Monthly Archives: April 2010

It’s Fine, You Just Need $1.2 Trillion

India’s cities are something of a nightmare. This is not news for anyone who has walked through Calcutta at night and seen the hundreds of people sleeping on pavements or watched as an ambulance tries in vain to get through Mumbai’s traffic or wondered why there are huge sprawling building sites on the edge of every city which appear to have been abandoned. The news is that the urban nightmare has barely started.

A new report by McKinsey Global Institute [h/t FT] says India will have to spend $1.2 trillion dollars if it wants to prepare properly for the urban migration that is about to overwhelm its cities in the coming decades. By 2030, it reckons there will be 590 million living in India’s cities – 40% of the population – up from 340 million at the moment.

These numbers are frankly mind-boggling. India’s cities are a choked, manic, barely functioning riot. How they are expected to cope with almost double the numbers beggars comprehension. By the time Delhi has finished expanding it will be somewhere in Antarctica.

Thank God someone has bothered to spell out the problem and provide some comprehensive answers. The report goes into great detail about how you start involving people in urban growth and renewal, where the priorities are and what the budget should be. At the moment, India spends $17 per person on its city-folk and this needs to rise to $134, it says, bringing it line with China which spends $116 per person.

Even with this nice, neat plan, however, it will be an absolute miracle if the clunking, bewildered hippopotamus that is the Indian Administration Service manages to get even half of this done. As the FT points out, India has had 10 years of peaking urban migration and has done bugger all to prepare for it. Infrastructure spending is central to the next five-year plan in India, but as everyone in this country knows, infrastructure development is first and foremost a marvellous way for politicians and bureaucrats to get filthy rich. I look forward to seeing the queue at New Delhi railway station ticket office looking something like this in 10 years’ time:

The Tharoor Furore

The first big corruption case to hit the current government has been dominating the headlines here in the past few days and has finally claimed the scalp of junior foreign minister Shashi Tharoor. The allegations revolve around the recent purchase of a new Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket franchise for Kochi and the fact that Tharoor’s bit on the side, Sunanda Pushkar, was given a big chunk of “sweat equity” in the franchise – i.e. she didn’t have to do anything for the money, but promised to do lots of valuable promoting and whatnot in the future. I got in touch with the IPL and promised I too would do all manner of wonderful things for them and could they give me about 10 million rupees in the meantime, but they have yet to return my call.

Mr Tharoor has been a controversial figure since he was appointed last year, but few seem to acknowledge that the controversies surrounding him have been entirely stupid. Mostly they have revolved around things he has tweeted (he is a renowned fan of Twitter). For instance, when new visa rules were introduced at the end of last year banning travellers who leave India from returning within 2 months, he wrote “R we going 2allow terrorists 2make us less welcoming?”, referring to the fact they were introduced to stop more terrorist scouts like David Headley getting in and out of the country. Tharoor made a completely valid point, unless you think that terrorists only have a concentration span of two months after which they forget what they’ve been planning or accidentally write “Terrorist Mastermind” under their job description on their visa application.

Earlier he got in trouble for staying in a five-star hotel when the government was supposed to be on an austerity drive. The austerity drive basically consisted of Sonia Gandhi travelling once in economy class on a plane and some other minister agreeing to carry a briefcase full of money away from a meeting with illegal mining gangsters himself rather than have an underling do it for him (only the first one of these examples can be proven).

Tharoor reacted to the uproar over his five-star accommodation by saying (again on Twitter) that he would travel “cattle class out of solidarity with all the holy cows” on his next train journey. OMG!!! WTF!!!! The media went ballistic. Not only did he suggest that travelling cheap on the train is a bit crowded, but he sort of mentioned cows in a derogatory manner!!! It is surely a miracle that the entire sub-continent did not immediately collapse and sink to the bottom of the ocean.

All of this was rather impolitic of him, of course, particularly in the ‘he said she said’ world of Indian political reporting. But now that’s off my chest, it does seem very possible that Shashi has done something corrupt and bad in this latest case – at the very least, grossly stupid. This may be only the tip of the corruption iceberg for the IPL, with claims of widespread ‘insider trading‘, and an investigation has been launched to see how far the rot goes. In the meantime, with the opposition biting at the government’s heels, Shashi had to go. It’s been a long fall for a man who was once India’s candidate for the top job at the UN. The twittering classes shall miss him.

