Governance Now Lecture Series Jairam Ramesh


First of all,  let me say how intrigued and surprised I am that somebody is actually taking interest  in the Saranda Development Plan, that the national media has taken the trouble, spending the time, the money to post a young man on the spot who is reporting from the ground, so to speak. He is based in Manoharpur, not an easy place to work in under any circumstances, much less an easy place to live in. First, I would like to recognise Sarthak’s contribution. He’s been critical of us and I welcome that criticism. I must say that much of his criticism has prompted us to carry out changes in the way some of the development programmes are being carried out in Saranda. I welcome more such people to give us honest assessment and feedback on the implementation of these programmes. Much of the information may not be palatable for us but I think it is important to hear what is actually happening on the ground.

Saranda Development Plan: What it is and what it could mean

In July-August of 2011, the 850 sq km Saranda forest area in Paschimi Singhbhum district of Jharkhand was liberated after eleven years of Maoist control and on August 15 last year the national triclour flew for the first time in eleven years somewhere in Saranda. It was a hard-fought operation. The CRPF deserves all credit. This is not an easy area to operate in even from a security point of view because it is one of the most serious malaria-endemic areas of our country. The CRPF, I think, had a lot of casualties because of malaria but they went in when they were least expected. This is a very interesting change in the strategy of the CRPF which intervenes when it is expected to intervene. For the first time, they went in at the height of the monsoon. Nobody expected it, least of all the Maoists, who probably have a better view of us than we ourselves. They thought that during the monsoon nobody is going to risk his health or life to get into the Saranda area. But it is precisely during the monsoon that the director general of CRPF, Mr Vijay Kumar, decided to move in and over a period of two and a half or three months with the help of the Jharkhand police, the CRPF was able to establish a presence there. They don’t dominate as yet but they have an important and expanding physical presence. It was after this that I asked myself the question how development can consolidate on the security success. Clearly, this was a success for the security forces but the challenge was sustaining this success — how does one ensure that the Saranda does not go back into Maoist control, how does one ensure that now that it was back in civilian hands the opportunity is used creatively from a developmental point of view. It is then that we started our dialogue with the Jharkhand government, with the local governments and the CRPF and we came up with what is now being called the Saranda Development Plan. The plan covers six gram panchayats in one block (Manoharpur) and it covers a population of nearly 36,500 from about 7,000 families all of whom are impoverished. All of these families will be, in my view, much below the BPL. They are most impoverished, they are most disadvantaged. An overwhelming majority of these families are tribal. They are living in conditions – a sad reflection on all of us – which after so many years of independence should be considered intolerable and unacceptable by any standards. This was the background to the Saranda Development Plan and the idea was, as I said, to consolidate on the success of the security forces and see how the implementation of developmental plans can help in transforming the environment and ensuring that the Maoists don’t return.

Mining for conflict: Displacement, R&R and sustainability
Now, there are a number of areas in our country which are ‘liberated’. You don’t exactly feel it when you are living in Delhi that there are areas of our country which are ‘liberated’ from civilian control. But there are such places. There is a 4,000 sq km area right in the centre  of our country, in Chhattishgarh, spread across Narayanopur, Bijapur, Dantewada and the entire Abujhmarh area which is liberated, where I can’t go, a block development officer can’t go, a mukhiya or a panchayat representative can’t go. The collector, certainly, can’t go. The last time a collector tried to go, you saw what happened to young Alex Menon. So, there is this Abujhmarh area which is ‘liberated’ — liberated from the control of the state government, of the central government. There were parts of Andhra Pradesh, like the Nagarjuna Sagar-Srisailam tiger reserve that’s again about 4,000 sq km that had been ‘liberated’ but are now slowly coming back into government control. Yesterday (August 12), I was in Lohardaga, only about 140 km from Ranchi and there are parts of the district that are ‘liberated’. It is ironic that the day before yesterday I wanted to go to the birthplace of Birsa Munda, the great tribal leader and I couldn’t go because it is now beyond the pale of civilian control. So, Saranda is not unique. There are these pockets in Odisha, Chhattishgarh, Jharkhand, Andhra and Maharashtra — Gadchiroli district particularly — where the civilian administration is simply not present, where the district administration can’t go, where elected representatives can’t go, where the writ of the state, defined broadly, doesn’t run. So, the relevance of the Saranda Development Plan goes beyond the 900 sq km. It’s not just restricted to Saranda, which happens to be the thickest sal-forest in the world and has India’s richest iron-ore deposit. Who knows, there may well be other minerals if a proper mineral survey is done. So, ten months ago we started this exercise and the components of the Saranda Development Plan are the normal rural development programmes that we run, of which the Mahatma Gandhi national rural employment guarantee scheme is the most important. Today, labour is actually coming out and working on NREGS projects and getting paid — wages are being paid. The Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana which provides roads in rural areas to improve connectivity, the Indira Awaas Yojana which gives assistance of `48,000 to each of these 7,000 households below the poverty line in need of a house, the rural livelihoods interventions in order to add value to the traditional, forest-based livelihoods of the tribal populations and improving the basic infrastructure, particularly for electricity, education, health and so on and so forth. As was explained earlier, the SDP is a concentrated highly focused developmental intervention with timelines, with intensive monitoring — I have personally visited Saranda four times in the last six months — and we are trying to demonstrate what development can mean for communities who have not seen development in the last sixty years. I mean, the base on which we have started is set very, very low. Therefore, what we are doing with the SDP is basically ensuring the fulfilment of constitutional obligations to each and every citizen of our country. For some reason or the other, they had been denied these benefits. We can discuss later during the question-answer session why Saranda was poor when Maoist activity first started in the region.

