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Manmohan's smile masks Indian woes
By Santwana Bhattacharya
NEW DELHI - Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh looked comfortably in his
element at the Pittsburgh Group of 20 (G-20) summit photo-op late last month,
his genuine smile and relaxed manner a rare departure from his usual body
language of a man weighed down by intangible burdens. The heads of leading
economies such as the United States, Britain and Japan, still shaken from the
decline into recession, obviously gave Manmohan, an economist, an attentive
The elevation in stature was signaled in formal terms by the permanent
inclusion of emerging economies to the roster at the high table: the primary
platform for global economic interchange would henceforth be not the rich Group
of Eight club - the US, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy,
Russia - but the more broadbased G-20.
Manmohan, understandably, waxed eloquent on the Indian economy's escape from
the worst effects of the meltdown. The country was, after all, able to post a
relatively decent growth rate compared with other countries represented at the
summit. To the rest of the world, India could therefore put itself across as
part of the solution.
But back home, the situation is more complicated. Sure, the economy is showing
signs of renewed health. Even the over-cautious, old world Finance Minister
Pranab Mukherjee recently said so. The trouble lies elsewhere. For the Indian
economy to kickstart in the manner the United Progressive Alliance government
would want it to, it has to get rid of the "human" hurdles in the way.
These hurdles are not minor. For an end-oriented style of policymaking that's
driven by grandiose targets on paper, India's vast and rooted population
groups, mired in varied and ever-new forms of systematic deprivation, loom like
a potentially malignant bug in a program code.
The issue won't be resolved through populist legislation or policy initiatives
touched by a surface humanism. Deeper issues of ownership and entitlement are
at play. It's a definition thing: the people, instead of being the intended
beneficiaries of development activity for whose ultimate welfare the task of
government must be oriented, are often thought of as the problem, the dead
weight slowing down the glorious upward arc of growth.
A few people-friendly pieces of legislation were indeed passed by parliament in
the UPA's previous period in office, before the alliance was re-elected earlier
this year. But there is a duality at the heart of government in recent times:
the way it defines the situation, it cannot afford to wait patiently for the
implementation of those laws to bear fruit before it moves on the next level of
"development", the megabuck economic enterprises. It wants to sprint and run
long distance at the same time.
To pull off such a thing without injury to anyone will obviously require high
skill and foresight: it calls for government to be alive to often contradictory
processes unfolding at various levels, at varying degrees of microscopic
reality, at various speeds and rhythms - to be responsive not just to
macroeconomic movements and their logic, but to value systems, communities,
cultural ecologies, civil rights, lifeworlds.
Being two-faced is not enough; it calls for complex, symphonic maneuvers,
steered by an all-seeing, benevolent command center. On current evidence, the
"rulers" are coming up woefully short: they are wired to only one or two
channels; the sectoral bias of the system is unmistakable. But just because the
government has partial deafness does not mean that the other voices are going
to go away.
India is, ultimately, a democracy. So filling in the role of ventriloquists are
a plethora of political parties, coalitions of interest groups and, closer to
the ground, sporadic people's movements clamoring to make themselves heard. In
this cacophonous space, marked by zero communication, are stuck numerous
mega-projects - mining, steel, roads and ports - worth billions of dollars.
They are all mired in India's pockets of discontent, in large swathes of land -
native, ancestral, forested lands - being zealously guarded by indigenous
people of the soil against mega corporations.
The proverbial twist to the tale comes on the other side of the law, once all
the recourses available within democracy are exhausted. Fanning the discontent
in the Indian outback and feeding off it are armed Maoist insurrectionists,
often called Naxalites (after the far-left peasant-student movement of the
Their aims, methods and occasional pronouncements are all patently
extra-constitutional; it easily earns them the status of enemy of the state.
