Friday, May 21, 2010

Winning back people from Maoists' hold

“No roads lead into Naxal-affected areas” screamed a headline recently in a national daily. An internal review the other day at the Planning Commission revealed what has been known all these years. Among the 34 districts reviewed by the Plan Panel, Dantewada in the Bastar region of the Chhattisgarh State had the poorest record on road connectivity. The district was the scene of a recent carnage when Maoists, aka Naxalites, killed as many as 76 police personnel in a well planned ambush near Chintalnar village. According to the Panel member secretary, road connectivity is a big issue in Maoists-affected districts. While district officials cannot be easily deployed in these districts, those who are available do the work of village development out of the district headquarters for want of roads.

Virtually, like rediscovering the wheel, the Planning Commission, with the help of the National Informatics Centre (NIC), has stumbled upon the fact that the country’s worst developed districts include its most Naxal-hit ones. It sounds somewhat strange that this realisation has dawned upon the Planning Commission now when the Maoists have carved out an extensive “red corridor” for themselves covering eight states of the Union, pushing the Indian State out of the territories occupied by them. That there was a strong correlation between the lack of development and rise of Naxalism has been known all these years, though the recent revelations at the Commission may have been backed up by more solid data collected by the NIC.

In order to overcome the problems born out of lack of development the Commission plans to launch an Integrated Action Plan which seeks to speed up the process of filling up of the developmental gaps in the 34 districts spanning 8 states. Looks like, the Commission is serious this time as it proposes to convince the states to focus on these gaps and provide feedback on expenditure on centrally funded schemes. Perhaps, the recent massacre of police personnel has prompted the urgency.

Likewise, around the same time the Home Minister, P Chidambaram, while speaking at the national conference of the Confederation of Indian Industry, felt there couldn’t be any end to the Naxal problem without winning people’s trust. In the prevailing conflict-situation people were in deep distress and the “government model was unable to deliver”. He said that Maoists were destroying with a design schools and anything symbolic of the government. In the process, according to him, they are happy as people cannot read (for lack of schools), people cannot communicate (for lack of telephones) and nothing can move in or out (for want of roads). “We have a formidable adversary whereas we have a weak administration (State governments)” said the Minister. By the admission of the state governments, the Minister said, one-third of the funds for developmental work could not be spent in the affected areas for a variety of reasons.

Wondering whether development should precede police action, Chidambaram underscored the difficulties of delivery in areas where the government could not even enter. He said “we have to be practical. In some areas it is possible, in some areas it is not ... The government would continue with its two pronged strategy of carrying forward its development effort and a calibrated and controlled police action in order to assert civilian authority in the affected areas.”

Neither the Planning Commission nor the Home Minister seemed to have been aware of how under the leadership of a gritty collector Maoists were pushed back in the badly affected Balaghat district of Madhya Pradesh. For his extraordinary achievements the collector, Gulshan Bhamra, was also bestowed with the Prime Minister’s Excellence Award in April 2010. Bhamra’s is a singular example of winning the trust of the people and bringing them back into the mainstream. Sheer inspired leadership, teamwork and grit won him spectacular results.

Balaghat district in Madhya Pradesh bordering on Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra was one of the 223 districts in the country that were severely affected by Naxalism. Infiltrating from Rajnandgaon district of Chhattigarh and Bhandara district of Maharashtra in the early 1990s, the Naxals quickly consolidated their hold in the largely forested district. Many of its villages, estimated to be around 400, were “liberated” and the State’s writ did not run in them. Killings and destruction of government property were commonplace events. A cabinet minister of the then Digvijay Singh government, LR Kavre, was killed in his house in his own village and the chief minister was not very sure whether he should take the risk of attending the funeral.

Things were so bad. Even Bhamra, after he was posted as collector, is reported to have assumed charge only after good deal of procrastination. However, once he joined, he gave to the job whatever he had and during his three-year tenure achieved results that were amazing and should have been trumpeted all over the country. Road connectivity in the district shot up from 520 km to 2,228 km. With roads rapidly coming up, telecom companies started installing cell-phone towers improving the connectivity with the wider world. About 28000 hectares of new lands were brought under irrigation. Harvesting of forest produce that had been suspended was resumed and the works of collection of tendu leaves and bamboo felling was re-started. The revenue from forest produce doubled from 28 crore in 2006-07 to 55 crore in 2008-09. As people got jobs closer home, migrations out of villages dropped from 4217 in 2005-06 to 2840 in 2008-09. The result of all these activities was progressive fall in Naxal activities. The number of attacks fell from 21 in 2005 to 7 in 2006 and, amazingly, none in 2009.

It is not that the government model failed everywhere, as Chidambaram lamented. It works but it depends on the genius of the district-head. In Balaghat, Bhamra went only after what was hurting the people most and resultantly exploited by the Maoists – non-availability of healthcare and medicines, lack of jobs, lack of roads and connectivity. He got it all from the people whom he would meet at the village “haats”. Besides, Bhamra adopted the integrated approach that Planning Commission has decided upon only now. For instance, instead of using the funds received under the NREGS in isolation, he integrated the developmental funds available under various central and state schemes and pumped them into the process of development. The works progressed fast and were further speeded up as the powers to monitor and supervise them were given to the people through the panchayats. More importantly, he led by example and the entire district administration lined up behind him to contribute to the common cause – the welfare of the people in order to defeat the Maoists. And, true enough they were beaten back, not by force but by the sheer will of an increasingly happier and contented people.

