Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Kindling A Debate On Insurrection!

Updated: April 13, 2013 1:15 pm

“Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep on going back and beginning all over again…”

—Andre’ Gide

Well, at one level, it is true that Chandan Sinha’s book Kindling An Insurrection: Notes from the Jungle Mahals does not say anything that has not been said before. It offers no new agenda for action for Left Wing Extremism (affected) (LWE) districts, or a list of pious homilies that district magistrates should follow to raise the development index of their districts. It does not call for review of powers of the DM, or even higher allocations. However, it is a very sensitive rendition of the conditions of the poorest families in one of the poorest districts in the country, many of which are also under Maoist influence. The book tries to understand the how and why of alienation, especially when exclusion is more pronounced for those who live at the margins. But while it does not say so explicitly, it becomes clear that at the grassroots, most political parties, even those which are ideologically inclined, cannot rise above ‘identity and patronage’, especially when resources are limited and electoral compulsions dictate their distribution. The book is based on his tour notes as the district officer in West Midnapore district, and portrays the sincere efforts of a district officer to transform the livelihoods and economies of the Santhals, many of whom have to leave the jungles , ironically on account of the ‘development agenda’ of the state!

In the discussion during the formal launch of the book at the India International Centre last week, Planning Commission member Mihir Shah recounted his work in the tribal districts of MP, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, where similar issues of exclusion posed a major development challenge. He spoke about how geography and topography had added to the Adivasi’s voicelessness and despair. In several parts of the country, tribal communities were being numerically overtaken by others, thereby leading to newer exclusions. The dispersal of the tribal community also shrunk their political space. As many tribal communities lived in small hamlets, and had their unique socio-cultural traditions, the norms laid down by the state made little sense at the ground level. Thus, the norms for connecting villages under the PMGSY (the rural roads programme) first connected villages with population of a thousand and then five hundred population effectively excluded most tribal villages in the country. This was aggravated by the fact that most of these were in close vicinity to the protected or reserved forests, which made it virtually impossible to get the environmental clearances! The same was true for all other entitlements schools, primary health centres and agricultural extension centres, and many of them were interconnected as well. Thus, without good rural roads, it made little sense to train farmers to grow vegetables beyond their immediate consumption needs. The problem with most primary producers is not related to production but to marketing of their produce. This is where I feel that a different kind of intervention is called for a professionally run organisation to offer market prices for their produce, including labour with government supporting the viability gap. If there can be a viability gap for infrastructure projects, why should we not have a similar arrangement for organisations that market primary products?

Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh was forthright in his arguments. He pointed out that while development was an issue, the real concern was the abdication of political parties from regions, which were affected by LWE. Likewise, contrary to what some ‘liberal intellectuals’ might say, the security forces had a critical and important role in creating the ground conditions for development and political action to take place. Having said that, he was forthright in his view that Deprivation, Displacement, Discontent and Distrust marked the world of the tribals and adivasis and this tale was repeated in almost every power, coal mining and irrigation project. Thus, while the benefits of the development efforts were reaped by those who were well endowed, the poor were left poorer in this bargain of inequity.

Dr NC Saxena dwelt on traditional rights of forest dwellers, and how the entrenched hierarchies of forest department were hell bent on foisting ‘timber-based’ commercial plantations in place of the traditional species, which ensured ecological balance not just of plants and trees, but also birds, beasts and bees! However, I must place on record my own predilection on his emphasis of entrusting almost everything to the District Magistrate. A good DM can help ensure the positive and good ground conditions but it is certainly not his job to go around and be a super monitor for everything from crop statistics to ICDS centres. This brings us to the lager question: Should the implementation of development agenda be driven by directorates under the state government, or by zilla panchayats? I am inclined towards the latter, but the fact of the matter is that politics is about power: and there are different ways to get it—identity politics, development, muscle power, intimidation and a combination of one or all in different proportions! One can go on, but there is the thousand-word limit that I have to adhere to.

And so the final word: it’s a seminal work that must be read by all those who wish to make a difference to development discourse in the country: because the real concerns and issues are not those that make the headlines in the pink press, or determine the sensex but those that ensure that those at the margins feel they have a growing stake in the system. Kindling the debate on insurrection will certainly help administrators, political and social activists find new pathways to address the concerns that Chandan has so aptly brought out.

By Sanjeev Chopra

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