Himanshu on State Violence and Rising Class Consciousness

Here’s a recent speech from Himanshu Kumar (I’ve mentioned him before here and here), who needs to be at the centre of the current Maoist debate as someone who has lived and worked with the tribal people of Chhattisgarh for 18 years, right in the part of India that is now the focus of the insurgency.

He talks about some of the police atrocities that have taken place and how this drives villagers into the arms of the Naxalites. He downplays the violence that Naxalites use to ensure cooperation from local villagers, but in Chhattisgarh particularly violent police actions have been a major motivator of increased popular support for the Naxals, and the failure to adequately address complaints has compounded the problem.

Even if Himanshu is exaggerating the scale of these crimes (and how are we to know for sure), his reports still demonstrate a serious failure in counter-insurgency strategy – because the state has failed to establish its legitimacy among local people and ensure it can offer the feeling of protection that will keep them onside.

Seven hundred villages were burnt, about three- four lakh population. 50,000 were taken to the camp, 50000 fled to AP and Orissa or Maharashtra, 3 lakhs fled to the forest where they are still under attack. Our representative, Nandini Sundar went to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ordered the government to rebuild all the villages. Not a single village was rehabilitated by the government. The Supreme Court ordered the government to give compensation to the adivasis, not a single adivasi has received any compensation.

Finally the SC asked NHRC to send a team to Dantewada. This team had a hundred policemen. There is a village called Nendra which had been burned four times. The adivasis from there went to give affidavits to the NHRC, there were four girls missing from that village and ten people had been killed. When these adivasis were trying to go back, they were held up in a Salwa Judum camp for a whole day. They were beaten all day and forced to place their thumbprints on papers stating that they had been forced to give the affidavits, and that they had nothing to say against Salwa judum. The village was burnt yet again four days later.

He also makes an interesting point about different types of poor in India and the threat that will arise if all of them start to recognise the structural exploitation that is happening to them.

…there are three types of poor. Some of them, who are making a living because of the rich, like your maid or the person that irons your clothes. They are happy that some people are rich so they can also make a living. The second type are those, that think it is their fault that they are poor. They may think it is either their fate or their low caste or their illiteracy or because they live in a village, that makes them poor. They don’t blame the rich for their lot. The third are the type that you affected because you wanted to be rich. They didn’t want anything from you and had been living happily in the forests, until you decided to take their peace and their livelihood away from them without any heed of their welfare. Now, they want revenge. The real problem, for the rich, will arise if all these poor come together and take on the minority of rich people.

 Read the rest at Sanhati…

Sticking The Bhutto In

Benazir Bhutto’s niece, Fatima, has been seriously pounding the South Asia media circuit in the past few weeks to flog her book, Songs of Blood and Sword, which apparently paints Auntie Benazir in a distinctly unflattering light as a murdering, power-crazed megalomaniac.

As if Fatima was in need of more publicity, this week also saw the release of the UN’s report into Benazir’s murder in December 2007. Everyone is praising the UN report for taking a pretty tough line on the Pakistani establishment, criticising them for failing to adequately protect her and whitewashing the subsequent investigation. The unsubtle message is that the military establishment were behind the execution, possibly using Islamist terrorists to carry out the actual attack, and that the motivation was to remove the threat of a such a popular politician to then-president Pervez Musharraf’s regime.

Benazir was certainly a threat to Musharraf, whose regime was crumbling in the face of rioting lawyers and an upsurge in Islamist terrorism after the siege of the Red Mosque. But it’s less clear that she was a threat to the broader military establishment. She did little to break their hold on power during her stints as premier in the 1990s and all the talk of her being some shining beacon of democracy was, as William Dalrymple puts it more eloquently than I, balls:

Benazir …  colluded in wider human rights abuses and extra-judicial killings, and during her tenure government death squads murdered hundreds of her opponents. Amnesty International accused her government of having one of the world’s worst records of custodial deaths, abductions, killings and torture.

Far from reforming herself in exile, Benazir kept a studied distance from the pioneering lawyers’ movement which led the civil protests against President Musharraf’s unconstitutional attempts to manipulate the Supreme Court …  Later she said nothing to stop President Musharraf ordering the US-brokered “rendition” of her rival Nawaz Sharif to Saudi Arabia, so removing from the election her most formidable democratic opponent. Many of her supporters regarded her deal with Musharraf as a betrayal of all that her party stood for. Her final act in her will was to hand the inappropriately named Pakistan People’s Party over to her teenage son as if it were her personal family fiefdom.

