Maoist on the up in India
Associate since 1991
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March 3, 2010
Jharkhand is one of the poorest states of India and has become a test for the ability of Indian democracy to serve the poor. Rich in minerals it remains grossly underdeveloped. The jungles of its many mountains are home to 7 million indigenous people who speak their tribal languages, worship the sun not Hindu gods, are rarely schooled and who live in dire poverty.
Three generations ago these hunters and gatherers were forcibly settled, but agriculture was foreign to them. Perhaps it is not surprising that these people have produced Maoists guerrillas who have initiated a campaign of murdering middlemen and those government officials they suspect pocket development money allocated to their bailiwicks. A local Congress MP, Ms Rebelo Merbelo, told me that the main problem is severe unemployment. “And the money allocated to change the situation simply runs away. We have a poor, unstable, state government here and although the central government wants to help it can’t just hand over more money that won’t be used well”.
I met Dr Prakash Oraon, who runs the Jharkhand Tribal Development Society. Well funded by both the central government and the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development, and backed by the chief minister, Oroan has put together a fired-up group of young agricultural and community experts, all tribals themselves, who go into 300 of the villages and get development going.
We went together into some of the remoter villages. The transformation wrought by a couple of years of tenacious work was visible. In one village a new deep well replaced the old shallow, inadequate one. A large pond had been dug to catch rainwater and provide for aquaculture. There was irrigation from the pond to fields planted with grains, quick growing rice and potatoes. There was watershed management to stop the erosion off the steep slopes.
The people still looked appallingly slight and young for adults- barely anyone here survives beyond middle age- but there is a light shining in their eyes when they talk about the transformation of their village economy.
The guerrillas, I was told, don’t impede the project’s work. Like the local elephants they wander in and out at will, but unlike the elephants, not trampling good initiatives underfoot.
The political trick now for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is to find a way to quickly extend this kind of work throughout the Maoist-infected areas. Today the Maoists plague significant parts of seven states. Until the last few months the insurgents were not taken seriously enough, even though Singh told me two years ago that the problem was being confronted in “an adequate way” with a mixture of rural development and tough policing, and the government would have dealt with the problem within a couple of years.
But now the government and the state governments are clearly on the back foot, profoundly worried. The monster is growing at a fast rate, killing government officials, police and paramilitaries, and taking horrific revenge against those villagers who don’t immediately bow to them.
Local politicians have not always helped. In Jharkhand members of the legislative assembly and ministers regularly bribe Maoists in an attempt to win their cooperation and their votes, thus emboldening them further. In the neighbouring, much more sophisticated, state of West Bengal the opposition Trinamul Congress, a local party, whose leader is the minister for railways in the Singh government, sometimes gives the impression that it is angling for Maoist support in the coming state elections.
Neither agricultural reform nor the introduction of more doctors, teachers and agricultural advisors nor clever policing has been much on show. Indeed the police and the local state militias seem totally incompetent, badly trained, stupidly deployed and unable to understand that economic, agricultural and social changes are much more important than any bullets they may let fly.
The Maoist leadership trying to wrong foot the government recently called for a 72 day truce. The government, wary that a previous truce was used by the Maoists to replenish their arms, have been cool, demanding more evidence of peaceful intentions.
The Indian economy is roaring ahead and is expected to overtake China’s growth rate in three years’ time. The government’s programes for aiding the poor are increasingly well funded and indeed most of the countryside in the vast majority of states is at peace.
Nevertheless, the government’s attention to the problems of the tribals has come very late in the day. The insurgencies punch a growing and sizeable hole in the government’s record of achievements.
Copyright © 2010 Jonathan Power
Copyright © 2010 Jonathan
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