LWE and the Role of Economic Development and Key Industries

22 Mar, 2016    ·   5005

Jed Lea-Henry analyses why despite the correct identification of the core of the LWE problem, the counter measures have not yielded proportional results

The mere presence of poverty, economic stagnation, and relative underdevelopment within a community or a section of society itself dramatically increases the likelihood of them suffering from or resorting to violent uprisings or civil war. Conversely, notable increases in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), and Gross Domestic Product (GDP), economic growth, societal employment and rates of pay, all help immunise societies against such violence. This is the ‘grievance narrative’ of conflict forecasting. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan once said, “Every step taken towards reducing poverty and achieving broad-based economic growth is a step toward conflict prevention.” So, it is understandable that this tends to be the means by which the rise, and longevity of left-wing extremism (LWE) in India has been explained.

Following the 1991 economic reforms, India’s industrial sector lurched into overdrive. Neglected primary resources such as natural gas, oil, coal, forestry, and minerals were suddenly being pursued to support and extend the agricultural sector (the second-largest in the world in terms of output, and which employs half of India’s total workforce), the manufacturing industry (comprising 25 per cent of India’s GDP and nearly the same percentage of the total workforce in areas such as chemical, pharmaceuticals, textiles, and mineral refinement), and the service industry that has been the engine of the Indian economy for the past few decades.

Today, India is the world’s fastest growing major economy, and according to predictions by the World Bank, will remain that way throughout 2016. Yet, as the country continues to grow into an economic super-power, and as core-industries begin to drive that growth more than ever before, people are increasingly paying more attention to those who are seemingly left behind; and particularly when their grievances seem to fuel support for Maoism (or Naxalism) as the vanguard of LWE in India. With UN data showing that statistically, the living standards of the bottom 300 million Indians (in terms of purchasing power parity) have not improved since 1991, the Indian government has whole-heartedly bought into this understanding of Maoist violence. A link famously outlined in detail in a 2008 Planning Commission Report, and accepted by several influential politicians was that the Naxal problem is not a mere law and order problem.

With an eye on addressing imbalances between regional Maoist strong-holds and the major growth centres of the country, development policies have become increasingly ‘securitised’, with vast swathes of targeted initiatives being launched, which include: the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA, now renamed as MGNREGA), the Backward Districts Initiative, and the Backward Regions Grant Fund. Additionally, other existing central government policies have been expanded, and large sums of state funding have been allocated to addressing the problem.

However, although some of these targeted development programs have shown some degrees of success, it has been wildly inconsistent, with increases in development not neatly correlating to declines in violence in the same way as it seemed to do in the inverse. Rather, the opposite has tended to happen: the presence of increased industrial development has coincided with further grievances and greater insurgency. Again, this has been primarily expressed via LWE.

Given the huge scope for industrial investment, and with an estimated $1 trillion worth of unexplored mineable resources, the development of India’s ‘Red Corridor’ appears to stand in the country’s national interest (independent of targeted efforts at left-wing de-radicalisation). And in many cases, it has been pursued without consideration for the plight of the local, often Adivasi, population. In order to make themselves appear as attractive investment opportunities, local and state governments have often been happy to skirt laws, regulations and the rights of local peoples - an issue most commonly reported in the Maoist strongholds of Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand). This has tended to take the form of forced displacement (an estimated 150, 000 people since 2004) and/or environmental degradation.

Related, yet more surreptitious grievances have involved the redistricting of land in order to avoid paying compensation; allowing industries (under the Joint Forestry Management programme) to operate as third parties in the privatisation of forests (such as with the behaviour of the Indian Tobacco Company in Andhra Pradesh); by over-incentivising ‘upstream’ development projects (such as dams and non-labour intensive factories, including extraction industries such as mining and timber) that benefit the broader economy yet provide little long-term benefit to the local region; the development of rural transport infrastructure (under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana ‘PMGSY’) and telecommunication infrastructure (under the Universal Service Obligation Fund) as a means to monitor and launch military offensives against the Maoists, rather than as a means to win hearts and minds; a stripping back of the Forest Conservation Act in order to allow greater, unchecked development; and the release of misleading forecasts concerning the impact and compensation related to projects such as with the South Korean Pohang Iron and Steel Company’s (POSCO) $12 billion investment in Odisha.

However, this also represents a selective and favourable understanding of LWE support, often relying upon anecdotal evidence, weak correlative data, a glossing over of ‘push’ vs. ‘pull’ factors, and by simply overlooking a number of statistically integral dynamics as merely peripheral. The rise of, and support for, LWE violence in India is also well correlated to high levels of corruption, low literacy rates, and the presence of easily stolen resources (such as explosives on mine sites); and has considerably stronger statistical correlations (above and beyond issues of development) to the rise of societal fear from conflict in neighbouring districts, with hard to access terrain (heavily forested areas), and with high population densities of lower or oppressed castes.

Supporting these alternative explanations, movements toward greater self-determination, such as with the creation of Jharkhand in 2000, have tended to produce upsurges in Maoist support rather than expected declines. If anything, this speaks to an unscrupulous LWE movement that seeks opportunities and various aggrieving factors to further their ideology rather than as a movement rising and falling based on the level and nature of societal development.