India is nearing a crisis among those who think economic progress is leaving them behind. An obvious sign is the soaring popularity of the anti-corruption agitator Anna Hazare. A more subtle one can be seen in the killing of Maoist insurgent leader Kishenji by government troops on Nov. 24.
The government and news media heralded the death of the rebel leader as the decisive blow to a 45-year conflict that has cost 10,000 lives. Yet the so-called Naxalite rebellion now spreads across a “Red Corridor” in India’s east and south and affects a third of the country’s administrative districts.
Until the underlying causes of the revolt are addressed, the Maoists will continue to benefit from local support as a lesser evil in comparison to government and business interests. It is no coincidence that the highest levels of violence occur in areas with heavy mining of iron ore, coal, bauxite and manganese, such as the state of Chhattisgarh, where NMDC Ltd., Asia’s third-largest iron-ore producer, is building a $3.6 billion steel factory.
Although India has laws to protect the rights of local populations and the environment of mineral-rich areas, the Environment and Forests Ministry rarely stands up to the influential Power Ministry. In a typical move, the environment ministry approved this summer the felling of more than 1 million trees to allow mining of 500 million metric tons of coal in an elephant preserve in Chhattisgarh.
Those Left Behind
The ones left out, of course, are the local tribes and rural poor who have been given little share of India’s growing economic pie. This neglect strengthens the popular backing for the brutal Maoists, who not only battle security officials but also blow up trains, bridges and other public facilities with no thought to civilian casualties.
Given the depravities of the Naxalites (some of whom, ironically, have gotten rich extorting the mining companies), Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s stepped-up counterinsurgency is necessary. But it shouldn’t be carried out with the aid of untrained, underpaid militias such as the Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh, which is accused of murder, rape and looting and has been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
A long-term solution requires balancing the need for raw materials with the social and environmental degradation inherent in their removal, and allowing more of the resulting riches to enhance the lives of local residents, many of whom still live without electricity, roads, schools and adequate medical care.
The Red Corridor contains most of India’s poorest areas, but its problems are hardly unique: A growing proportion of people across the country are outwardly frustrated with widespread corruption and what they see as winner-take-most capitalism. Unless all benefit from the economic rise, the Kishenjis of the future will continue to find followers.
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