoist movement would be deprived of popular support. Empowered by property, poor Indians will be able to participate more actively as citizens and strengthen the country’s democratic foundations.

Barun Mitra is director of the Liberty Institute, an independent think tank in New Delhi


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