Let me also admit, had it not been for the Maoists, Saranda would not have occupied the centre stage in policy discussions. So, in a very perverse way, what the Maoists have done is to bring to our attention the fact that there are large parts of our country, particularly in the central Indian tribal belt, where basic development is conspicuous by its absence. It is a sad commentary on all of us, on successive central governments, on successive state governments and I think it is a colossal failure of the political establishment in ensuring basic dignity of living for these tribal communities which allowed the Maoists to come in and establish a presence and continue with their activities.

The first and the most important issue, in my view is the mining issue. The areas which are liberated are also areas that are mineral-rich. As I have noted earlier, we should not romanticise the Maoists in our country — they are romanticised in the civil society, they are romaticised in the media. But, increasingly, the Maoist movement is becoming a levy-driven movement, not an ideology-driven movement. When I visited Loahardaga and Gumla, ordinary tribals knew what a levy-based system is. A levy-based system is – for every tonne of iron-ore, bauxite, coal or any other mineral that is removed, a certain proportion goes to the Maoists. So, increasingly, the Maoists are becoming levy-driven. However, a lot of these things get subsumed under the rubric of the Maoist movement. In all these areas, Saranda being the prime example, the question of mining and how we adopt a mining strategy that is ecologically sustainable and socially beneficial assumes crucial significance. In Saranda itself, a large number of private players have been given mining licences. Of course, in Saranda the largest player is the public sector undertaking, the Steel Authority of India Limited, to whom the mines came with the acquisition of the erstwhile Indian Iron and Steel Company. But we have a real issue here. In fact, one of the strongest criticism of the SDP that I hear every day from human rights groups, from civil society groups, from the media is that the objective of the plan is to build an environment conducive to mining — that the roads that we are building will open up mines, that the houses which we are building will help create an environment that will enable mining companies to launch operations. The biggest challenge that I have had to face in the last ten months or so is to convince people that this is not a mining-oriented development plan. It is a basic infrastructure and dignity-oriented development plan and the issue of mining is a separate issue that needs to be tackled by the state and central governments. But in all these areas, whether is in Abujhmarh in Chhattishgarh, or it is in Saranda in Jharkhand, or in Koraput-Malkangiri-Rayagada area in Odisha, the issue of mining is of paramount significance. The fear is if you allow mining to take place the way it has taken place in our country, not only will it be environmentally devastating but also it will also ensure an influx of outsiders with all the menial jobs going to the locals. It is a fear that has been expressed to me time and again. Yesterday, I visited a bauxite mine of a leading private company in the Maoist-affected area of Lohardaga and the complaint of the local tribals was that the menial jobs have gone to the locals and all the semi-skilled and skilled jobs have gone to outsiders. Our track record on mining has been pathetic. We have not demonstrated environmental or social responsibility in mining and the rehabilitation and resettlement commitments we have made while acquiring land have not been fulfilled. In fact, one of the strongest propaganda issues for the Maoists in Chhattishgarh is that the R&R promised when land was acquired for the Bailadila iron-ore mines by the NMDC have not yet been fulfilled. I have seen in the case of a large multipurpose irrigation project in Chhattishgrah, inaugurated way back in 1972, when the tribals got displaced, they got displaced for the second time. So, multiple displacements are not uncommon. So, I think our track record being what it is, our inability to fulfil our R&R pledges, our propensity to acquire huge amounts of land in excess of what we require — of which the HEC in Ranchi is the prime example, 5,000 acres were acquired and only a few hundreds of that are being utilised — our propensity to acquire the land and sit on it (sic). In fact, today there is an agitation in Nagri, hardly a twenty-minute drive from Ranchi because 200-250 acres of land was acquired 50 years ago and now the Jharkhand government wants to build a central university and an Indian Institute of Management on the land. Today, tribals are asking the government, “What were you doing for 55 years?” All this has led to a situation where the credibility of any government assurance to a tribal has hit rock-bottom. Walter Fernandes, an eminent scholar who is now in Guwahati, perhaps the one scholar who has worked the maximum on land and displacement, has estimated that some 15 million tribals in the country have been subject to some form of displacement in the last sixty years. Now, we may argue over the exact figure but I think that the magnitude of what Walter Fernandes has talked about is very significant. I would place the mining issue at the crux of the development debate today in areas like Saranda.

