Are the knives being readied as another round of “development” is foisted on the Adivasis of Chhattisgarh?

We are passing through a period that is dominated by the word “development.” Development is the word of the times we live in. Indeed, the respective identities of its beneficiaries and of its victims tell a lot about the character of the ruling classes and their political representatives. Behind the affluence of the beneficiaries of development lies the poverty of its many victims. The words development, the Constitution, democracy, protection and humanity seem to acquire the flavour of folly and betrayal when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, Raman Singh, use them.Development naturally comes first, so the memoranda of understanding (MoU)—instruments to launch the development process—came first on Modi’s agenda during his recent visit to Chhattisgarh. MoUs for a 3 million tonne per annum steel plant by the public sector steel-maker SAIL and the public sector iron ore mining company NMDC (National Mineral Development Corporation) at Dilmili in Bastar District, iron ore processing facilities by NMDC at Bacheli-Kirandul, and the second phase of the Dalli–Raoghat–Jagdalpur railway line were announced.

What followed were some noble words about the futility of Maoist violence. Never mind the fact that Raman Singh was concurrently proposing “protection” to the participants of the jan jagaran abhiyan (JJA, translated as “people’s awareness campaign”) that Chhavindra Karma (son of the assassinated founder of the armed private vigilante force Salwa Judum, Mahendra Karma) had announced on 5 May, four days before the arrival of the Prime Minister in Dantewada.

The people of the Bastar region know only too well what the present turn of events portend, for there is the bitter public memory of the first JJA in the early 1990s, the second in 1997 and 1998, and then the Salwa Judum, launched in June 2005, which crumbled four years later in the face of Supreme Court orders as well as local, including Maoist, resistance. The Salwa Judum had been nurtured by the state government and financed by the centre; its launch coincided with the signing of MoUs by the Government of Chhattisgarh with private power generating and steel manufacturing companies. There is enough documented evidence that this armed private vigilante force was contracted to provide protection and “ground-clearing” services to the private investors. In an operation backed by the security forces, the Salwa Judum evacuated hundreds of villages, hounded the inhabitants into police camps, and forced many more to just run any which way they could choose to save life and limb.

In Dantewada and Bijapur Districts, between June 2005 and 2009, 644 villages were razed to the ground, displacing some 3.5 lakh Adivasi peasants, according to one estimate; of these 47,000 to roadside camps, 40,000 fleeing across the border into the then Andhra Pradesh or Odisha, and 2,63,000 seeking shelter in the forests. The process in southern Chhattisgarh might very well have been one of the largest and most brutal development-induced displacements of people so far in independent India.

But that was in the first decade of the present century, what about so-called development now? SAIL has had plans to source iron ore from the Raoghat area of southern Chhattisgarh right since the early 1980s and the people’s struggle against such mining in Raoghat goes back to the early 1990s. Of course, some reserves of iron ore over there have been handed over to private companies, and concerted efforts to get the mining process going have been on since 2007. And indeed, after the Modi government came to power, 21 more battalions of paramilitary forces have come into the area to beat back the resistance. Another huge project in southern Chhattisgarh, hidden from the public eye, is the proposed army training school in Maad in Narayanpur District, covering some 750 square kms and 90 villages, one-fourth of the total area of Maad.

One might ask, are the protections prescribed in the Fifth Schedule and the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996—the PESA Act—being applied? Further, one might ask, and one has to first ask: When a state government enters into an MoU with a company, does it ever seek even an initial consent of the people who are going to be the likely victims of the project? Are even the local legislators and elected representatives informed of the terms and conditions agreed upon in the MoU? The business tycoons and their political representatives take decisions which concern the fate of tens of thousands of poor people. It is such persons who are the extre­mists for it is they who want no compromises. As another round of “development” is foisted on the people of southern Chhattisgarh, the extralegal vigilante armies of Salwa Judum 2.0 are apparently being readied. Are we condemned to repeat history?’