India: "If this is called governance, tribals are not buying it"
Nine months ago, India's central government set out to prove that "security", combined with "development", would counter threats posed by left wing guerillas in the Saranda region of Jharkhand state.
The eponymous Saranda Development Plan (SDP) is a pet project of the Rural Development Minister, Jairam Ramesh. Formerly the Minister of Environment, Ramesh was instrumental in preventing Vedanta Resources from accessing the Nyamgiri bauxite deposit in Orissa. See: London Calling applauds condemnation of Vedanta
But, as we pointed out in April 2012, some critics suspect the "real reason" for the Saranda military operations, linked with the SDP, is to increase access to the area by mining companies. See: India sets out on "a fight for the forest"
Reporting on a recent visit to Saranda, Sarthak Ray of Governance Now magazine finds that some Maoist cadres are continuing to operate, while most of the promises made to local people have not been fulfilled.
Says Sarthak Ray: "[T]he delays in the implementation of the ‘development offensive' of the government, and concerns that SDP has been waylaid by mining interests... erode their hopes for the future.
"Even as many private and public sector mining companies have harvested the forest's rich iron-ore reserves and as more are preparing for their debut in the region, the tribals have been left out of a development process that should have been theirs by right."
If this is called governance, tribals are not buying it
The idea is praiseworthy: beating Maoists with a development offensive. But, as our reporter stationed in a Jharkhand forest since April has found, the offensive is progressing at a snail's pace. Deadlines are missed, few goodies delivered
By Sarthak Ray
26 June 2012
Saranda: Nine months after the announcement of the Saranda Development Plan (SDP), this 850 sq km sal forest in Jharkhand's West Singhbhum is still at the crossroads.
The people of the region are yet to feel at ease after the eleven years of Maoist control, since 2001, which ‘ended' in August 2011 after a massive operation of central paramilitary forces, even as the delays in the implementation of the ‘development offensive' of the government and concerns that SDP has been waylaid by mining interests (Saranda is India's largest iron ore reserve) erode their hopes for the future.
"The block office (at Manoharpur, from which most of Saranda is administered) had pulled down its shutters in the front between May 31 and June 3 (the side entrance was kept open) due to a bandh [strike] called by the Maoists even though there is a CRPF camp on its campus. Now, isn't this a telling sign of how not much has changed in Saranda in the past nine months?" asks Sushil Barla, a Congress worker and a tribal rights activist.
However, it was not just the block office; the entire town remained shut for the bandh. The government may claim that the forest has been "cleared" of Maoists but fear of the rebels still sits strong. The fear is not without its reasons, says Barla. "Saying that the Maoists are gone is a half-truth.
Yes, the state is slowly asserting its presence in the villages. New camps of the CRPF are coming up even deep inside the forest. Block officials and other government functionaries are now visiting remote villages. At the same time, there is deep distrust between the state and the people, to the obvious benefit of the rebels," he says.
There have been allegations of the violations of the fundamental rights of the tribals in the villages of Saranda at the hands of the paramilitary forces during the anti-Maoist ‘Operation Anaconda' in July-August last year.
Mangal Honhaga, a tribal farmer from Baliba, a village in the Digha panchayat (one of the six benefitting from SDP), was allegedly killed by a CRPF jawan. In an attempt to cover up the killing, Honhaga was branded a Maoist and his death termed an encounter, says a PIL filed in the Jharkhand high court by Landu Debgam.
Debgam was walking in front of Honhaga, tied to him with a rope by CRPF personnel who had arrested them and nine others from Baliba and Kudlibad, a neighbouring village. In the early hours of that day, he had heard Honhaga being shot a few feet away from him. Incidents like these have deepened the divide between the state and the people of the region.
Besides, Maoist activity in Saranda and its peripheries, though in abatement, is yet to cease completely. Very recently, in May, there was an encounter near Selai on the Manoharpur-Sedal Gate road, which runs through the forest, between armed CRPF personnel and one of the ultra-left outfits active in the region. (The Maoist issue is complicated with not one or two but at least three outfits that have presence in Saranda - Communist Party of India (Maoist), Peoples' Liberation Front of India and Jharkhand Liberation Tigers.) There have been reports of seizure of explosives by the paramilitary forces and arrests of top commanders of the rebel outfits - all indications that the ultras will not yield easily.
Then, there is the decades-old neglect and exploitation of tribals that needs to be addressed - after all, Maoists have banked on Saranda people's discontent with governance and turncoat leaders.
Even as many private and public sector mining companies have harvested the forest's rich iron-ore reserves and as more are preparing for their debut in the region, the tribals have been left out of a development process that should have been theirs by right.