Forest rights and wrongs
The second large developmental issue relates to forest administration. These are not only mineral-rich area but also forest-rich areas. In 2006, we brought a historic piece of legislation, the Forest Rights Act. The FRA was opposed by foresters. I spent the good part of 26 months in the ministry of environment and forests battling with the forest bureaucracy on the FRA, 2006. It is now the law of the land, it has been implemented and it is being implemented. But there are serious lacunas in its implementation. Community forest rights have not been recognised to the extent that they should have. Eleven lakh individual pattas have been recognised but hardly 2,000 or 3,000 forest rights have been recognised. The essence of society in tribal areas is community. So, we are not yet in the mode of recognising community forest rights to the extent that they should have been, realising the ground-level reality in the tribal areas. And to make the FRA, the pattas given under it, a starting point of a new partnership between the tribals and the forest administration has yet to take place. According to the Indian Forest Act of 1927, the forest bureaucracy has unfettered powers in lodging cases against the tribals who go into the forest for collection of non-timber forest produce. Some amendments have been proposed to the Act which I hope will see the light of day. The cabinet has approved these amendments in March of 2011 and I hope that we will be able to pass these in this session of parliament. What it does is redfine the relationship between the tribal and the forest guard because the first face of the forest administration that the tribal confronts in these areas is the forest guard. For the tribal, the forest bureaucracy is a byword for harassment and a byword for making life difficult. And it is not a secret — I have written to the chief ministers that it is not a secret that a very large number of tribals are in jail today in Chhattishgarh, in Jharkhand, in Odisha, on very flimsy charges. The police people recognise it. So, the reform of forest bureaucracy and forest laws, the whole issue of transferring control to tribal communities and the gram sabhas is absolutely crucial. We have not been able to achieve much here. The only success I had when I was the forest minister was in Gadchiroli district. The second Governance Now lecture should be on what we did in Gadchiroli. It is very important from a Maoist point of view because it remains one of the worst-affected districts in the country. What happened in Gadchiroli last April is that the control of the transit passbooks for bamboo was transferred from the forest department to the gram sabha. The net result of it is that the additional income of the gram sabha in Mendalekha village is `1 crore — `1 crore, while what they used to get is a few lakh, five or six lakh, when the forest department controlled the bamboo trade. The entire bamboo trade, which is the most lucrative of all non-timber forest produce trade, is now in the hands of the gram sabha. We are trying to do this in Saranda as well but there is always opposition from the forest department. Who wants to let go of the trade in bamboo or other such lucrative non-timber forest produce? So, this whole issue of forest administration, forest laws, the relationship between the forest administration and tribals at the cutting-edge level, the control over bamboo movement and the issue of the non-timber forest produce — of adding value to it and getting that value back to the tribal communities is going to very important for development from the larger perspective of livelihoods of the tribals.
Pushing for health in Maoist-affected areas

