Posts Tagged ‘ Ministry of Rural Development ’

Why the Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellows Scheme Volunteers should buy Life Insurance

On 13 September 2011, Union Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh announced a brave initiative called the Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellows Scheme. The Ministry of Home Affairs has identified 60 districts as Left-Wing Extremism (LWE) affected areas, in lieu of which the PMRDF plans to ‘deploy’ around 180 Fellows comprising of working professionals from private organizations and fresh graduates from fields of law, management and medicine to assist the District Collectors in better civic administration for the Maoist/Naxalite ‘infested’ areas.

The Ministry of Rural Development plans on rewarding the Fellows handsomely. For the 2 year contractual agreement that the Fellows will be working in these areas, each will be paid Rs. 65,000 per month for the first year and Rs. 75,000 the next.

Besides waking up late to the developmental agenda for these zones, the MRD’s official website makes no secret of the fact that PMRDF is launched with the hopes of weaning the influence of the Naxalites amongst the tribal villagers. It’s a tough task to eliminate from public memory the fact that the Naxalites re-distributed more than 3,00,000 acres of forest land amongst the tribal villagers in Dandakaranya(covering parts of Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh) over the course of their revolution.

I’m not skeptical about the PMRDF. If anything, my respect for Jairam Ramesh has notched higher every time he has walked the tight-rope of sustainable development with a lot of sensitivity to its ramifications on human rights. As Union Minister for Environment and Forests he protected the villagers of Orissa from Posco’s forced land acquisitions, prevented large-scale environmental degradation and displacement of the Kondhs in Orissa due to unbridled mining and saved the people of India from a harmful, genetically modified brinjal. For all that and more, the people ought to be proud of Ramesh for steering our ‘growth-story’ in the right direction.

But I have serious misgivings about the success of PMRDF. The timing couldn’t be more wrong.

Due to the pressure exerted by various groups of human rights activists and public intellectuals, the Home Minister had earlier maintained that the Government is always ready for ‘peace talks’. After several overtures on behalf of the Naxalites to drop weapons and come to the table, the Home Ministry had a sudden change of heart and went in an over-drive with “rendering the Naxalite movement headless”. With fake encounters of two senior politburo members, Cherukuri Rajkumar and Koteswara Rao (alias Kishanji), not only has the Government lost all its credibility, but also an opportunity to mediate with the “gravest internal security threat” toIndia. And if the CPI (Maoist) Central Committee’s latest press release after Kishanji’s encounter is anything to go by, the Naxalites consider Jairam Ramesh a collaborator of the Home Minister’s agenda too.

In such a climate of hostility, the PMRDF is nothing short of a suicide-mission. It’s alright to say that the working professionals and graduates who’ll be employed in these conflict-zones have squat to do with the decades of dispossession suffered by the tribals and are coming in as Good Samaritans, and thus we must expect, nay, demand immunity for them from the violence prevalent in the LWE affected areas. In the event that they’re caught in the cross-fire between the State and the Naxalites, it would be arrogant to support the Government’s plan for on an all-out offensive on the Naxalites. (Just a thought – Can the Indian State be so callous that the PMRDF has been engineered in a fashion to sway public opinion in the government’s favour in the event of guerilla attacks?)

This is war. You don’t start re-building the battleground right in the middle of the war. I hope that the 180 individuals who’ll be selected for the Fellowship know what they’re getting into. I personally love this idea of committing two years of your life in an exercise of nation building the way Gandhi saw village-level independence and be handsomely paid for it too; when was the last time fresh graduates felt so valued in a government job then a private one? But I don’t see myself going there anytime soon. As long as this ‘threat’ persists, which even Jairam Ramesh identifies as a socio-economic crisis emerging out of government apathy for decades, it is not only dangerous, but also insensitive to tread on this path considering the degree of distrust between the tribal villagers and the government. Never the less, I would be the happiest person if proven wrong, to see the civil administration successfully ‘winning hearts and minds’ of our tribal communities. Until then, if you’re heroic enough to participate in the PMRDF, you might as well buy yourself some Life Insurance. It’s just good sense.

My two cents: Chidambaram and Ganpathy really need to sit down over a bowl of ant chutney and have a heart-to-heart.

(The descriptions Naxal and Maoist are used inter-changeably in the article. The Maoist struggle as we know it today, has its origins in 1960s Naxalbari, a small village in Darjeeling, Paschimbanga.)

V for Vedanta

I watched Avatar this afternoon, and it reminded me of a long-forgotten blog I was supposed to do which got delayed because of college and work; but here it is now. Maybe now I know better to enable me to write on this subject.

