Saturday, August 21, 2010

The two sides of India very few know of…

An excellent piece about the Maoist insurgency in India in Foreign Policy magazine. It is a story of neglect of market forces to honor indigenous people’s rights and livelihoods, the state’s incapacity to realize this, and the capitalization on anger (due to poverty, lack of justice, and political disenfranchisement) of frustrated people by the Maoists in their bloody insurgency against the central government. Nepal endured this situation for ten bloody years between 1996 and 2006.

[…]It wasn't supposed to be this way -- not in 21st-century India, a country 20 years into an experiment in rapid, technology-driven development, one of globalization's most celebrated success stories. In 1991, with India on the brink of bankruptcy, Singh -- then the country's finance minister -- pursued an ambitious slate of economic reforms, opening up the country to foreign investment, ending public monopolies, and encouraging India's bloated state-run firms to behave like real commercial ventures. Today, India's GDP is more than five times what it was in 1991. Its major cities are now home to an affluent professional class that commutes in new cars on freshly paved four-lane highways to jobs that didn't exist not so long ago.

But plenty of Indians have missed out. Economic liberalization has not even nudged the lives of the country's bottom 200 million people. India is now one of the most economically stratified societies on the planet; its judicial system remains byzantine, its political institutions corrupt, its public education and health-care infrastructure anemic. The percentage of people going hungry in India hasn't budged in 20 years, according to this year's U.N. Millennium Development Goals report. New Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore now boast gleaming glass-and-steel IT centers and huge engineering projects. But India's vast hinterland remains dirt poor -- nowhere more so than the mining region of India's eastern interior, the part of the country that produces the iron for the buildings and cars, the coal that keeps the lights on in faraway metropolises, and the exotic minerals that go into everything from wind turbines to electric cars to iPads.

If you were to lay a map of today's Maoist insurgency over a map of the mining activity powering India's boom, the two would line up almost perfectly. Ground zero for the rebellion lies in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, a pair of neighboring, mostly rural states some 750 miles southeast of New Delhi that are home to 46 million people spread out over an area a little smaller than Kansas. Urban elites in India envision them as something akin to Appalachia, with a landscape of rolling forested hills, coal mines, and crushing poverty; their undereducated residents are the frequent butt of jokes told in more fortunate corners of the country.

Revenues from mineral extraction in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand topped $20 billion in 2008, and more than $1 trillion in proven reserves still sit in the ground. But this geological inheritance has been managed so disastrously that many locals -- uprooted, unemployed, and living in a toxic and dangerous environment, due to the mining operations -- have thrown in their lot with the Maoists. "It is better to die here fighting on our own land than merely survive on someone else's," Phul Kumari Devi told us when we visited her dusty mining village of Agarbi Basti in June. "If the Maoists come here, then we would ask their help to resist."

[…] But in our visits to the region and dozens of interviews there -- with miners and politicians, refugees and paramilitary leaders, cops and go-betweens for the guerrillas -- we found a far more complex reality. Mining companies have managed to double their production in the two states in the past decade, even as the conflict has escalated; the most unscrupulous among them have used the fog of war as a pretext for land grabs, leveling villages whose residents have fled the fighting. At the same time, the Maoists, for all their communist rhetoric, have become as much a business as anything else, one that will remain profitable as long as the country's mines continue to churn out the riches on which the Indian economy depends.

[…] In a sense, however, India has already lost this war. It has lost it gradually, over the last 20 years, by mistaking industrialization for development -- by thinking that it could launch its economy into the 21st century without modernizing its political structures and justice system along with it, or preventing the corruption that worsens the inequality that development aid from New Delhi is supposed to rectify. The government is sending in Army advisors and equipment -- for now, the war is being fought by the Indian equivalent of a national guard, not the Army proper -- and spending billions of dollars on infrastructure projects in the districts where the Maoists are strongest. But it hasn't addressed the concerns that drove the residents of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand into the guerrillas' arms in the first place -- concerns that are often shockingly basic.