Participation is a cornerstone of the democratic ideal. It sits alongside those other marginalized tenets: social justice, freedom, and equality. Forgotten principles in a world of corporate politics driven by the quest for endless economic growth and maximum market share. Hailed as the world’s largest democracy and touted as ‘an emerging economic powerhouse’, India’s economy is beginning to cough and splutter with the rupee trading at an all time low, and the ‘current account’ showing an $88 billion deficit.
A decade of 9% growth has created 55 US$ billionaires, a new and burgeoning middle class and a vast underclass of people living in extreme poverty. The middle class has doubled since 2001, growing from 6% to 13% (amounting to around 153 million). Yet inequality stalks the land: in the cities with their sprawling, overcrowded slums alongside the new high-rise designer boutiques and between desperately poor rural communities and urban dwellers. There is inequality within inequality, as government definitions of what constitutes poverty are re-imagined to exclude great swaths of people in need.
India’s economic growth, (neatly tied together with government corruption and neglect) has been fuelled by a toxic cocktail of elements that includes: twenty years of market liberalisation, land grabbing and mineral extraction, the privatization of water supplies and extensive dam building. Millions of mainly Adivasi (indigenous), who make up 9% of the population and Dalits (so-called untouchables) have been displaced by a range of enormous infrastructure projects, most notably the corporate takeover of the countryside, which has seen subsidies to small holder farmers scrapped, access to credit made all but impossible, the Indian market opened up to foreign multi-nationals, and a plethora of state incentives provided to Indian corporations. The selection box of socially unjust, government policies have been promoted “in the name of the poor, but [are] really meant to service the rising demands of the new aristocracy”, Arundhati Roy states in Democracy’s Failing Light (DFL). They are driving a rupee rich wedge between the elite, the aspiring elite, and the millions in poverty, causing divisions to deepen, resentments to grow, and tensions to strengthen. The most acute sign of the community carnage being inflicted on the poor is (perhaps) the plague of farmer suicides. Drowning in debt and despair, farmers are committing suicide at the unimaginable rate of one every 30 minutes, with around 250,000 taking their own lives between 1995 and 2009 alone.
Land, Exploitation, and Resistance
“The battle for land lies at the heart of the Development debate” (DFL) and at the core of the Naxalite (or Maoists) armed resistant movement, as well as the demand for jobs for agricultural workers and the poor, including Dalits and Adivasi. It is these excluded and ignored groups who largely support the insurgency movement. The government regards the Naxalite’s as ‘terrorists’ — the ubiquitous post 9/11 term, used to define groups dissenting from corporate government policies. The Maoists are India’s “biggest internal security challenge” states the PM, adding it is “imperative to control Left-wing extremism for the country’s growth”. Not for the security, safety and well being of the people we note, but for economic growth.
Government ‘counter-insurgency’ forces have long been deployed in the affected areas (or ‘infested regions’ as the Indian media puts it) and the forests and mountains of central and North-Eastern India. These military and para-military groups conducting ‘operations’ (a modern day colloquialism for war) against the ‘rebels’ have been accused by human rights groups, activists and local people of violating human rights and committing acts of state terrorism, including arbitrary arrests, murder and rape. Human Rights Watch (HRW) states that, “custodial killings, police abuses including torture, and failure to implement policies to protect vulnerable communities marred India’s [human rights] record. Impunity for abuses committed by security forces also continued, particularly in Jammu and Kashmir, the northeast, and areas facing Maoist insurgency.”
Since independence in 1947, India has been beset by violent insurgencies and secessionist movements. The government’s response to the uprisings has been consistently brutal, meeting Naxalite demands with force and setting them up as the enemy within. The current, ongoing conflict is taking place over a vast area of the country, from Odisha in the North-east down to Kerala on the southwest coast; a channel of armed resistance known as the Red Corridor or (depending on your political standpoint) the MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) Corridor. Hundreds of MOUs have been signed by the government with corporate India and multi-nationals, bestowing development rights for mines, dams, water irrigation, factories, roads and land rights. All have been signed without due consultation with local people, who, like the millions living in dire poverty in the cities, are seen as an embarrassing irritation from the past, to be hidden from view save the new nation of modernism is seen with blemishes upon its shining Bollywood skin.
The corridor red and resolute holds within it many of the poorest people in the country (perhaps the world), many of who lend their support (and some their children), to the Maoists, who they see as defending their rights.
Both sides in the fighting claim to be acting on behalf of the rural poor, and both have committed appalling atrocities. Local people as well as civil society groups, are “being caught in the middle of the fighting – killed, wounded, abducted, forced to take sides, and then risk retribution,” relates HRW. Whilst this is true, to equate the resistance movement fighting deep-seated social injustice, with government forces fighting on behalf of the perpetrators of the injustice is, Arundhati Roy rightly declares, “absurd.” The government, “has slammed the door in the face of every attempt at non-violent resistance,” and inevitably “when people take to arms, there is going to be all kinds of violence – revolutionary, lumpen and outright criminal”. The government though “is responsible for the monstrous situations it creates”. Resulting from those ‘monstrous situations’, thousands “have been killed. Others have been tortured, raped, detained or beaten. Villages have been destroyed, homes blown up,” says Mira Kamdar. The state has used excessive force with “an outright arrogant disregard for human rights.” And as the military moves deeper and deeper into the Naxalites’ forested retreats, it becomes impossible to spot the school child from the child solider, with tragic consequences. The movement (estimated by the government to have a presence in almost a third of India’s 600-odd districts across 20 states) is strongest in rural districts with poor governance and public services, where the government has virtually abandoned the poor. Areas populated predominantly by Adivasi, Dalit, and tribal people, like the Musahars or ‘Mouse people’ of Bihar – so-called “because they are reduced to trapping and eating mice to survive, [they] live in unimaginable conditions of penury,” reports Mira Kamdar (HP).