As the expression goes, ‘Get them early’, I would recommend all parents to treat their kids for a screening of Avatar as soon as possible. Of course the expression is abused often to teach our kids all kinds of things way too early – sexism, racism, greed, passing on Ayn Rand’s gift to the world-virtues of being selfish et cetera; all things necessary to win in this world, because after all Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest  has a blanket application to every specimen on this planet, and we are all specimens.

When I first watched Avatar, i marvelled at its brilliance. No, i am not referring to it’s trippy visual effects or even the pro-environment message,  i am talking about it’s India-connection. As i left the theatre-hall i discussed with my friend if James Cameron had any inkling as to what his movie has the power to do for the gravest internal security threat in the country. Before we try and  generalize Avatar as a theme of good versus evil, lets look at the avatars of good and evil that the agents take in the film.

Inspired by the motion picture Avatar, this file photo shows protesters from NGOs Survival International, Action Aid and Amnesty International gathered outside Vedanta Resources' Annual General meeting in London.

In mineral rich Pandora, hundreds of indigenous tribes people are battling to stop RDA Corporation from extracting unobtanium from underneath what they say are their sacred sites including the Tree of Souls. Now, if i have to make a conservative guess, and i say this well-meaningly, i’d say a majority of the people who saw the movie rooted for the Na’vi to protect their homeland from the mineral-hungry industrialists(if you are one of those few who rooted for the RDA, please recognize that you have issues to deal with and see a shrink as soon as possible). And i rooted for the Na’vi too, not only because there is a human story behind all the magical special-effects, but because as an Indian I feel more empathetic to their plight as we have Avatar playing day in and day out in our country in the mineral-rich jungles of Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. And what riles me up most is that while the crowds lap up the jingoism as Tarok Macto avenges the destruction and loss caused by the industrial race, but soon as they walk out of the theatre-halls, they display utter disdain to the Maoist/Naxalite struggle. Are movies just meant to entertain? Or is there more to Alan Moore’s quote from V for Vendetta – “artists use lies to tell the truth” ? Why else would Survival International, Amnesty International and Action Aid organize demonstrations outside Vedanta  Resources’ HQ in London in 2010, while the champions of industry discussed profits from the last fiscal year within?

Let’s focus on what’s been happening in our country. In impoverished but mineral-rich Orissa, hundreds of indigenous tribes people are battling to stop London-listed Vedanta Alumina Limited from extracting bauxite from what they say is their sacred mountain, the Niyamgiri Hills.

Could this be any more obvious?

What i would like people to understand, and hope that the movie would awaken them to, is that there is no reason to shy away from admitting to yourself that our  governments can be as avaricious and evil as any villain in the best of the dystopian movies we’ve seen. And Avatar is doing just that for contextualizing the Naxalite struggle – forced exploitation and deprivation boomeranging back as reactionary violence – you get the gist. Seldom do events come by when they surpass their own being and skyrocket to popularity because it rings with  the popular sentiment of an angry and frustrated longing for making some sense of the world, and that is why Avatar, at least for us Indians, is not just a movie. If only more artists would realize the power of connecting society by art, they’d be humbled by their responsibility. Was Woodstock about sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll?

Let’s see why the movie provides much food for the Indian soul. First of all, the logic as furthered by many a viewer that Indians aren’t as moved by the movie on another level as others around the world because they fail to appreciate the exotica of their own indigenous tribals enough to root for them, is utter hogwash!!! What do you suggest then? Convert all the men and women of the Republic of India into Middle-Earth trotting creatures to milk sympathy out of Good Samaritans to save our lives?

Dongria Kondh tribe members protest against Vedanta

Has India's gravest internal security threat issue turned into a slug-fest of exotica one-upmanship?

Secondly, i don’t think  Indians realize that the situation on ground-zero in the Naxalite-dominated forests is much worse than they can imagine from Avatar. Certainly stories of systematic rape and authorities shitting in the locals’ wells to demoralize them and cut-off their supplies, all for grabbing their mineral-rich lands to be turned over to mining corporations didn’t make it to the reels of Avatar. Maybe what could help is an acquaintance with the native tribals of Orissa who’re under imminent threat from Vedanta Alumina and Posco, for their ancestral forest lands are up for grabs to be turned over for industrial production – which is what i shall attempt to do. The forthcoming material is sourced from the Report of the Four Member Committee For Investigation into the Proposal Submitted by the Orissa Mining Company For Bauxite Mining in Niyamgiri, prepared by Dr. N C Saxena, Dr S Parusaraman, Dr Promode Kant and Dr Amita Baviskar that they submitted to the MoEF on 16th August 2010, that is also open for public reading online. This study, i believe, shall put to rest a lot of myths.

