January 6, 2012

A plan in action

Saranda Action Plan is a step in the right direction to bring development to Maoist- affected areas

“Saranda, at the juncture of Odisha and Jharkhand, is a region forgotten by the Government. The natives have been left alone to eke out their livelihoods. Most of Saranda still lives essentially a pre-modern existence.” These are words of Sulochana Mahato, a block level functionary in the Saranda Forest region, which falls in the hilly region of the West Singhbhum district in Jharkhand.

Saranda is home to 25 percent of India’s iron-ore deposit and has been a traditional stronghold of the CPI (Maoist) for over a decade since 2001. On the back of a successful security offensive mounted by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), Union Minister of Rural Development, Jairam Ramesh pushed forward, in his words, “a crucial project and a possible blueprint for other states”, the ‘Saranda Action Plan’ (SAP) earlier this month. The project will be implemented by the Jharkhand government.

The plan includes distribution of solar lamps, bicycles, transistors, musical instruments to the families in Saranda and bringing them under Below Poverty Line (BPL) and Indira Awaas Yojana (IAY) housing schemes. In addition to this, distribution of land ‘pattas’ and old age pension to eligible families and persons constitute important parts of the plan objectives. The SAP comes in the backdrop of a similar and a more comprehensive ‘Integrated Action Plan (IAP) for Selected Tribal and Backward Districts’ proposed by the Planning Commission in 2010.

Photo: Eric Parker

The IAP too was designed to address the lack of basic development in Maoist affected areas. However its implementation has been dismal. Data from the Planning Commission puts the average performance (in terms of project completion) of districts under the IAP at a mere 31 percent. Further examination of data reveals that Jharkhand has been the worst performer among Maoist affected states, with only 19 percent of the projects under IAP attaining completion. It is the state which is home to the Saranda forests.

What explains the IAP’s poor implementation? In a note sent to the Prime Minister’s Office earlier this year, the Planning Commission concluded that “putting more money in areas where utilisation levels were already low made no sense at all without major reforms in governance.”

The plan fails to remedy the fundamental cause that is at the heart of the Maoist problem. Recognising this ground reality, the SAP has sought to plug the loophole by establishing integrated development centres (IDCs) at ‘strategic locations’ of the Saranda forest. According to the plan, development works will be implemented through these special centres. Here, it must be noted that implementing development programs after a successful security operation has proved to be the Achilles Heel in the government’s ‘Hold and Develop’ policy. In a fluid situation after a security offensive, quick implementation of development works attains high importance. Success of the IDC model is therefore critical.

A recent development that could bolster the IDCs in the short run is the success of the CRPF’s mobile units in providing basic facilities to the local community. The CRPF’s ‘mobile kitchen’ (atop a van) was put to use recently in preparing hot meals for the local community in Saranda. Leveraging these mobile units to provide food and health facilities parallel to other development works through the IDCs will help plug the ‘implementation gap’ quickly. This is crucial to winning the confidence of the local community and gain the upper hand over the Maoists in the initial (6 -12 months) period of government intervention.

Without doubt, the tougher challenge is to institutionalise such mechanisms and make them sustainable in the long run in absence of security forces. Mr. Ramesh’s call therefore, towards strengthening the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act is a welcome step. A Gram Sabha as envisaged under PESA, with fairly independent political and financial powers would not only lead to “increased political activity” (as called for by Mr. Ramesh), but also help establish at the lowest levels, a strong institutional framework for carrying out development initiatives. More importantly, it will also provide autonomy to the local community in choosing/prioritising welfare schemes according to their needs.

The SAP in its current form does well to integrate many flagship programs of the Central government, but has surprisingly excluded various agricultural schemes from its ambit. This so, when agriculture and forest produce forms the mainstay of the tribal population.

While the SAP manages to correctly diagnose what ails the tribal hinterland, it still falls short on providing a clear remedy to the fundamental cause that is at the heart of the Maoist problem–land. Conflict arising due to displacement and mining activity often provides fertile ground for the Maoists to expand their influence. Though the SAP includes distribution of land ‘pattas’ among its objectives, recurrence of conflict in the future cannot be ruled out. India’s growing need for raw materials and mineral ores is likely to increase hostility between the local community and mining interests, especially in mineral rich regions like Saranda. To that end, the long term objectives of the SAP must aim at reducing land dependency of the local community and facilitating smooth transition from agriculture to other areas of employment. The answer to this lies in connecting these isolated communities with the modern economy in a ‘harmonised’ manner.

The SAP besides laying stress on road connectivity through the PMGSY scheme, also seeks to establish agriculture information kiosks, banks, post offices and godowns through the IDCs. Opening up these interfaces of the modern economy is a step in the right direction and will not only bring ‘access’ to these communities,but also open up new avenues for the government to create low-skilled jobs at these centres. In a recent discussion between the Ministry of Rural Development and the Empowered Group of Secretaries for the IAP, a proposal was floated to involve leading FMCG companies in marketing non-timber produce. While feasibility of the proposal is yet to be tested, the IDCs could play an important role by interfacing the private companies with the local community for any commercial activity in the future, thus spurring non-agricultural jobs in the region.

An important cog in the wheel that has missed policy-makers is telecommunication. Under the National Telecom Policy – 1999, telecom licenses imposed obligations on the licensee to install ‘direct connections’ and a certain number of ‘public phones’ in the villages. Action plans such as the SAP could leverage these obligations in creating ‘wireless infrastructure’ in Maoist affected areas. Mobile infrastructure would not only compliment other ‘access’ services, but also help the government streamline monitoring and implementation of development works. Bihar presents a successful example of this, where project engineers have been equipped with GPS enabled smartphones to monitor road projects across the state. A similar model involving ‘development officers’ or ‘junior engineers’ could be adopted in Maoist affected areas.

Finally, the spirit behind any integrated action plan should be to present the local community with “the best our democracy has to offer” and not push down their throat, a development that is disruptive and not in sync with their “way of life”.

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