Thirdly, these are areas where the health system has completely collapsed. If you were to ask me what I would do if I was the czar of these areas, I would make sure that basic health facilities are available in these areas. These are highly malaria-endemic areas. I see Shoma Choudhary (of Tehelka) here. She lost a young colleague to malaria in one of these Saranda-type areas (Tehelka photojournalist Tarun Shekhawat passed away after contracting malaria and jaundice during an assignment in Abujhmarh in Chhattishgarh.) Such incidents are not uncommon as the health system simply does not exist. I think the issue of health administration in tribal areas which is leading to very high levels of malnutrition, very high incidences of morbidity and mortality, and very low life expectancy is something that we must come to grips with, sooner rather than later.
So, I think that these three larger issues — the issue of mining, how we make it ecologically sustainable and socially beneficial from a local point of view, not a national point of view (because mining is always good from India’s perspective, but from a local point of view, it tends to impose huge costs which we often neglect in our calculations), the second issue of forest administration, the reform of the forest bureaucracy, the forest laws, the empowerment of the gram sabhas or the palli sabhas under the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (sic). PESA was passed in 1996 but no state government till today has made PESA a reality. And third, the larger issue of some basic developmental initiatives, prime amongst which, I will place health because without the security of basic health services, all other interventions, be it education, be it connectivity which we are trying to provide in Saranda, employment, livelihoods, or any other, become ‘infructuous’. So, let me end by saying that the Saranda Development Plan is a bold initiative. Ten months later, we have had good success. But we have also had disappointments, we have also had failures. The most important thing that I see, however, after my visits to Saranda is that people are starting to demand things. They are giving me representations; they are complaining that they don’t have a BDO. It is ironic that, as I speak to you today, Manoharpur block does not have a block development officer. So, people are coming forward and that’s the essence of development, the essence of a democratic way to resolve these issues.

The need for political mobilisation
I see in all these areas a complete absence of political mobilisation. The Saranda Development Plan is developmental intervention. It will get the development right, hopefully. It will provide employment, it will provide houses, it will add value to livelihoods, it will give roads but what it will not do is set the politics right. To my mind, that is fundamental. If we don’t get political activity going in Maoist-affected areas, development will not take us very far. You need a combination of political mobilisation by mainstream political parties, by regional parties. You need a combination of political mobilisation in which the youth are attracted to join political cadre, not Maoist cadre, of a tribal-centred development proposition that the Saranda Development Plan epitomises, and of course, security operations. One should not minismise the importance of security forces in Maoist-affected areas. None of the SDP would have been possible without the CRPF. Let’s be very clear — we have a tendency to demonise the security forces in our country — but I think that is completely wrong and misplaced. It is the security forces in Saranda, in Sarju, in Abujhmarh or in Balaghat in Madhya Pradesh which are creating an environment for politicians and administrators to go in and carry out the developmental activities. So, let’s not be under any illusion that development by itself will solve this problem. You need this troika of political mobilisation, tribal-centred developmental activities and a sensitive security strategy, all working hand-in-hand to see the replication of the Saranda Development Plan. I have already announced yesterday the Sarju Development Plan — Sarju was under Maoist control for under 15 years; it is in Latehar and Garhwa districts in Jharkhand. It is an area of about 4,000 sq km spread across 12 gram panchayats, 4 blocks; it is much bigger than Saranda. We are going to start the Sarju Development Plan based on the confidence we have gained from Saranda.

So, I want to congratulate Governance Now for taking so much time and effort for making this investment and seeing some value in a developmental intervention. I look forward to not just positive news but I also look forward to getting a constant stream of bad news. It is only after I got some negative news from Sarthak on the Indira Awaas Yojana. Let me give you this example and I will end here — 6,000 Indira Awaas Yojana houses were promised to the people of Saranda. After four months, I discovered that only 2,000 Indira Awaas funds have been distributed, the first installments had been given out. When I heard this, I called the district officials and the officials of the three banks that operate in Saranda — the Canara Bank, the Bank of India and the State Bank of India, and we discovered where the problem lay. The problem lay in the fact that these three banks did not have the wherewithal, did not have the adequate resources or the manpower to open 6,000 accounts! Therefore, this wasn’t a demand-side problem. This was supply-linked problem. We finally fixed this problem and in the next few weeks, all the families are scheduled to receive the government assistance. So, I thank Sarthak particularly, for giving us this ground-level truth. What I have tried to do is give you a broad flavour of an experiment that we have started, of an experiment of consolidating developmental intervention in the wake of security success in a Maoist-affected area. I am hopeful that, sooner rather than later, this will get replicated in other parts of the country.


  • Jairam Ramesh

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