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Indigenous Peoples in India Fight Back Against Corporate Encroachment
LALGARH, India - This small town, barely 150 km away from the bustling eastern metropolis of Kolkata, hit news headlines in December 2008 when adivasis (indigenous people) led by Maoist rebels briefly captured it.
By June 2009 security forces had recaptured Lalgarh, though the forested surroundings called ‘Jangalmahal’ have continued to be under the sway of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), banned as a terrorist group since June 2009.
The Maoists claim to be defending the rights of the adivasis in mineral-rich central and eastern India against the interests of mining companies. Most of India’s estimated 100,000 indigenous people are concentrated in this region including Orissa, Jharkhand, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal states.
Extreme poverty and deprivation among the adivasis - which drive them to join armed Maoist cadres - are visible in Lalgarh, as also official apathy towards their plight.
"I have never heard of the Below Poverty Line (BPL) scheme for the poor that you are talking about," Rajan Gharai, an emaciated adivasi who lives with his wife on the streets of Lalgarh, tells IPS.
In one village outside Lalgarh, a young tribal man, Sohan, told IPS that in the summer months when drought-like conditions prevail the government does not care to even sink a simple tube well, let alone implement the BPL programme.
According to rights activists the Maoist problem has roots in the non-inclusive model of development which has left adivasis and other marginalised people out in the cold. Few are surprised at their resorting to violence.
"Owing to corporate greed, indigenous people are being displaced across India. These people are dependent on common property resources and now that their very survival is under threat, they are putting up a resistance," says human rights activist Binayak Sen.
"This resistance takes place under a rainbow range of colours, but it is being tagged with a particular political label," he added, choosing to avoid the word ‘Maoist’.
According to Sen - a noted physician who spent several years in jail on charges of acting as a courier for imprisoned Maoists - large parts of India may be said to be in a perpetual state of famine.
"The World Health Organisation says any person with body mass index (BMI) below 18.5 is suffering from chronic undernourishment," Sen tells IPS.
"Official data acknowledges that 36 to 37 percent of our population has a BMI below 18.5. Among marginalised groups this may be as high as 60 percent," says Sen, who was jailed in spite of his status as vice-president of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties, a leading Indian rights group.
Sen decries the government’s ‘law-and-order’ response to the problem, sending in armed police to quell the Maoist-led adivasi rebellion. "We as human rights workers condemn all kinds of violence - whether it is by the state or by those challenging the state."
On Nov. 24, after talks between the Maoists and the government broke down, paramilitary and the police forces shot dead top rebel leader Koteswar Rao, also known as ‘Kishenji’, under circumstances that drew condemnation from rights activists.
The rebels responded to the killing of their leader with more violence and forced shutdowns of businesses and establishments.
Early December at least eight policemen and two civilians were killed in West Bengal’s neighbouring Jharkhand state in blasts triggered by the rebels. Schools and railway infrastructure came under attack in other eastern states.
A Maoist spokesperson, who identifies himself as Akash, issued a statement blaming the state government’s continuing security operations as the reason for calling off the ceasefire in West Bengal that lasted from Oct. 1 to Nov. 3.
Speaking to IPS, Sujato Bhadra, one of the two interlocutors appointed by the West Bengal state government to talk to the Maoists, said: "The government did not appreciate the ceasefire. They should have taken it forward because there would have been a de-escalation of the violence.
"There is an extreme lack of trust on both sides now. Instead of seizing the opportunity presented by the ceasefire there is political rhetoric from the government side," Bhadra said. "Only patience will bear fruit and perhaps the Maoists in India can go the Nepal way and join the electoral process," Bhadra said.
The Maoist rebellion in India is nourished by rapid urbanisation and corporate greed backed by political patronage in what activists describe as a flawed developmental model that ignores the rights of indigenous and marginalised people.
An example was the permission given to British mining giant Vedanta Resources Plc’s to extract bauxite in the largely tribal Niyamgiri Hills of Orissa state which adjoins West Bengal.
In this case, however, tribal activists and green groups were able - with support from India’s former environment minister Jairam Ramesh - to stop the project and save the homelands of the Dongaria Kondh and Kutia Kondh tribes.
As far back as 2006, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the Maoists as the biggest internal threat to the country. Since then, however, he has on several occasions acknowledged the economic underpinnings of the rebellion and called for rapid development as the best tool to contain it.