Anti-Naxal operations a cover for exploiting tribal people

Published: Sunday 07 June 2015

-- the Salwa Judum movement, an armed counter-Naxalite campaign in Chhattisgarh comprising of local tribal and non-tribal people backed by the state, is precipitating a deeper crisis in the state instead of solving the problems posed by extreme Left insurgency. Involving civilians directly in the fight against armed insurgents (mostly local tribal people) has widened the canvas of the conflict (see Cover Story Red alert in Chhattisgarh). Earlier, the local people were caught between the police and the Naxalites. Now, with the entry of Salwa Judum, they are also involved in a fratricidal conflict. The situation is chaotic in the forested state, in danger of spinning out of control.

Long back, both the government and the Naxalites promised 'land and liberation' to the tribal population of the state, mostly eking out a living selling forest produce and harvesting patches of land. Most tribal people living in forests are officially 'encroachers'. They live under the constant threat of being alienated from their land and livelihood. While the government completely failed to reach out to them, the Naxals succeeded in connecting to sections of the people. They spread to the state's 11 districts (200 districts in the country). Unable to contain them, government supported the creation of a civilian militia -- Salwa Judum.

After a year, the tribal residents of Dantewada, the epicentre of the Salwa Judum movement, neither have land nor liberation. Not only are they being further alienated from their land, they are also being cut off from local markets by the government in the name of cutting off logistical supplies to Naxals.

Even though the conflict in Dantewada district has been dampened to some extent by the monsoon, the ulterior objectives of the state's campaign continues to be pursued. Dantewada, and for that matter the whole state, is witnessing another desperate battle - tribals fighting against land acquisition by the state government on behalf of private companies. The state has massive bauxite and iron ore reserves and is expecting close to us $6.6 billion worth of investments in steel and iron plants, with an aggressive policy of attracting capital. It is hardly a coincidence that the 11 Naxal-affected districts in the state account for all the minerals and forests resources of Chhattisgarh.

As tribals fight each other, state government officials broker lands for companies, engineering the consent of village councils, required by law, with heavy-duty arm-twisting. For a state with close to 45 per cent land classified as forests and inhabited mostly by tribals, industry finds it easy to prey on these people. The conclusion that the state government is using Salwa Judum to displace people and make land acquisition easier for industrialisation is becoming inescapable.

Tribal lands are the most sought after resources now. Whether it is in Orissa or Chhattisgarh or Andhra Pradesh, if there is a patch of tribal land there is an attempt to acquire it. It is no geographical coincidence that tribal lands are forested, rich with mineral resources (80 per cent of India's minerals and 70 per cent of forests are within tribal areas) and also the site of a sizeable slice of industrial growth. The tribal districts of Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand, Karnataka and Maharashtra are the destination of us $85 billion of promised investments, mostly in steel and iron plants, and mining projects. This investment will require huge amount of lands, crucial for the survival of tribal people. Ironically, these lucrative resources are of no benefit to the local people an estimate of 10 Naxal-affected states shows that they contribute 51.6 per cent of India's gdp and have 58 per cent of the population. As with Chhattisgarh, all these states have a strong Naxal presence and are witness to movements against land acquisition. The state governments say these protests are Naxal-inspired. Local people say, however, that all they are trying to do is protect their land, forests and livelihood.

Of late, state agencies are beginning to recognise that the Naxal movement is not merely an issue of law and order; it is rooted in real problems that poor, marginalised people face. Even the prime minister pointed this out while emphasising the need for the socio-economic development of tribals as the major policy thrust to tackle the crisis. But what type of development programme is needed is an issue that has not been adequately addressed.

The Chhattisgarh government says industries will bring prosperity for tribal people. Tribal people say access to forests and lands will set their lives on sustainable path. Naxals have exploited this gap in perspective, focusing on the need for land reforms, which have not been pursued. In fact, settlement of rights over land has not been attempted seriously till now. Also, access to forests that sustains livelihoods remains a 'concession' instead of a right. This policy perspective needs to change, along with attempts to rejuvenate ecological niches that sustain marginalised people.

In a situation of endemic poverty, small changes make the difference between survival and destitution. The rapid process of change in the age of liberalisation is unfortunately sending tribal communities on free fall into greater poverty. Salwa Judum is one of the agents of this change.


Cover Story Red alert in Chhattisgarh
[October 31, 2006]

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