That doesn’t mean the military were not behind the killing, of course. Musharraf was still the boss and an army man. Perhaps her enemies had actually started to believe the hype about her democratic ideals and got scared.

We will probably never know, so for now just enjoy the rest of Dalrymple’s article which repeats some of a story he wrote in 1994, in which Benazir, then prime minister, comes across as frankly insane and terrifying, and gives a glimpse of the vicious family hatred that eventually led to the murder of Fatima’s father, Murtaza Bhutto, a couple of years later. As for Fatima, daughter of the murdered Murtaza, she gives off a lot of well-poised righteous anger in her interviews, so the book is no doubt a great, if unflinchingly bitter, read.

I’m An Officer! I’m Not Staying In A Bloody Tent?!

Here’s one of the basic problems in tackling Maoists – not just lack of training, but refusal of training. This says a lot about the apathy that has led to the current situation. This is from the man who runs the jungle warfare training college at Kanker in Chhattisgarh where last week’s attack happened:

In his analysis of the carnage, the troopers were “totally under-prepared” to be sent into conflict zones. “It is evident they cannot site, much less recognise, an enemy harbour, they have no notion of who can take positions where, they were sleeping in a trap, that is what it was. But then, they have not been imparted such knowledge, not their fault.

“…the problem is the senior people. The men who must actually lead these boys in operations do not want to train. Some senior officers who came last year left because they were meant to stay their tenure in tents. Ridiculous! You cannot train for jungle guerrilla warfare if you want to stay in air-conditioning, my institution is about real terrain training, for jungle war you better get used to living in the jungle.”

Read the rest here…

It’s worth noting that even better training would not solve the resource problem. As someone explained to me over the weekend, in Chhattisgarh you have about 23 battalions of central forces (alongside 8-10 local battalions) covering around 39,000 km2 in Bastar region alone, 60% of it dense forest. When you account for rotations – troops on administrative functions or leave, etc – that leaves you less than 1,000 federal boots actually on the ground at any one time. As my source said: “When you have those kind of resources, ‘clear hold and build’ is not a strategy – it’s a slogan.”

Over 70 Dead In Major Maoist Attack

Over 70 police officers were killed earlier today in what must rank as one the largest single Maoist attacks in the movement’s 40-year history. 

The attack involved somewhere in the region of 700-1,000 Maoist cadres in the forests of Bastar in the Dandewada district of Chhattisgarh, arguably the centre of the Naxalite insurgency. With the state of Chhattisgarh supposed to be hammering down on the insurgents as part of Operation Green Hunt, this is clearly meant as a signal from the Maoists that they retain significant operational capability, hold massive advantages in terms of terrain and are willing to be ruthlessly savage in their assaults.

The sheer scale of the attack puts it in the realm of demonstrative terrorism – propaganda of the deed – to an extent that the Maoists have not previously attempted. It goes beyond short-term tactical requirements – this is about sending a message, and that message is pretty clear: Operation Green Hunt, if it is successful at all, will be an extremely bloody and drawn-out battle.

Home Minister P Chidambaram says he is “shocked” (see video below), which is worrying since it suggests he did not realise that an entirely militarised approach to counter-insurgency resulted in this kind of thing.

Maoists and Gandhi and That…

Got a piece on Guardian website today. Some credit needs to go to Michael Spacek‘s excellent recent article on Naxalism, which sums up the general situation beautifully and which I had meant to link to in this but forgot. Mine is a much woollier and rambling affair, but that’s the fun of Guardian op-eds:

The most tragic aspect of India’s civil war between the state and Maoist rebels is how it is destroying the country’s greatest ideological legacy – non-violent resistance.

Arundhati Roy’s article on her time spent with the Maoists (or Naxalites, as they are also known) in the jungles of Chattisgarh has been much debated here in India. No one can deny it offered a valuable insight into the suffering that leads young girls and boys to don the olive-green uniform and take up arms, but it has also generated some criticism, even from those who sympathise with the Maoist cause, for the romantic way in which she depicts the movement. After all, this is an organisation that indoctrinates children, kills police officers, and executes people it deems “class enemies”.

Fine – this is a war. Let’s not be naive about this, people get killed in wars. The adivasis (a collective term for tribal and lower castes) who form the core Maoist constituency face insane levels of police repression – murders, dispossession, rapes. Maybe I would be killing people, too, if I hadn’t grown up in a comfortable corner of Dorset where the worst form of state repression I faced was the introduction of speed cameras.

