Democracy and its Discontents State Focus: Chattisgarh

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Chattisgarh’s Assembly Elections are around the corner and all parties have been calling upon their star ralliers to rustle up the votes. Personally, I think the Chattisgarh elections are particularly important. Not because of what it means for the general elections, but because of what it means for the Indian Union itself. Chattisgarh has been the site of one of India’s most contentious and violent internal conflicts. While the government has fumbled through its response (including the truly appalling arming of the Salwa Judum),  we are at a critical juncture and policies in the next few years will have far reaching impacts for this conflict and separatist tendencies elsewhere in the nation too. There are crucial questions we must ask ourselves in responding to the Naxal threat: Why would a whole belt of the nation revolt against a freely elected, democratic government? What can the Indian government do to peacefully bring people back into the fold?

Analysis: In this post, I explore Human Development Indicators (HDI) in the state and use this as a plausible explanation for discontent within the state. I use district level HDI data to test my hypothesis. I mapped the different districts of Chattisgarh on traditional state services: education (literacy rates), health (infant mortality rate, households with adequate usage of iodized salt), infrastructure (electricity connection and access to pucca roads) and law & order (violent crimes). Wherever possible, I have tried to compare this to the national average. If you have any questions on methodology or statistics, please feel free to email me and I would be happy to discuss this with you. As always, click on the maps to get an enlarged image. 

Caveat: The district data I possess is for 2008-09 and therefore, a little dated. I have tried to obtain national averages for the year 2009 to have a fair base of comparison. If someone has access to newer data and wouldn’t mind sharing, I would be delighted.

Literacy RatesViolent Crimes FinalInfant Mortality RateFinalIodized SaltPucca RoadFinal

Elec Connection


Violent incidents from the past few years, such as Dantewada, have dominated the national conception of the Naxal conflict but the conflict is decades long. The Naxal movement originated in West Bengal in the 70’s but has found its greatest base amongst people living in India’s east-central belt (I use the term central loosely. The Naxal movement is spread across parts of Chattisgarh, Orissa, A.P, Bihar,W.B., Karnataka and Jharkhand).  Nationalist rhetoric aside, we must ask ourselves: Why?

Analysis of the HDI in the state present an appalling picture. It is no surprise that the worst performing districts coincide with those witnessing highest levels of Naxal activity. The districts of Dantewada, Bastar, Ranjnandgaon, Kanker, Kawardha, Jashpur, Surguja and Loriya consistently underperform in HDI. Poverty levels are skyrocketing and exploitation of forest lands goes unabated in this regions.  Less than 35% of the households in Dantewada possess access to electricity. Think about this for a moment. We are not talking about consistent connectivity of the kind you and I are used to. We are talking about a single light bulb accessible for a few hours in the day. Dantewada had a literacy rate of 38.4% in 2009 (the 2011 census pegs it at 42.1%). This is comparable to literacy rates in Benin and Guinea and far lower than the national average of 74%.

Infant mortality rates in the state are through the roof. Only 2 districts in the state fall below the national average, and that is abysmal enough. In Kawardha, infant mortality rate stands at a staggering 79.35. This is higher than rates in the DRC. Iodine deficiency is a major cause of reduced mental and health development. The solution to this is simple, cheap, highly accessible and can go a long way in improving millions of lives.  In 1986, India adopted legislation to promote the sale of iodized salt. Yet, 28 years later this simple solution remains elusive to too many households in Chattisgarh. Less than 65% of the households in Koriya district have access to iodized salt.

Meanwhile, the response of the political system seems disconnected to the discontent of its people. The use of the Salwa Judum is an example of the extreme short-sight of the government and its complete misreading of the situation. Read this incredible statement by the current Chief Minister of the state on the ‘necessity’ of the Salwa Judum. Thankfully, the Supreme Court has mandated the disbanding of this civilian militia.

Politicians across party lines are eager to sign over the vast natural resources of the state to private actors. The Association for Democratic Reforms has done some great work in asset comparison of re-contesting politicians. The figures clearly show that MLAs from the BJP and the INC have seen a disproportionate windfall. If there is one thing that unites the two parties it is their insatiable greed for public resources.

