Friday, March 28, 2014

BJD red carpet for royals, short shrift to women

Democracy, they say, begins where feudalism ends. But political parties in Odisha, the poorest state in the country, obviously have other ideas. At least 13 scions of ‘royal’ families have been fielded by various political parties for the simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in the state this time.

Curiously, as many as 10 out of the 13 have been nominated by the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD), a party that has never tired of tom-tomming its ‘pro-people’ and ‘pro-poor’ credentials. While seven of them have been fielded in Assembly elections, three have been nominated for Lok Sabha polls, ironically from constituencies that comprise some of the poorest regions in the state: Kalahandi, Bolangir and Kandhamal.

Known for the highest number of cases of malnutrition and starvation deaths in the state, Bolangir district alone has got five members from one royal family contesting the coming election. Of these five, three are from BJD – Ananga Uday Singhdeo from Bolangir Assembly Constituency, his son Kalikesh Narayan Singhdeo from Bolangir Lok Sabha constituency and Prakruti Devi, a woman from the same royal family, from the Patnagarh Assembly constituency.

The other two from the Bolangir royal family in fray this time are Kanak Vardhan Singhdeo and Sangita Singhdeo fighting on Bharitaya Janata party (BJP) tickets in the Patnagarh Assembly seat and Bolangir Lok Sabha Seat respectively.

In another glaring dichotomy between what he professes and what he does, BJD supremo Naveen Patnaik has named only two women in the list of candidates for the 21 Lok Sabha seats in the seats, which accounts for less than 10%. It is hardly the kind of percentage that a party that incessantly talks of ‘women’s empowerment’ can be proud of.

The proportion of women in the list of candidates for Assembly elections is not much to write home about either. There are no more than 14 women in the final list of BJD candidates for 147 Assembly constituencies – which again works out to less than 10%. Revealingly, three out of these 14 are from ‘royal’ families.

The other major parties like the Congress and the BJP have not fared much better when it comes to fielding women candidates. But, Naveen and his party certainly deserve the lion’s share of the flak on this count since it is they who keep shouting from the rooftops about ‘women’s empowerment’.

Naveen’s claims on ‘women’s empowerment’ rest primarily on the large number of self help groups (SHGs) his government has helped form in the state and the reservation of 50% of seats in urban local bodies. But when it comes to the Big Prize of Lok Sabha and Assembly nominations, the BJD boss has been as stingy as the others in handing out party tickets to women.

This piece first appeared on March 26, 2014, at the Odisha Sun Times.

Friday, March 7, 2014

In maoist land: A story of deprivation and victimisation

It was half past eight in the morning when we landed at Laxmipur, a small town in the Koraput district of south Odisha. Laxmipur is about 22 km from Narayanpatna, home to one of India's fierce tribal movements led by the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh (CMAS).

On the way we passed two Border Security Force (BSF) camps–one at Palur between Laxmipur and Narayanpatna, and the other at Podapadar, the striking ground of the CMAS in 2009. Our guide, Anil Subudhi, a local journalist told us that the BSF personnel stationed at Podapadar would verify our identity and purpose of visit. They might even deny us entry into the forest, which was considered the seat of the conflict between the tribal and non-tribal communities, between the armed forces of the state and left-wing extremists.

We reached Narayanpatna, the block headquarters town after half an hour’s journey, had our bath and started for the villages in the forest.

It was Shivratri day. A few of the BSF personnel were on duty. Most of the others were busy with rituals at the newly built roadside temple near the camp. We were not checked. We moved forward.

Part of the village of Podapadar was in shambles. Broken houses had been further vandalised. The burnt remains of a torched bus were strewn about on the ground. The village continues to remain deserted following an attack by the CMAS in May 8, 2009.

We met Sahadev Parida, a teacher from a nearby school, who had been jailed for being a supporter of the tribal rights movement run by the CMAS. As the polls are imminent, I asked him about the situation in the area and people’s views on the forthcoming elections. “People are not in favour of an election. But, they may participate if someone from their area joins active politics and stands as a candidate,” Sahadev said.

Regarding CMAS leader Nachika Linga, Sahadev added, “It’s he himself who has to decide whether to come to mainstream politics or not. Fighting to liberate the tribal community from the age-old tradition of bonded labour and also to ensure the rights of the tribal people over their lands and natural resources, Nachika Linga, the leader of the movement, is often referred to as a modern-day Spartacus.

Not far from Podapadar is Bhaliaput, the village Nachika Linga comes from. It is under the radar of the armed forces and the local police. The roads reaching this village are relatively better but commuting in the interior of the villages is really challenging because of the condition of the terrain and the lack of good roads.