Balaghat’s is a model that is a welcome change for a nation so bedevilled by the Maoist violence. It should be tried elsewhere in the State where many districts offer fertile grounds for rise of Naxalism. It can even be replicated in other affected states, though maybe, it will not work in areas where the state has no presence. Elsewhere, however, similar approaches, founded on local needs, could be attempted to gradually wrest as many districts as possible from the hold of the Maoist’s. What is required is a firm political will at the top and, at the district level, an inspired leadership with commitment to the wellbeing of the people

The multimillion rupee bribes

One wonders whether it is just coincidence. In at least three recent cases three different individuals were nabbed for asking for and accepting bribes of Rs. 2 crore (Rs. 20 million). Manjit Singh Bali, holding the very senior position of Chief Postmaster General of Maharashtra & Goa, was caught red-handed accepting bribe of Rs. 2 crore and was promptly arrested. Similarly, a senior lady officer, perhaps an additional commissioner of the Income Tax Department in Thane, Maharashtra, was also arrested for taking Rs. 2 crore as bribe. She was working in cahoots with her husband who acted as the cash collector. Ketan Desai, Chairman of the Medical Council of India, too was nabbed while taking a Re 2-crore bribe. Coincidence or not, this infernal amount, apparently some sort of going rate, is jinxed.

There is something about crores that make those who want a great life ask for it. A few lakhs or even a crore, apparently, are pass̩ Рpresumably, not enough to buy all that an ambitious and thoroughly unscrupulous person looking for a great life desires. Looks like, the amount of a couple of crores or more is somewhat like El Dorado; it drives people to put at stake everything they have to get there. The seductive high life beckons them like a temptress and, finding it irresistible, they succumb to its charms and take the plunge.

How times have changed! Only a few decades back a crore was something eminently ungettable any which way for an official. Back then not many aspired to accumulate even a lakh (one hundred thousand rupees). Lakhpaties were few and could be counted on finger tips. Among the middle classes “four-figure salaries” were a big deal. Parents used to look for “beautiful, fair and highly accomplished” brides for their sons claiming a “four-figure salary” for them. In the 1960s the best of services, including the civil services, used to start off with a three-figure salary of Rs. 400/- with, maybe, Rs. 10/- as DA. Only at retirement one would end up with a salary of four figures. Looking into the future in those days one thought one’s life would be made if one, after judiciously managing one’s finances, could retire with around a lakh in the bank and live off the (woefully meagre) pension that was yet to be made 50% of the last pay.

Looking back, one finds that ambitions and aspirations of the kind one sees today to strike it big had yet to raise their ugly heads. Unbelievable as it may seem, those were the days of innocence. Not quite open to the wider world, we were yet to be exposed to the glitz and glamour of the West – its acquisitiveness and its consumerism. The system had kept the people, including most of the bureaucracy, insulated from external influences. While politicians made merry, the rest lived out their lives in an economy of shortages. Those who were straight – and most were so – lived a life, even at the higher levels of the bureaucracy, which was, if anything, Spartan. Even in early 1980s Secretaries and additional secretaries to Government of India would routinely ride chartered buses in Delhi to go to office – and they were not ashamed of doing so.

A sea-change seems to have occurred with the opening up of the economy. With multinationals and foreign corporations setting shop in the country and consequential burgeoning of demands of IT and management professionals the pay packages skyrocketed. Not to be left behind, the last two pay commissions gave the salaries in the government a huge heave, so much so that the top bureaucrats today are at spitting distance of the five-figure mark. And yet, corrupt remained corrupt, perhaps became more so, setting their sights higher looking for multi-crore underhand deals, presumably to compete with those in private sector. In Madhya Pradesh as many three IAS officers, including an IAS couple (both of Principal Secretary level) were found by tax officials with money and jewellery stashed away in several lockers worth several crores sources of which they could not explain. Recently a Joint Secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs at the Centre was nabbed and disclosures made by intelligence sleuths on phone tapping carried by the Outlook magazine made a mention of a senior official in South Block negotiating for a bribe of Rs 8 crores. Seems like everyone is chasing rainbows!

There were corrupt even then but their numbers were limited. Politicians were (and are even today) corrupt. They used to play around with ill-gotten crores during the elections. Hung elections were happy events for many politicians as that was when they would sell themselves to the highest bidder. Bureaucracy was, however, largely untouched by this malaise. Some would surely indulge in wheeling and dealing but that would not involve mindboggling sums like those of today. With ethical and moral standards getting a knock-over, people now have become reckless. Those who want to make it big by hook or by crook, seemingly, think nothing of facing the indignity of being caught in the act of committing a crime which is still considered reprehensible, though bribe-giving or bribe-taking has virtually become our way of life.

They are not held back by the prospects of being unable to look at their family, friends, colleagues and subordinates in the eye or being hustled like common criminals in public and media gaze by policemen into waiting vans with heavily grilled windows and, unlike their official luxury sedans, with seats that are hard and straight-backed on which a posse of gruff cops make themselves comfortable all around, seemingly, to prevent an escape, if attempted. Myriad 24X7 TV news channels show their discomfiture in half-hourly news-bulletins dragging their names through mud and slime. Further indignities await them when they are detained and eventually jailed by having to rub shoulders with the dregs of society.

Consumed by the Western consumer-culture people in general and those wielding power and influence in particular seem to be losing their sense of balance and character. Worse, our demand-driven development model, unfortunately, promotes the same cult of consumerism. With the progressively loosening grip of traditional values, weaker minds seem to be falling prey, as it were, to this monster and are opting for a self-defeating denouement. It is a contagion which seems to be rapidly spreading in the current Indian society and, unless checked, may engulf all of it with consequences that could be disastrous.