Despite its vast deposit of natural resources, rich forest cover and lower population, Chattisgarh ranks the lowest of all Indian states in HDI scores. It is clear that the Indian Union has repeatedly failed to deliver on its promise to the people of Chattisgarh. I am not arguing for violence or justifying the massacre in Dantewada. I am, however, trying to argue that Chattisgarh requires innovative, inclusive leadership which is able to deal with the region in a firm but compassionate way. In this eloquently written article, Ramchandra Guha makes a great case for non-violence and deeper reflection of government policies in the Naxal belt.

As abysmal as the picture is, it also provides plenty of opportunity for the state government. A focus on inclusive policies which promote access to basic services and protect the forest lands would be a first step towards repairing the relationship. The Indian Union is a wily beast and has in the past succeeded in bringing dissident members into peaceful co-existence. 

This week, Sonia Gandhi and Narendra Modi made their way to Chattisgarh. I went through the transcripts of their speeches and found the familiar rhetoric. Gandhi highlighted the pro-poor policies of the central government and recalled the historical place of the Congress in the country. Modi invoked the gods repeatedly and lamented the corruption in the Congress. Neither articulated a clear policy to deal with the under-development in the state or the massive discontent amongst its residents. The tragedy of Chattisgarh, and India, is that the leader we need is nowhere on the horizon.


5 thoughts on “Democracy and its Discontents State Focus: Chattisgarh

    Radhika said:
    November 11, 2013 at 5:46 am

    Great Analysis. Enjoyed reading

    Ganesh Chittur said:
    November 11, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    Which came first , the chicken or the egg ? The fact is that Naxal violence cannot co-exist with development . Years of Naxalites violence has ensured that there is no significant investment in that area and scarce resources of the Government are spent more on fighting the violence than on addressing development issues. As for the so-called exploitation of natural resources by a nexus of Government and private industries , pray tell me , in which part of the world has it not happened ? Even the World’s favourite partying destination Goa has seen indiscriminate exploitation which has thankfully been stopped due to the activism of a few right minded individuals and the Supreme Court . If every victimised section of the society is justified in taking up arms we might as well burn the Constitution and forget Civil Society as we know it

      shrutiviswanathan responded:
      November 11, 2013 at 3:31 pm

      Thank you for your comment. You make a really interesting point. I agree that some of the underdevelopment may be attributed to the presence of violence. However, I have data extending back to the early 1990s (when violence wasn’t as wide-spread) which seems to suggest a similar story. There doesn’t seem to have been a significant investment in infrastructure in the region at all. And you are right, environmental exploitation has been the norm so far. But that doesn’t make it right. Racism and sexism were the norm in society not so far back but I think we would all agree that doesn’t make them acceptable.

      I am not advocating the use of violence but I am advocating for a more nuanced approach to dealing with the Naxal belt in India. Arming civilian militias and unleashing brute violence on citizens is not going to solve the problem. I think conflicts around the world validate that. What we can do is incentivize peaceful existence within the Indian Union. Part of this will involve greater development initiatives and respect for people’s lands. If the Indian government is serious about addressing this problem in a mature, humane way then there is no other way to go about it.

        Soma said:
        November 11, 2013 at 11:40 pm

        Quoting the slain Pakistani Premier Iskander Mirza- ‘Democracy without education is hypocrisy without limitation….that sums up the sorry state of political affairs of these states battling with innumerable issues….

    Madhukar said:
    December 6, 2013 at 1:10 am

    Nice post. There is a strong correlation between poverty and the regions rich in resources (across the developing world). The problem stems from lack of secure property rights and aggravates over the years.

    India has grappled with a resource allocation problem. First with the state being the sole entrepreneur and taking away property in the name of greater good. Now the nexus with private parties. In a way, the 2G and coal gate scams are good speed bumps in our economic evolution.

    We will now soon have a land acquisition bill that mandatorily requires the consent of 80pct of landowners, land will be transacted at market prices. We will also soon have a policy to allocate coal blocks based on auctions instead of the current corrupt system of discretionary allocation.

    So all is not lost, I am sure we will look back 20 years later and realize what a critical inflection point these two legislations are (subject of course to the execution, in the Indian context). The bigger Q is, as you rightly pointed out, do our leaders have the foresight to avoid these speed bumps altogether. With such a large, young population, we will have social unrest if we can’t grow fast enough and create jobs. We just cannot afford slowdowns

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