The scenic terraced green fields on hill slopes bear testimony to the agrarian activities of the tribal communities living in the forest. They grow paddy in the usual kharif season and a variety of millet during winter.

Although these fields are cultivated by the tribals, they have no right over them. Even though many laws like the PESA (Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas) and the FRA (Forest Rights Act) have been formulated to give the tribals their rights, the defined objectives are yet to be achieved.

In 2011, during the negotiations for the release of the abducted Collector of Malkangiri, R. Vineel Krishna, the Odisha government agreed to hand over the land rights to the tribals. A committee was formed under the leadership of the Revenue Minister to expedite the process, particularly in the Narayanpatna, Bandhugaon and Laxmipur blocks. Three long years have passed and yet nobody knows what steps the committee has taken and how far the process has gone.

After passing three or four tribal hamlets, we reached Talagumandi village. The police and the armed forces consider Talagumandi, which is surrounded by hills, to be the village of several Maoists. Here we met Singari Tadingi, aged 20 or so, who spent ten months in Koraput jail for reasons she never knew.

“I had been on a visit to a relative’s house nearby. The police suddenly raided the place and arrested me from there. I was taken to a BSF camp where I was beaten severely and asked about my links with Maoists and their activities. I denied all the charges they made against me. Still, I was sent to the district headquarter jail in Koraput. After ten months in jail, I was granted bail,” said Singari, whom the police term a dreaded Maoist.

As she has lost her father, Singari is struggling to survive. She shoulders the burden of her family. She starts crying each time she describes the misery her family was subjected to during her days in

“The police termed me a Maoist. My family faced humiliation. They had to run from pillar to post to free me. They had to live a miserable life after I went to jail. Who is going to compensate for that? Why did I have to spend ten months in jail without any reason?” she asks.

Singari’s is not a lone case. We also met Dinu Sirka of Jhodipadarvi llage and Jira Kendruka of Dumsil village. Both were hiding in the village as the police had targeted them by declaring them to be Maoists.

Dinu Sirka was a big farmer engaged in livestock farming and poultry. He used to have 250 cows, 30 goats and over 30 poultry birds. His family supported the movement raised by CMAS to secure the rights of the tribal people. One day, when his brothers were going to Damanjodi-a township that grew after Nalco started its bauxite mining-to sell groundnuts, the police picked them up on the way and
subjected them to severe torture.

“They were beaten because we all supported the cause being fought by the CMAS. The police then raided our house and all my cattle, goats and hens were taken away. We came to know that they sold all our animals and birds. We lost everything. They looked for me in order to arrest me. I was afraid and, thus, came to this remote village to avoid a police assault on me,” Dinu said. “Later when I met some people from my village, they told me that the police had declared me a Maoist,” Dinu added.

Jira Kendruka left his village under similar constraints. As the police raided his house in his absence and started beating his 12-year old daughter, alleging that the whole family was engaged in Maoist activities, Jira abandoned his village out of fear.

“We don’t know who is a Maoist and who is not. And, we wonder how the police can consider anybody and everybody dwelling in the forest to be a Maoist? As we live in the forest and gather our livelihood from it we are bound to go into the forests. But, because of such police actions, we are deprived of our own forests,” said Jira in an aggrieved voice. People standing around also supported his arguments.

Initially, the tribal people opposed such acts of the police. But they didn’t get support from anybody in the police or even the administration. Rather, tribal people were taken to camps, put to torture, jailed and had to face trials for years. So, the tribal voice got suppressed and a courageous tribal community had to live in fear in order to avoid illegal and immoral police reprisals that the system
sees as lawful.

On the other side, conflict keeps growing in the forests and in the tribal hinterlands. Innocent tribals who just want to live peacefully and with dignity, depending for their livelihood on forest produce and forest lands, are finding themselves sandwiched between the opposing forces involved in the conflict. As the real issues relating to these tribal communities seem to get missed out in the noise and din about tribal empowerment and protection of tribal rights, these tribals are forced to live a life of deprivation and agony.

In such a situation, movements like the CMAS look more relevant than those motivated by any other force or intent.

The conflict over rights can be resolved through discourse instead of applying force and intimidating the tribals. In fact intimidation, irrespective of the source, widens the gap between the communities and the whole system of governance. The approach must be inclusive rather than suppressive. Repeated attempts to suppress the movement may only help it to grow, forcing more and more tribals to adopt a hostile attitude. This tale also present another picture; one about the failure of democracy in ensuring basic rights to the indigenous communities of India.

On my way back, I was carrying the news–perhaps the only good news in recent times–that Nachika Linga, the modern day Spartacus, may go to the tribal people and solicit their opinion about joining mainstream politics in order to raise the issues of tribal rights within a larger political forum.

