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.
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.