***The forested slopes of Niyamgiri Hills and the many streams that flow through them provide the means of living for Dongaria Kondh and Kutia Kondh, Scheduled Tribes that are notified by the Central Government as ‘Primitive Tribal Groups’ and thus eligible for special protection under the Constitution of India. In addition, the Dongaria Kondh, whose total population is estimated at 7952 according to the 2001 census, are regarded as an endangered tribe. Schedule V of the Indian Constitution enjoins the Government to respect and uphold the land rights of Scheduled Tribes, which consequently applies to the entire Niyamgiri Hills region. While the Kutia Kondh inhabit the foothills, the Dongaria Kondh live in the upper reaches of the Niyamgiri hills which is their only habitat.

Now this is where fact and fantasy converge. In the polytheistic animist worldview of the Kondh, the hilltops and their associated forests are regarded as supreme deities. The highest hill peak, which is under the proposed mining lease(PML) area is the home of their most revered god, Niyam Raja – the giver of law. At a clearing at the foot of Niyamgiri, hundreds of Kondh tribes people gather to worship the mountain god who provides them with food, water, shelter, medicine and livelihood. They worship the mountains (dongar from which the Dongaria Kondh derive their name) along with the earth (dharini). These male and female principles come together to grant the Kondh prosperity, fertility and health. All the Dongaria and Kutia Kondh villagers that the Committee conversed with emphasized the connection between their culture and the forest ecology of the Niyamgiri hills. Their belief in the sacredness of the hills is rooted in a strong dependence on the natural resources that the mountains provide. Their customary practices in the area include agriculture, grazing and the collection of minor forest produce (MFP).

The Kutia Kondh in Similibhata village and Kendubardi use the foothills to cultivate cereals such as mandia(ragi, finger millet), kosla (foxtail millet), kango and kedjana, pulses such as kandlo (tuvar, pigeon pea), biri(urad, black gram), kulath (horse Gram) and jhudungo, as well as oilseeds like castor and linseed (alsi). Two women, Malladi Majhi and Balo Majhi, while showing us their millet stores said, “This is why we need the forest. All these things come only from the forest”. We can buy rice [at Rs 2 per kilo], but these [millets] are tastier and more filling’. Their cows and buffaloes spend six months grazing in the forest.

With small land holdings that average 1-2 acres, the Kutia Kondh of Similibhata depend heavily on the forest for their livelihoods. Since the forest resources satisfy the bulk of their material needs, only 4 households out of 50 supplement their income with wage labour. The tiny community of Dongaria Kondh, who live in the upland areas of the Niyamgiri hills, depend on the hills even more intensely. Their distinctive cultural identity is intrinsically linked to the Niyamgiri hills where they have crafted a diverse and intricate agro-forestry system that uses mountain slopes and streams to great advantage. (This is one of the most important rebuttals to the “Growth Story’ tellers of Indian Inc., who presume that tribals yearn to share a piece of the modern Indian growth-pie, when in fact, we have absolutely nothing that they need to have fuller lives. One of the reasons why the farmers in Singur agitated when Tata Motors bought their agricultural land in exchange for wage-labour to manufacture cars in 2008, is because they were perfectly content with having a self-sufficient economic model working for them, whereas had Tata Motors not yielded to their demands, they’d be subjugated to private contractual obligations and lost total independence. The business class perceives this sentiment as being anti-development or backward, when in fact we need to stop, stare and introspect our urban lives in gross contrast to the tribes of Orissa who have realized a sacred relationship with nature and co-exist in a symbiotic system, where one does not feed off the other, but provides for the other).

The Dongaria Kondh cultivate patches of land cleared from the forest, that are rotated to maintain soil fertility. Since their population is very small, they regard land as plentiful and leave most of it forested. Besides the crops mentioned above, the Dongaria Kondh also cultivate bajra (pearl millet) and beans such as kating(lobhia, cow pea) and sem (broad bean, Lablab purpureus). However, the skill that they are renowned for is horticulture: pineapple, banana, orange, lime, mango, jackfruit, turmeric and ginger are their most popular produces. This produce grown on forest plots fetch them a handsome income throughout the year. In addition, they collect a variety of forest produce: all the ones mentioned above as well as edible mushrooms and honey (both these items are important sources of nutrition in the Kondh diet as well as marketable commodities that fetch them a good income), edible leaves (koliari, betka and kodi kucha) and tubers, grasses for making brooms, and herbs for medicinal use. They also rear chicken, pigs, goats and buffaloes.