This piece was first published on March 2, 2014, at The Citizen and republished on March 5, 2014, at the Sanhati.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Posco steeled for trouble

Posco's proposed steel plant near Paradip in Odisha, India, seems to be plagued by conflict.

Recently, the supporters of the project have taken up to agitation against Posco alleging non-fulfillment of promises made by the company and the local administration. While the movement opposing the project has delayed its execution, this fresh agitation by supporters has become another problem for Posco and the Odisha government.

Angry over the callousness of district administration and the Posco authorities toward their long pending demands, over 1,000 pro-Posco villagers from Nuagaon destroyed a 300-meter boundary wall in the project area on February 16. They also set the temporary camp offices of Posco and IDCO, the state agency to facilitate industrial development, on fire. Most of the agitating villagers were land losers who have handed over their land for Posco's proposed steel plant.

"We gave our land for the Posco project believing the government that promised proper rehabilitation packages and employment to at least one member from each family. It's more than five years since many families have lost their land to Posco. The Posco project is being delayed for many reasons and we people who have sacrificed our land and livelihood sources are only suffering," said Tamil Pradhan of Nuagaon, who is a land loser and leader of pro-Posco villagers.

"We have all decided now that we are not going to allow the company to enter the area and start its construction work till our demands are fulfilled," Tamil added.

Demands unmet
The six point charter of demands put before the Rehabilitation and Peripheral Development and Advisory Committee (RPDAC) meeting of 2010 included assured employment to each land-losing family; separate and enhanced prices for homes, homesteads and agricultural land; monthly allowance for landless laborers engaged in agriculture and betel vines; and project construction works to be done by local people through engaging members of local communities.

"None of the demands are fulfilled. Even though they promised to give unemployment allowance to the youth of land-losing families, they haven't listed anybody," said Prabhat Pradhan of Nuagaon.

The company and the local administration made promise after promise in order to acquire land for the project. The government, through the district administration and its industrial development agency, IDCO, has acquired 2,700 acres of land required for Posco's 8 mpta (million tons per annum) plant. Everybody expected that Posco would fulfill all its promises made to people after the land acquisition. But people's demands have never been met.

Broken promises
Apart from the apathetic attitude of district administration and Posco authorities, these land losers have been victims of the multi-core chit-fund scam that took place in Odisha.

"As people received their compensation money, this place became heaven for agents of chit-fund companies like Artha Tatwa (AT) and Seashore. With promises of lucrative growth they have taken away all compensation money from almost 90 percent of land losers. People were just allured by absurd promises made by chit-fund companies. Now the scam is uncovered and these people have little hope of getting back their investment money. Their distress is doubled," Prabhat added.

So the first benefit of industrialization has been looted away by the chit-fund companies that allegedly operated in close connivance with the political leadership of Odisha.

It's because of all these reasons that discontent is simmering. In January, a group of supporters sat in protest at Gadakujanga for more than 20 days. Nobody responded. On February 16, pro-Posco villagers in Nuagaon showed their anger by destroying the boundary wall and setting offices on fire. The villagers have now erected bamboo barricades at village entry points to stop the Posco people and government officials from entering the villages and the project area. Now their one point demand is "Fulfill the promises before doing any construction."

Misleading the people
In January, a senior BJD (Biju Janata Dal) leader and the health minister of Odisha Dr Damodar Rout made open allegations against the company and the district administration saying, "A group of Posco's Indian employees and Jagatsinghpur district administration are misleading the people living in the proposed plant site villages."

He also alleged "the people are not being given compensation as per the decision of the RPDAC. While some people get maximum benefit, others do not get the same."

A senior leader of the ruling party BJD and minister in Naveen Patnaik's cabinet making such allegations carries huge importance.

Now, it's not only the members of PPSS (Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti) who are opposing Posco's proposed steel project. The so called supporters are emerging as a bigger trouble.

"We have been opposing the project from the beginning because we know it's a design to grab the land and loot our resources. Now the supporters of the project have also realized that the single agenda of Posco is to acquire their fertile agricultural land and construct a boundary wall. They have started opposing the project now," said Prasanta Paikray, spokesperson of anti-Posco outfit PPSS.

Recent developments have only added to Posco's woes. Once the troubles at the site are over, the biggest hurdle will be mining at Khandadhar. Even though it managed to overcome the legal battle over a Khandadhar mining lease, who knows if Posco won't struggle with tribal groups like Vedanta Aluminium in Niyamgiri.

Posco may be right worry. Khandadhar is inhabited by Paudi Bhuyans, a primitive tribal group, whose land rights are protected in the Indian constitution.

It seems the war for steel is not yet over

The report was first published on March 4, 2014, in the Global Times.