For the state, they are on the same page as Pakistani terror outfits, Sri
Lanka's Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and such like; it likes to talk of
their rumored links, painting them in an aspect of co-conspiring and joint
But the Maoists are not just a band of gun-toting rambos with a flair for
guerrilla tactics and kangaroo justice. They have a national command structure
and a politburo. They have a presence in six or seven states, over a
contiguous, thickly forested belt in central India, entrenched deep in the
jungle. Their striking range and shadow of influence cover precisely the same
arc of resource-rich but otherwise dirt-poor provinces targeted by the big
projects, mostly peopled by indigent tribals whose rights are the last thing on
the minds of the mega corporations.
This forms the basic logic of the Maoist game: in these Indian hinterlands, the
idea of the inclusive state can easily turn out to be a thin veneer for an
outright exploitative apparatus. This gives the Maoists the strategic opening
they need. The conflict, thus, is not a mindless clash of guns; the security
paradigm is inadequate to describe it, for it's superimposed on a clash of
ideas of livelihood.
In the haste to dress up India smartly for an impressive arrival on the world
stage, the government is in danger of putting some serious distance between
itself and millions of Indian people, trailing them like a long comet's tail.
It virtually hands the Maoists the chance to inveigle themselves into the
narrative as political actors, to strike up pro-people postures, as in the
Lalgarh conflict in West Bengal these past few months, or in Nandigram two
The consequences are not difficult to see. In this confusing playoff between
rights and wrongs, between moral and political arguments, there arises a grey
area between what is legitimate and what is beyond the pale, between necessary
dissent and anarchism.
Figures such as Chhatradhar Mahato, the tribal leader from Lalgarh arrested
late last month and held for Maoist links, and other urban sympathizers get
caught up in this ambiguous maze of dotted lines - pro-people but potentially
anti-state. Maoist ideology thus has the capacity to create a buffer zone for
itself among the general populace: and there are any number of overground
far-left groups which keep up the ideological tempo.
The government is naturally worried. It is not for nothing that Manmohan
regularly identifies Naxalite/Maoist violence as the greatest problem facing
India - not poverty, not hostilities arising out of an inequitable distribution
of resources, not divided Kashmir, not even the terrorist group
Lashkar-e-Taiba. For, Naxalism is the direct and total antithesis of an
economic model with its roots in neo-liberal overdrive.
Take the state of West Bengal: in the past one-and-a-half years, the Tata Group
had to withdraw its multi-billion dollar Nano project (ironically, the common
man's cheap car) from Singur; the Indonesia-based Salim Group had to drop its
plan to set up a chemical hub in Nandigram; another project in Raichak in the
Sundarbans forest has also been shelved - each due to resistance movements
peopled by the middle peasantry, fanned by a curious cocktail of opportunistic
opposition parties and Maoists, and backed by earnest-to-goodness civil rights
activists and public intellectuals.
The resistance impulse has slowly spread to other parts of West Bengal, to
other kinds of discontents, namely to neighboring Lalgarh, where tribals took
over their village in protest against a regime of police brutality and state
neglect, giving it the shape of a siege from within - not surprisingly, the
Maoist element was always there as interlopers. Since the Lalgarh issue has
come to a head, the anti-Maoist crackdown has been cranked up to a
well-coordinated operation involving several states.
Projects hang in balance
West Bengal is no way an isolated instance - the stakes are high
everywhere. Steel projects worth US$26.4 billion are hanging in the balance in
neighboring Jharkhand. The figure comes from a report of the Associated
Chambers of Commerce and Industries of India, one of the oldest trade bodies,
made public a few months ago. Steel majors like ArcelorMittal, Tata Steel and
others have been waiting for the past four years for clearances of their
projects, which the chambers association claims should have taken no more than
The issue is often land - under current laws, the government almost
appropriates land, often paying compensation at official rates that are way
below the market rates. Industry has been asking for a "clear-cut" land
acquisition policy so that projects can be initiated in an unmessy fashion. But
the Trinamool Congress, a regional party that benefits from the resistance
movements in left-ruled West Bengal, is one of the main UPA partners; so the
draft of any relevant act will take some time to see the light of day.
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