The maintenance of buffaloes is a challenge, because pasturage is scarce on the hill slopes where the villages are located. Hence villagers’ customary rights to graze livestock in the forest is crucial for their livelihood economy.

The Dongaria Kondh from Kurli, Khambesi and Lakpadar villages to whom the Committee spoke appeared to be substantially better off than the Kutia Kondh of Similibhata and Kendubardi villages. Their crops, animals and forest produce not only provide them with enough food for self-consumption (mandia and kosla are their staples), but also fetch them substantial returns from the market. One indication of this economic well-being is the bride-price recently paid in the Dongaria Kondh village of Lakpadar. Besides a jhaula payment of Rs 8,000 to the bride’s village for a community feast, the bride’s family was given a maula payment of Rs 50,000 in cash, two buffaloes, 20 kg of rice, 10 kg of ragi, salt, chillies and two canisters of mahua liquor(Not too shabbs!). Despite the scale of such outlay, no funds were borrowed from moneylenders. This self-sufficiency is a testimony to the prosperity of the upland hill economy. This entire sum was raised by the sale of agricultural and forest produce. Notably, no one in the village has ever worked for wages.

The Dongaria Kondh the Committee met were proud of their economic independence and freedom from want. Over and over again, they attributed their well-being and contentment to the Niyamgiri hills and their bounty. All Dongaria Kondh that the Committee spoke to expressed their strong attachment to the Niyamgiri hills, their stewardship of the land, and the legitimacy of their rights arising from their long-standing presence in these hills. They strongly voiced their contentment with life and their opposition to any destructive change of the ecology threatening their culture. As one Sikoka Budhga said, “We can never leave Niyamgiri. If the mountains are mined, the water will dry up. The crops won’t ripen. The medicinal plants will disappear. The air will turn bad. Our gods will be angry. How will we live? We cannot leave Niyamgiri.”***

The Committee established beyond any doubt that the area proposed for mining lease and the surrounding thick forests are the cultural, religious and economic habitat of the Dongaria Kondh. The Forest Conservation Act recognizes these rights and these facts are undisputed. The Orissa Govt. has to formalize the procedures of ascertaining forest rights claims of the indigenous communities and the rejection of the claims of the Primitive Tribal Groups on any grounds is illegal on part of divisional or sub-divisional committees. Based on this the Committee recommended the  Govt. of India to withdraw its clearance to the proposed project.

Pest Control?

One of the most glaring examples of the collusion between government authorities and the private mining corporations is evident from the Report’s find that Vedanta Alumina Ltd had already proceeded with construction activity for its enormous expansion project that would increase its capacity six-fold from 1 Mtpa to 6 Mtpa without obtaining environmental clearance as per the requirements of the Environment Impact Assessment Notification 0f 2006 under the Environment Protection Act. This illegal and gigantic expansionist strategy of the corporation shows its disregard for the laws of the country; but that disregard pales in comparison to the unimaginable wanton damage that would be caused to the ecosystem in Orissa had no one apprehended it.

Enter Rahul Gandhi(that expression seems tailor-made for him considering  how frequently and unsolicitedly he drops in and out of opportune events). For months on we read in the papers about the determined resistance of the Dongaria Kondhs and how for the first time the Central Government was in a pickle because non-violent adivasis were protesting against the land sharks, when in comes Rahul Gandhi and steals their show…i mean, how desperate is he for attention? How needy is this guy? Though i understand where he’s coming from…people have gotten to hate UPA-II so much for all their corruption-happy ways, he has to stoop to the level of wrestling with the Kondhs for sharing credit in getting the MoEF to reconsider the clearance given to Vedanta in Orissa and ultimately rejecting it. All this pro-aam aadmi posturing shall last so long as he’s campaigning to be the next PM. Soon as he’s elected, he’ll be surrounded by a coterie of Ivy-League educated lawyers and managers who will more likely than not ignore domestic issues and concentrate on consolidating India’s position as the rising economic-power. How then will he defend his pro-adivasi stance to his investor friends in the US/EU? I’m not sure if Rahul Gandhi suffers from selective-amnesia or not, but that must be why he never apprehended Mahendra Karma for disbanding the Salwa Judum, an armed civilian-vigilante group of upper-caste villagers and landlords in Chattisgarh who were trained to fight and resist “Naxalites”, created by the Congress’ Chattisgarh MLA, considering how much power he wields on policy-making within the Congress without holding any portfolio within the Government. In July 2011, in the matter of Nandini Sundar and Ors. v. the State of Chattisgarh the Supreme Court has since declared the Salaw Judum to be unconstitutional and asked for it to be disbanded immediately. But you’ve got to appreciate the poetry in the name they chose for the illegal militia – Purification Hunt for purifying the state of those who choose to resist the state in acquiring their resources and uprooting their livelihoods for the sake of turning them over to private interests for our ‘growing economy’, in exchange for pittance. The compensation the rural folk receive for forcefully giving up their lands is a steal. Perhaps the most serious indictment of the collusion between private corporations and the government is the Ministry of Rural Development’s draft report of the Committee on State Agrarian Relations and the Unfinished Task of Land Reforms, and i quote:

