Not enough people in the government or the private sector have the confidence in creating industrial and mining projects that offer win-win deals to tribals, says Rajni Bakshi.
Eight states in India have more acutely poor people, 421 million, than 26 of the poorest African countries put together. This is the finding of a new 'Multidimensional Poverty Index' (MPI) developed by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, which hit the headlines on July 12.
The report also reconfirms that some the highest concentration of the poor Indians is in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and West Bengal -- the so-called 'red corridor.'
As we already know, people living in that region are severally afflicted -- they lack food, schools, health care, agricultural assistance, non-agricultural livelihoods -- and are now additionally being displaced by industrial projects, insurgents and anti-insurgency measures.
A few days before this report became public the Planning Commission held a meeting with a wide range of development experts, scholars and NGO representatives.
The experts were informed that the central government will shortly pump Rs 13,000 crore (Rs 130 billion) as social infrastructure spending in insurgency affected areas. Development sector professionals are being asked for inputs on how these resources can be most effectively deployed.
It is not clear if these are additional funds being directed to insurgency areas or whether advice is being sought for better deployment of existing allocations.
Either way money or its deployment is not the key issue. There is a big, hairy, audacious question that was reportedly left lurking in the background at the meeting at the Planning Commission and many other such forums.
Will the powers-that-be reconsider and stop pushing aggressive industrial growth in ways that involve repressive measures and violation of democratic rights?
The need to do this has recently been starkly highlighted by yet another government-sponsored study. The Institute for Rural Management, Anand (IRMA), was commissioned by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj to do a report on the status of panchayat empowerment in the Schedule Five (adivasi) areas.
However, before publishing the larger report on panchayati raj institutions across India, the ministry deleted the chapter pertaining to insurgency affected areas. It contained unpalatable truths about how the rights of adivasis are being violated by, both, the governments and the private companies.
Ironically, the censored chapter opens with a quotation from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh: "The systematic exploitation and social and economic abuse of our tribal communities can no longer be tolerated." Speaking in November 2009, the prime minister blamed this reality on the fact that: "There has been a systemic failure in giving tribals a stake in the modern economic processes that inexorably intrude into their living spaces. . ."
Investigating with this concern at the forefront, the IRMA report documents the poor implementation of PESA, or Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act of 1996.
In theory, PESA empowers tribal communities with many provisions for self-governance. In practice the opposite has happened. The IRMA report (http://sanhati.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/pesa-report-censored-chapter.pdf), like other such government commissioned documents, makes a familiar set of recommendations:
1. Minerals should be exploited by tribals themselves, either individually or through cooperative societies with financial assistance of the State. Instead, the government is allowing corporations to extract minerals at throw-away prices and by methods that either hurt or do not benefit local people.
2. The Forest Rights Act requires that any project get 'Prior Informed Consent' from the Gram Shabha. This provision must be strictly enforced.
3. Where acquisition of tribal land is unavoidable, compensation must be not in cash but land for land.
4. There must be a National Inquest, looking into all complaints from Schedule Five (tribal) areas, currently pending with the offices of the Governors and the national commissions.
Following this up with a time-bound process of penalising violations will address the alienation of the people, help foster a sense of justice and go a long way to undercutting insurgency as well as facilitating efforts that raise people's standard of living.
5. The practice of outright purchase of mineral bearing land by the mining companies should be stopped forthwith since the Mining Act envisages only a lease in these cases.
If this sounds familiar -- that's because it is. The recommendations of an earlier Planning Commission study, reported in this column some months back, are almost identical.
So why is PESA not being implemented in either letter or spirit?
Largely because not enough people in either the government or the private sector seem to have the confidence in creating industrial and mining projects that offer win-win deals to local people.
Insistence on implementing PESA could well become an impetus for companies to invest in 21st century business models and technologies for mineral extraction -- thus minimizing damage to local habitats and offering affected people some form of co-ownership.
There is a tendency to dismiss such possibilities on the grounds that alternative methodologies will cost more, lower profit margins of private companies and thus make India less competitive in the global economy.
Such thinking is based on an underlying assumption that we can either honour democratic rights or go for full speed industrial development. This is a false assumption.
If we take to heart the words of Manmohan Singh, quoted at the opening of the IRMA study, it is clear that our prime minister does not believe we have to choose between democracy and development.
Perhaps it is time for us as individual citizens to use every possible channel of communication to ask the prime minister why his own wishes are being violated by the government he leads.
Rajni Bakshi is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist and author of Bazaars, Conversations and Freedom: For A Market Culture Beyond Greed And Fear.