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'A Fresh Debate On The Definition Of Development Is The Need Of The Hour'

Rohit Prasad, a professor of Economics at MDI Gurgaon, set out on a journey looking for stories of how common people in remote areas were using technology to bring development related changes

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Natural resources has always been contentious issue in eastern India. Land acquisition, mining agreements, corporate tie ups, ban on mining in some areas, rise of the maoists have been some of the issues that have come to the fore in the recent times. Rohit Prasad, a professor of Economics at MDI Gurgaon, set out on a journey looking for stories of how common people in remote areas were using technology to bring development related changes. Blood Red River (Hachette India) was the result. "The main contribution of the book is to bring to life the voices of those left out of the debate on development," says Prasad in an interview with Businessworld Online.

How did the idea of writing 'Blood Red River' come to you?
About three years ago, I had started off looking for stories of how common people in remote areas of India and the government were championing the use of information and communication technology to transform society. My sunny sense of optimism was subjected to a reality check when I observed the prevailing conditions in these areas. I realised that while technology could play a facilitative role, the real drivers of the abysmal economic outcomes continued to lie in faultlines in the underlying model of development. I decided to realign my focus.
As a writer, I recognised that what I had stumbled upon was far more complex, and much more fundamental that what I had set out to find. I saw that I had an opportunity to illuminate an area of darkness situated in the heart of the country, where the darkness denoted both under-representation (and misrepresentation) in the media discourse, as well as the sordidness to which the ordinary citizen is subjected on a daily basis. In order to do justice to what I saw, I needed to go beyond conventional tools of my discipline, economics, and delve into the nature of democracy prevailing in these areas. Even beyond, I was drawn to the tapestry of stories, legends, myths and rumours that formed the interwoven fabric of my subjects’ lives, lives that seemed to follow an age old dream like pattern, punctuated by birth, marriage, harvest and, increasingly, premature death. My eagerness to document the strife torn land was quickened by my authentic encounters with adivasi culture that revealed that there was indeed something that we urgently need to salvage, to preserve and to nurture. I accepted the risk of venturing into this subject matter and this geography as part of the territory I had chosen to explore, although some of my friends characterised my new obsession as a somewhat unusual case of midlife crisis!

What is the kind of research that you did to bring out the book? How long did it take for you to complete the manuscript?
Over the course of two years, I travelled through tiny hamlets, bustling village haats, sleepy highway towns, and cities bristling with ambition in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. I attended seminars and workshops in Delhi, the nerve centre of happenings in far-flung corners of the country. I hunted down clues in posh country clubs in Gurgaon, and quiet corners of public parks.
While empathising with those affected by the juggernaut of development, I also felt that the perspectives of those attempting to kickstart industry demanded a fair hearing. As a result, I spent a considerable amount of time speaking to corporate executives, bureaucrats and politicians to understand the constraints under which they operated. At the same time, I delved into the ideology and methods employed by the Maoists, many of whom have brought an enormous amount of courage, sacrifice and erudition to their interventions , in order to assess whether their struggle offers any signs of hope for the local population.

The experiences of immersing myself in the world views of the various stakeholders enabled me to assess whether the insurgency, even though restricted to certain geographies in the country, reflects a wider social malaise in our nation.

I wrote as I travelled to make sure I did not forget too much – people, events, places, or my own feelings. After my research was over, I took about 5-6 months to complete the manuscript and another 6-7 months on the edit. The manuscript went through 8-9 drafts.

During the course of the book, you write about people who genuinly care for the adivasis, or, for instance, about an adivasi who tried to frame you... Explain the hurdles that you went through while writing this book.
The main objective of the book was to capture the authentic voices of the different stakeholders in the conflict over development - the adivasis on the one hand, and the mining companies on the other. The perspectives of politicians, lawyers, Maoists, activists needed to be represented as well.
The main hurdle, therefore, was to access these voices from a position of trust. I was fortunate to find an excellent connection to the adivasis in the form of Shubranshu Chaudhry, who runs CGNet Swara, a mobile phone news network, and has travelled extensively in the remote areas of central India for over 15 years; and a great conduit to the corporate sector through the network of my father, Suren Prasad, who worked for Tata Steel for a number of years.

