On Independence Day when the Tricolour rises once again in Saranda, the people of this mineral rich area will hope they have not merely exchanged the symbols of subjugation but their lives will get hoisted above the conditions they were born into. It was just eleven months ago that armed police reclaimed Saranda from the Maoists who had 'liberated' it since 2000. They have established control but not dominance. The government does not want it to slide. Saranda is now the testing ground for a development initiative, which if successful, will be applied to other areas wrested from the Maoists.
Rural development minister Jairam Ramesh is mighty serious about winning over the Ho and Birhor tribals who constitute the population of Saranda. Security, development and political voice are the three aspects of his liberation theology. The Maoists, he says, are driven by levy. Their ideology is market-based: a fee for every consignment of ore or timber. 'Do not demonize the security forces and romanticize the Maoists,' he warns. But in a perverse manner they have highlighted the plight of the tribals.
Saranda is an 850 sq km area in Jharkhand's West Singhbhum district with an estimated 2,000 million tonnes of iron ore reserves, one of the largest in the world. It also has a huge collection of sal trees. The mines came to Sail, or Steel Authority of India, with the takeover of Indian Iron and Steel Company. Tata Steel, Arcelor Mittal and Jindal Steel Works are keen to get a piece of the action. Though the land is rich, the people are abjectly poor, 'below BPL' (below poverty line), according to Ramesh. It is also malarial.
The Saranda Action Plan, which Ramesh announced in January, is a Rs 250 cr, two-year initiative to provide life's basics to Saranda. It covers 7,000 families or 36,500 persons in 56 villages and six blocks. Half of this money will be spent on 13 roads, two of which have been completed. Six thousand families will get houses. Solar lanterns, bicycles, transistors and musical instruments will also be provided. To alleviate distress work is being created under the rural jobs scheme.
Non-governmental organizations are being roped in to improve agricultural practices and output, and to conserve rainwater. To keep the militants off, thirteen police posts have been established with 2,600 policemen.
Is the development plan just a ploy to facilitate mining? The tribals believe so. They fear that outsiders will get skilled and semi-skilled jobs, and they will be left with menial work. Mining will destroy the forests, on which they live, and where they gods are. Ramesh admits that the track record of the mining companies, whether public sector or private, is 'pathetic.' They have never fulfilled the relief and rehabilitation promises made when acquiring land. The magazine Governance Now reports in its May edition that the hand pumps which Sail has provided are dry. Teachers attend schools just once a month. Invoking the threat of Maoists, welfare officers keep away from Saranda.
Taking the middle path in the polarized debate on mining, Ramesh wants ore extraction to be socially responsible and ecologically benign. Competitive mining by multiple players should not be allowed; he prefers a ten-year moratorium on private sector mining in the region.
Will the money that the government is pouring in reach the tribals? A quick change of heart cannot be expected in an administration that has been unresponsive or exploitative for sixty years. Ramesh says he was worried that the huge outlay for Saranda would encourage rent-seeking. He wants vigilance from civil society groups and the media.
For five months from April, Governance Now posted a correspondent in Saranda in a novel example of embedded developmental journalism. Sarthak Ray, who studied at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, reported that of the six thousand families who were supposed to get money for houses, only 2,000 did. Upon enquiry, the rural development ministry found that the banks - State Bank of India, Bank of India and Canara Bank - did not have the wherewithal to open so many accounts. An 'integrated development center,' which Ramesh had announced in January was no more than a foundation stone till May, past the three-month deadline, Governance Now says.
Bringing development to Saranda will not be easy if noble intentions do not seep through the administration. Ramesh wants a separate administrative cadre for tribal regions, like the Indian Frontier Administrative Service, which Jawaharlal Nehru established for the Northeast at the instance of his adviser, the anthropologist Verrier Elwin. Community rights under the Forest Rights Act of 2006 will have to be recognized and granted. So far only 3,000 have been conferred across the country. Tribals will also have to be liberated from the oppressive forest bureaucracy. As minister of environment and forests, Ramesh managed to give tribals the rights to bamboo, by classifying it as grass. This has enabled Menda Lekha village in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra to earn a crore rupees in revenue. The forest department had opposed this, saying that the Indian Forest Act of 1927 regards bamboo as a tree. But Ramesh had over-ruled their objections on the grounds that a later act superseded an earlier one.
Political parties will also have to step in to articulate the concerns of the tribal people. Ramesh says the din of democracy - the buntings, banners and, yes, the protests - that mark a ministerial visit to other parts of the country, are missing in Saranda. There is a complete absence of political mobilization.
The tricolour may fly in Saranda but freedom will be meaningless for the tribals if the administration fails them this time around.