Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Chhattisgarh for sale!

Chhattisgarh for sale!
Column: Incredible India
Want to buy a river? Welcome to the state of Chhattisgarh in India! If you are not interested in a river, Chhattisgarh can offer you a forest or a hill. You can do anything you wish with these natural resources. Once bought, you can drain the river dry, bulldoze a hill or clear a forest. It is all yours! If you have any problem with the local people, the state government will take care of them. Those who protest will be charged with fabricated crimes and thrown into prison indefinitely.

There is something fundamentally wrong in Chhattisgarh. In addition to the indiscriminate sale of natural resources, the state government also sponsors armed conflicts between its people. Though the state is governed by an elected government, the Chhattisgarh state government has failed on several counts, including maintaining law and order within the state.

The state administration, which is in corporatization overdrive, is selling its natural resources to corporate entities. This zeal for selling the state's natural resources to the highest bidder has alienated the government from the state's population in remote villages. The direct consequence is an increased affinity of ordinary people to armed resistance promoted by the Naxalite forces operating within the state.

The state administration, in a failed attempt to curb the Naxalites, has armed the local population that it deems to be sympathetic to it to fight the Naxalites. This state-sponsored private armed militia in Chhattisgarh is called Salwa Judum, meaning Peace Mission.

Chhattisgarh, a state that was formed in 2000, has not witnessed a single day in its seven-year history without violence -- either against the state by the rebelling factions or by the state and its private militia against the rebels. No state is justified in using violence to curb violence. The excuse the Chhattisgarh state administration offers for arming a faction of the local population is that the rebels within the state cannot be controlled without resorting to a strategy of counterviolence.

The Salwa Judum has been formed under the leadership of a local politician, Mahendra Karma. Even minors are armed with weapons and trained to kill. The "officers" of Salwa Judum are given a piece of cloth printed with the words "Special Police Officer," and the cloth is pinned to their shirt. This badge of cloth guarantees impunity. Any crime committed by a "special police officer" is left unchallenged by the state's law enforcement officers.

Violence within a state is usually the result of a government that fails to address the needs of its people. It is also often the whiplash effect of the uncontrolled use of force against a community. The fundamentals of governance include listening to and addressing the needs of the people. This normal process of governance, however, is not applicable to the Chhattisgarh state government.

Chhattisgarh is a state that has one of the worst records in India in terms of meeting basic human needs, like food security and the effective implementation of anti-discrimination policies. The state has the largest tribal concentration in India in terms of population ratio. The people of Chhattisgarh are neglected by their administration. Instances of abuse of authority by state officials, ranging from the Forest Department to the local police, are regularly reported in Chhattisgarh. Starvation deaths are common among the tribal communities. Health and sanitation conditions among tribals are the worst in the state.

Day after day the local population discovers that their natural resources are being sold by the state to corporate entities. The rivers, for example, are being sold to "water corporations." Once sold, the corporation prevents the local community from using the river or its resources. Communities that were previously using the river find themselves isolated and subject to coercion overnight. Those who protest are arrested and detained under false charges.

Similarly, land-based natural mineral resources are sold to companies as well. To excavate minerals, the companies that obtain leasehold over the land want the people living on the land removed. Forced eviction is daily news in the state. The evictees are quarantined in camps throughout the state, camps guarded by special police officers from the Salwa Judum. Those who oppose their forced eviction are branded Naxalites, charged with fabricated crimes and imprisoned indefinitely.

These acts of encroachment into people's personal liberties and fundamental freedoms have resulted in chaos and confusion within the state. Any place that is reeling in severe chaos due to malgovernance is fertile ground for the indoctrination of new ideas, even those that advocate violence. The people of Chhattisgarh, the descendents of heroes like Vir Narain Singh, are no different in their tolerance of neglect and abuse. It is natural for an ordinary person in such a context to think of the available options: to resist and fight or face impending death.

Instead of stopping this indiscriminate plundering of the natural resources of the local people, the state administration has resorted to violence to curb opposition to its policies that deprive the state's citizens of the basic necessities they need to survive and live with dignity.

A government is not justified at any point in time in sanctioning the formation of private armed groups to silence the people who are crying out for help. Such a move reflects a government's utter lack of concern for its people and their needs. By allowing, and in fact organizing, its citizens to fight among themselves, the state administration is implementing a policy of divide and rule. The result of this violent game is the state-sponsored anarchy that Chhattisgarh has become today.

A government that resorts to violence has no legal or moral standing to claim the privileges of an administrator of the people. The Chhattisgarh state government has made a mockery of the Constitution of the country. By resorting to violence, the state government has declared that it does not believe in constitutional mandates.

Chhattisgarh and its people require a democratically functioning administration. Such an administration would never plunder the natural resources of its people. Any state is justified in finding ways and means for the better use of its natural resources, but what one witnesses in Chhattisgarh today is a state administration gone mad with greed for short-term benefits.

The current administration in Chhattisgarh is not a government in any sense. It is nothing more than a bunch of brokers who would sell anything and everything to quench their greed.


(Bijo Francis is a human rights lawyer currently working with the Asian Legal Resource Center in Hong Kong. He is responsible for the South Asia desk at the center. Mr. Francis has practiced law for more than a decade and holds an advanced master's degree in human rights law.)


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