Narendra Modi chaired a session reviewing the welfare of India’s tribal people. It was a good thing. They number nearly 105 million and are among the more disadvantaged people in the country even after decades of affirmative action. 

Modi stressed the need to develop centres for growth, welfare and connectivity in areas of tribal habitation, particularly in the states affected by the Maoist rebellion; these account for the majority of India’s tribals. His colleagues in the National Democratic Alliance and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could save time and energy—in the ongoing spirit of sweeping away administrative and policy sloth—by looking at some plans, observations and concerns already at the disposal of the government, even if such plans were developed during the tenure of the previous United Progressive Alliance government.

One such is the Saranda Development Plan and its sister project, the Sarju Area Development Action Plan. Both are located in two Maoist-affected districts of Jharkhand, a state where voters elected the BJP to power in December. Both plans are designed to follow up security sweeps by creating development hubs, which would then gradually radiate outwards and reclaim territory wilfully ceded to Maoist influence by several decades of governmental apathy and callousness. It is an application of the doctrine of clear-hold-build with more development implications than one that advocates merely annihilating Maoists and leaving another void of governance in the wake.

The Saranda plan was for the mineral-rich West Singhbhum district to the south-west of Jharkhand. The Sarju plan was located in the state’s north-western Latehar district. These model plans worked with some efficiency during President’s rule in the state in 2013, but faded after that. Projects like these partly play into this administration’s stated intent of development. But there are other matters the government may gloss over even if these comprise national necessity—indeed, national security. A case in point is the report of the high-level committee on socio-economic, health and educational status of tribal communities of India, commissioned by the former Prime Minister’s Office in August 2013 and placed under the supervision and budget of the tribal affairs ministry. The committee’s findings and recommendations were submitted in May last year. The new government has buried the report, though it makes many credible suggestions about healthcare, education, development, empowerment and resolution of the root causes of conflict in tribal areas that include both Maoist battle zones and areas of fracture in north-east India.

Perhaps it is because the report bares issues related to displacement of tribal people on account of projects, and lack of their consent and rehabilitation—evidently anathematic to the present government. A highlight is that a community accounting for less than 10% of the population—though vast in absolute numbers—has accounted for over 40% of all project displacement in India since independence. A staggering three-fourths are estimated as not being rehabilitated; many have gone from being marginalized to being impoverished. This trend is ongoing. Recommendations in the chapter titled Land Alienation, Displacement and Enforced Migration are blunt and forceful. Though the report praises the new land acquisition law of 2013 as the first to mandate rehabilitation of project-affected persons, it points out weaknesses. “The definition of ‘public purpose’ in the new law is very wide and will only lead to greater acquisition and displacement in scheduled areas,” the report states. “The exercise of ‘eminent domain’ and definition of ‘public purpose’ should be severely limited.” The report adds: “Government agencies acquiring land with the ultimate purpose to transfer it to private companies for stated public purpose, should be kept outside the ambit of the new law, as the public-private partnership mode of acquiring land is simply a backdoor method of alienating land…” And so, alienating people.

Perhaps such realities led NDA’s tribal affairs minister Jual Oram to declare in July 2014: “Our opinion should be sought before any project is planned in a tribal area.” But in this he would be head-to-head with his Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues, who propose an ordinance to push at will public-private partnerships. On 26 January, as the country watches pro-forma performances by tribals along Rajpath, the avenue of kings, before they are replaced in propaganda oblivion for another year, it may be worthwhile to spare a thought about sweeping matters of national necessity under the fraying carpet of democracy.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s latest book is Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India. His earlier books include Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays. 

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