Such groups have been disregarded by the state and ignored by India’s ruling classes and the aspiring middle class who look west to import their values and would prefer not to be bothered by matters of poverty, rural rape and murder, farmers’ suicides, and the environmental devastation taking place outside the Delhi/Mumbai growth capsule.
Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh and Finance Minister P. Chidambaram share a dark and frightening vision of the future. The PM believes the country’s “salvation lies in moving people out of agriculture”; he fails to mention what work these poorly educated and IT illiterate people will do. Chidambaram believes 85% of the 1.3 billion population should be living in cities (whether they want to or not). The realization of Chidambaram’s fantasy would force 866 million rural dwellers into one of India’s already overcrowded, noisy, filthy cities. Unthinkable social engineering, which is nevertheless “well under way and is quickly turning India into a police state in which people who refuse to surrender their land are being made to do so at gunpoint,” Arundhati Roy records. The underlying aim of Chidambaram’s horrific vision is to sweep rural people off their ancestral land, to make way for Indian corporations and multi-nationals to hoover up the natural resource buried within the earth: destroy, speculate, and accumulate.
Much of the mineral wealth of India lies buried deep within the great forests and mountains of this ancient land. Environments that have been home to Adivasi groups for millennium — people who, to the corporations eyeing their future profits, are an annoying gaggle of obstacles to be overcome as quickly and cheaply as possible. Having lived sustainably simple lives for generations, without schools, hospitals, roads, shops, Internet, and running water, millions of these ancient people are seen as an inconvenience to the New India and its continued economic growth. Their way of life, their homes, indeed their very lives are now under threat from a government that neglects the people most in need of their support, and allows mining companies and corporate India to rape the land, cause environmental mayhem and violate the human rights of affected groups.
India’s mining industry, HRW concludes in its report ‘Out of Control’, is poorly regulated, and the government is indifferent to endemic lawlessness within the sector. HRW looked at “iron mining in Goa and Karnataka to illustrate a broader pattern of failed regulation, alleged corruption and harm to local communities,” taking place throughout the country. The scale of lawlessness within the industry “is hard to overstate.” In 2010, e.g., there “were more than 82,000 instances of illegal mining operations.” What little regulation there is, is ‘self-regulation.’ Environmental Impact Assessment reports are “commissioned and paid for by the very companies seeking permission to mine” and pay little, if any, attention to human rights and community concerns. Many “do not even explicitly mention the responsibilities of mining firms to respect the human rights of affected communities.” Such inadequate reports are often falsified and inaccurate, and yet, “mining projects are almost never denied environmental clearance,” and people living on the land are not consulted at any stage of the assessment process. It is no wonder then that these ignored people turn to the insurgents (rebels, or freedom fighters) for support and to act on their behalf. The mining companies are concerned with one thing only — extracting the iron-ore and bauxite and maximizing their profit.
Confronted by such state corruption and deep-seated social injustice, extreme elements within the Naxalite movement are spurred to commit atrocities. These criminal acts must be dealt with through the criminal justice system; however, to bring an end to the decades old conflict, the underlying causes must be addressed.
Sharing for peace
The fight for land is occurring in many parts of the world, as multi-national corporations look to expand their monopoly control on resources, production, and supply. Whether building industrial sized farms as in Sub-Saharan Africa, or mining in the heartland of India, the commercialization of rural regions proceeds apace, as does the murder and forced re-settlement of millions of people throughout the world. The indigenous people are the victims: their crime is that they happen to live on land rich in iron-ore, bauxite, uranium, and tin, commodities that major mining corporations operating in India, are desperate to get their hands on. The government is supporting the corporate hunt for wealth. The PM has made clear the government’s duty to fully exploit the country’s potential mineral wealth, fuel rapid industrialization, and maximize the monthly GDP figures.
It is an all too familiar story in a world where corporate interests and the state virtually co-exist. Their inter-dependence poisons democratic ideals, leads to neglect of the most vulnerable, fuels inequality, and continues the historic concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. The notion of trickle-down economics, where the elite fill to overflowing, and the poor pick up their spillage, is, P. Sainath illucidates, an economic model that has been thoroughly “disgraced and discredited across the world”. An alternative model then is needed, a model that meets the needs of the majority, in which economic benefits accrued from whatever source, particularly those flowing from the exploitation of natural resources are shared amongst the people. Such a radical, morally sound policy would build trust and establish social justice, which just might allow for the violent conflict to subside and for peace to naturally flower.