A civil war like situation has gripped the Southern districts of Bastar, Dantewada and Bijapur in Chattisgarh. The contestants are the armed squads of tribal men and women of the erstwhile People’s War Group now known as the Communist Party of India(Maoist) on the one side and the armed tribal fighters of the Salwa Judum created and encouraged by the government and supported with the firepower and organization of the Central Police Forces. This open declared war will go down as the biggest land grab ever since Columbus, if it plays out as per the script. The drama being scripted by Tata Steel and Essar Steel who wanted 7 villages or thereabouts, each to mine the richest lode of iron ore in India…Behind them(Salwa Judum) are the traders, contractors and miners waiting for a successful result of their strategy. The first financiers of the Salwa Judum were Tata and Essar Steel in the quest for ‘peace‘. The first onslaught of the Salwa Judum was on the Muria villagers who still owed an allegiance to the CPI(Maoist)…640 villages as per official statistics were laid bare…3,50,000 tribals are displaced, their women folk raped, daughters killed and youth maimed…Villages sitting on tonnes of iron-ore are effectively de-peopled and available for the highest bidder…Essar and Tata Steel are willing to take over the empty landscape and manage the mines.”

The final report of the MRD has conveniently edited out the inconvenient truths that could potentially kill India Inc’s image on the global stage. I can imagine that the Tatas and Ruias won’t be jumping with joy with corporate-genocide on their resume.

Let’s not forget that the current Home Minister, whose main job it is to ensure the security of the nation, and who is mainly in news for his hardliner approach in dealing with the Naxalites, what with deploying the CRPF men in areas of Chhattisgarh and the Maharashtra border-district of Gadchiroli earlier, or now bringing in the army in Chhattisgarh since June 2011, served on the Board of Directors for Vedanta Resources Ltd. and also provided legal representation to them until his job as the Finance Minister in 2004. Is it hard to imagine that P Chidambaram is karmically-indebted to his friends in the mining industry; ‘cleansing the forests’ of Chattisgarh  at their behest?

If mining is permitted on this site, not only will it be illegal but will also destroy the most sacred site for the Kondhs; centuries-old trees, hundreds of species of plants with medicinal properties, endanger the self-sufficient forest-based livelihoods and scores of perennial streams which flow down the mountain will be lost, say activists. Our Constitution enjoins us with a special duty to protect our tribals as it considers us developed enough to be responsible for them; developed in the sense of evolved human beings, not industrialized . Everytime we fail to protect the meek, we destroy the idea of India that we pride ourselves for; a country where multi-culturism never found it hard to make a place. For those who doubt India’s ability to uphold multi-culturism, remember, Hindu and Muslim villagers from in and around Ayodhya themselves never had any issues with the alleged existence of the Babri Masjid over Ram janmabhoomi. 

Let us salute the brave protesters from the tribal villages of Bhubaneshwar, Orissa in their peaceful struggle to reclaim their lands and yet again show to the world that the idea of justice can kick big money in it’s face…even $12 billion  of it!

Villagers and their children lie at the proposed site of a $12 billion steel plant by South Korea's POSCO during a protest in Orissa June 11, 2011. REUTERS/Stringer

(The descriptions Naxal and Maoist are used inter-changeably in the article. The Maoist struggle as we know it today, has its origins in 1960s Naxalbari, a small village in Darjeeling, Paschimbanga.)

Notes – 

1. Report of the Four Member Committee For Investigation into the Proposal Submitted by the Orissa Mining Company For Bauxite Mining in Niyamgiri: http://moef.nic.in/downloads/public-information/Saxena_Vedanta.pdf

2. Judgement of the Supreme Court in the matter of Nandini Sundar & Ors. versus State of Chattisgarh – http://www.pudr.org/sites/default/files/nandini%20sunadar%20vs%20chattisgarh_0.pdf

3. Ministry of Rural Development’s draft report of the Committee on State Agrarian Relations and the Unfinished Task of Land Reforms, Vol. 1, March 2009 – http://www.rd.ap.gov.in/IKPLand/MRD_Committee_Report_V_01_Mar_09.pdf