The next hurdle involved the presence of a certain amount of physical danger while travelling in such areas. Here, I found it useful to decline the help offered by friends in the police to facilitate my travel. I surrendered myself into the hands of common people who I had found through trusted connections. These people either lived in villages controlled by Maoists or were seen as ‘neutral’ in the ongoing ‘war’. Any connection, either to the police or to the corporate sector, would put a traveller in even greater danger than they were in already!

I did not regard the false case I got embroiled in as a hurdle. Despite the considerable inconvenience, it allowed me to gain a clear eyed view of the incredibly complex war over natural resources in which corporate rivalry, media interests, political machinations, and legal entanglement – all have a role to play, with or without the presence of the Maoists.

So, is it policy paralysis or corporate greed or a mix of both that has lead to the current state of the mining zones in eastern India? Or should simply locals come together and form policies with equal representation from all stakeholders?
The present situation is the result of the pre-dominance of the ‘modernist’ mindset in the dominant powers of the day over the last 200 years. This mindset values the commercial exploitation of natural resources, either for the colonial master, or for the abstract nation state above the preservation of traditional ways of life of indigenous people, the recognition of their customary rights over the land, or the empowerment of local communities.

This mindset has led to a rapacious exploitation of natural resources as well as the systematic disempowerment of the majority of those living in resource rich areas – especially adivasis and backward castes.

The present conflicts in such areas reflects one possible outcome of such a process of exploitation – the emergence of an insurgent force claiming to espouse the cause of the locals, taking advantage of a terrain that is extremely inhospitable for a traditional armed service.
The subsequent targeting of local people by the state, the criminalisation of sections of the insurgents, the cooperation between the state and the insurgents to plunder natural resources can in turn be regarded as a consequence of the insurgency.

In this situation, where might has been right, it is not feasible for local people to protect their rights. The onus is on leadership in the Indian government at the central and state levels, and the mining companies, to recognize the immense trauma being inflicted on poor, helpless people in the name of development, and call for a ceasefire with the Maoists and a moratorium on fresh mining projects till the nation state can figure out how to carry out mining in a manner that benefits local people rather than destroying them.

What according to you are the policy changes that the government should implement in these regions?
The Constitution of India already accords a privileged position to the adivasis. Tribal areas are supposed to fall under Schedule 5 of the Constitution which gives the governor of the state the right to restrict or modify the operation of laws in the Indian state in the interest of the adivasis, and provides for strict laws on the transfer of tribal lands to non-tribals.

The Panchayati Raj Extension to the Scheduled Areas Act (PESA) brings the scheduled areas under the ambit of the Panchayati Raj system but with significant exceptions related to the right of the gram sabha to be consulted on land acquisition, to make recommendations on the granting of prospecting licences or mining leases for minor minerals (extraction of major minerals is exempt) and to safeguard and preserve the traditions and customs of the people, their cultural identity, their community resources and their customary mode of dispute resolution. The Forest Rights Act drafted by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and introduced in 2008 grants legal recognition to the rights of traditional forest-dwelling communities and gave such communities and the public a voice in forest and wildlife conservation.

However, the implementation of these provisions leaves much to be desired. For instance, the scheduling of areas 1950 has been rather perfunctory. As for the Forest Rights Act, there is an ongoing attempt to dilute its clauses related to gram sabha approval without seeking an amendment from the Parliament. The controversial coal mining project of Rajasthan Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited (RVUNL) and Adani Minerals Private Limited in Surguja, Chhattisgarh, creates the interesting possibility of ministries racing to clear land for mining before the forest rights of adivasis asserted by the Forest Rights can be established.

How can the government and policy makers make use of your book?

I believe the main contribution of the book is to bring to life the voices of those left out of the debate on development – the displaced people, the ruptured communities, the wasted lives.
Beyond this, it highlights the anarchic situation prevailing in these development hot spots, where a supposed war between the haves and the have-nots has taken on a number of variations – from crass criminalization to cooperative plunder involving leaders of all the stakeholders, from inter-corporate sabotage to the creation of a police state, all this underpinned by the rise and fall of the global commodities cycle.

A shared understanding of the contours of the ground realities and a sensitivity to the havoc wreaked on the lives of the locals will allow the situation to be addressed in a humane manner. A fresh debate on the definition of development is the need of the hour, and hopefully the book will provoke that to happen.

Click here to read an extract from the book published in issue dated 11 July 2016

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