From very basic services like education, drinking water and health to the more complex policies that regulate economy in the region like the Forest Rights Act, the delivery has been feeble, almost non-existent. By the state's own admission, not much was known about the delivery of services in Saranda as until last year the state barely registered its presence in the area.
In this setting, the Saranda Development Plan becomes as much an initiation of a dialogue between the state and the tribals of Saranda as a blueprint of governance delivery. In the little over two months that Governance Now has been in Saranda, we found little evidence of the plan being implemented to serve these two ends.
The deadline for meeting the short-term goals, as outlined by union rural development minister Jairam Ramesh in his letter to Jharkhand chief minister Arjun Munda in October 2011, had well elapsed before the local administration in Saranda moved into action.
The plan which envisages the implementation of many of the welfare schemes of the government - Mahatma Gandhi national rural employment guarantee scheme, Indira Awaas Yojana (grants for housing for BPL families in rural areas), right to education, national rural livelihoods mission - as well as the distribution of solar lamps, bicycles and transistors to nearly 7,000 families in 56 villages under six panchayats - Digha, Makranda, Lailor, Gangda, Chiria and Chottanagra - got off to a very late start.
By June 6, only 1,071 solar lamps had been distributed covering the families in the Digha panachayat villages while only 19 cycles were distributed in Baliba in addition to the few that were distributed during Ramesh's visits to the region.
The goods, procured by Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL) under its CSR programme (SAIL has mines in Gua, Chiria, Kiriburu-Meghatuburu, all within Saranda, and is planning an expansion) at a cost of nearly 4 crore [approximately US$800,000], were lying at the block office in Manoharpur.
The cycles stand in a yard in the block office campus - some of them since December last year. A SAIL official told Governance Now that the procurement of the transistors was in the final stages of tendering in the last week of May. The distribution of these goods was supposed to have been complete by March this year while the deadline has been shifted to end-July.
However, these lapses seem minor in comparison to what has been happening with the other provisions under SDP.
This plan also talked of the formalisation of the forest rights of the tribal people in Saranda. The process started in April with the collection of applications for residential certificate and scheduled tribe certificate (both are essential for recognition under the Forest Rights Act) in three villages under the Digha panchayat - Hatanaburu, Tirilposi and Nayagaon.
By the end of May applications had been collected from another three - Hanjordiri, Kudlibad and Kulaiburu - from the same panchayat. At the same time, Asra, a Chaibasa-based NGO, had been engaged in the collection of these applications from 17 villages. Shiukar Purty of Asra says, "The collection work is complete and the applications have been submitted at the block office." However, the block office only acknowledges the application it collected from the six Digha villages. There are other issues also that dog the implementation of the FRA in the area. The block office does not have a surveyor, stalling the verification of land holdings of the villagers.
The district office claims that Indira Awaas grants have been sanctioned for over 2,000 of the 7,000 beneficiaries. But when Governance Now visited some of the villages in Digha and Chottanagra panchayat, it turned out that the first instalment (`24,000 of the `48,000 grant) had been given to only a few families in each village.
For example, in Sonapi village in Chottanagra panchayat only 22 of 89 applicants had received the first instalment and had begun construction. In Hatanaburu, 12 families had received the grant of which only eight had received the second instalment by the first week of June.
"In a few days, the monsoons will set in. If those who have started construction with the first instalment do not receive the second instalment soon, their mud huts will get washed away by the rains as they will have no money for laying the roofs," says Madan Soy of Hatanaburu.
While MNREGS [Rural Development payments] work is picking up in the region, payment issues are crippling its popularity. In many villages, continuing delays in paying the workers have stalled the work. In Hatanaburu, a kachcha [permanent] road awaits a layer of murum, a local soft rock which will ensure that the road does not get washed away in the rains.
"The villagers have refused to work until the dues are cleared," says Soy who is the ‘mate' (payment functionary) for the project. "If we go to the engineer to ask about the release of the payments, we are asked to go to the rozgar sevak. The rozgar sevak, in turn, sends us to the engineers," he adds.
No one in Saranda seems to have heard of the national rural livelihoods mission (NRLM) even though there is a crying need for the scheme in the region, especially among the youth. Deepak Barla, a Sonapi youth who is enrolled in a graduation course at the St Augustine college in Manoharpur, says, "There is little prospect for educated youth in Saranda. The government has not arranged for any training. Only some of the mining companies like SAIL and Usha-Martin have taken any interest."
The SDP's stagger of the moment seems in keeping with the history of mis-governance in the region. Tribals feel that the state's attempts at improving their lot are, at best, insincere. The design and the location of a 130 km road network to be built under Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana has already sparked off concerns that the plan is being hijacked to serve mining interests.
Against this backdrop, the state administration dragging its feet in implementing the SDP will only serve to fuel the tribals' well-supported lack of faith in the government.