Read the rest here…

Battle Lines Drawn In The Posco Protest

Hundreds of villagers and protesters from across India gathered in a small village in the eastern state of Orissa this week to oppose plans for the world’s largest greenfield steel plant which activists say threatens the homes of 20,000 farmers and fisherman.

Opponents of the $12 billion project, which is being undertaken by South Korean steelmaker Posco, painted three red lines on the road leading to the proposed 4,000-acre site as a symbolic warning to the government, saying there would be “dire consequences” if anyone tried to cross them.

“If they come, we will resist. They haven’t seen anything yet,” said protest leader Abhaya Sahoo, state secretary for the Communist Party of India. “We don’t believe in compensation. We believe in our livelihoods.”

The activists who gathered in the Jagatsinghpur district on Thursday say Posco’s plan to flood large portions of the area will destroy highly fertile cashew, mango and beetlenut crops, as well as the tidal pools which fishermen use for prawn-farming.

Having already delayed the project for five years, they threaten to become an international embarrassment for the Indian government. During a visit to New Delhi in January, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak sought direct assurances that issues of land acquisition would be resolved. At the time, India’s Minister for Steel Virbhadra Singh vowed that the matter would be “signed, sealed and delivered to Posco in the next four to five months.”

But the locals gathered in the village of Balitutha show no sign of abandoning their position. Since President Lee’s visit, a small group has held an indefinite sit-in, housed in a make-shift bamboo hut on the edge of the site.

Mr Sahoo say protesters have faced strong harassment from the authorities: “They have filed 132 false cases against us for terrible crimes – attempted murder, rape, extortion – none of which are true. I was detained for 10 months and 14 days and was only released on bail. They say they will take me to trial but of course there is no evidence.

“They held panchayat [district-level] elections while we were in jail, but the anti-Posco group still won. One young man was elected while still in his jail cell.”

Some villagers have already accepted compensation packages, which include being moved to new, concrete houses along with offers of employment if the steel plant is built. But the vast majority remain opposed.

“My land has been farmed by my family for over 100 years,” says Sukradev Das, from nearby Nava Ratnatur village, one of the 15 affected. “It is very good farmland, we do not want it destroyed.”

Roughly three quarters of the 4,000 acre site is government-owned, but under the Forest Rights Act 2009, farmers who depend on a particular area for their livelihoods are entitled to apply for ownership. Locals say their applications are being ignored.

“If we got the rights to our land, we would not have to fight the government. It would be good for us,” said Mr Das. “But we apply and they ignore us. They are violating the law of the land.”

While a group of villagers proudly say they have faced down the police in the past and will do so again, the leader of the protest is not so sure.

“The government have no option left but to bring in the police,” said Mr Sahoo. “They have already started building barracks for 25 platoons. We fear they will resort to violence with the deadline getting near.”

As if to underline the point, on the same day as the Posco protest reports emerged of police attacks at Tata Steel’s Kalinganagar site, another controversial industrial project in Orissa.

According to a group of journalists and human rights workers led by a retired High Court judge, police in Kalinganagar opened fire with rubber bullets against villagers protesting their displacement for a new highway leading to the site. Justice Chaudhry Pratap Mishra wrote in the report that “about 30-40 tribals have sustained bullet injuries in the firing and 25 were treated by the doctor accompanying the committee.” He added that there have been “no efforts by the administration to treat the injured. People don’t wish to go out for treatment for fear of torture and arrest.”

Orissa is becoming a test case in the battle to protect forests and villages from the encroachment of large-scale corporations. As well as the Posco and Tata projects, Orissa is also home to the controversial bauxite refinery  owned by UK-listed Vedanta Resources, whose plans to mine in the Niyamgiri Hills have drawn international attention because of resistance from the local Kondh tribe, for whom the hills are home to their deity.

For the government, however, such projects are central to India’s economic growth, which is expected to reach 8.5% in the coming year and continue rising to double figures after that. Since April 2000, India has promoted the establishment of tax-free Special Economic Zones (SEZs), including one at the Posco site, to attract foreign and domestic industrial investment. The government argues they help develop impoverished areas and that the boost to foreign currency reserves makes up for the huge losses in tax revenue. There are currently 578 SEZs in operation across India.

The SEZs are strongly opposed by left-wing movements who say they run rough-shod over the rights of local people.

“In these SEZs, local government is disbanded and the people have no say in the matter,” said Vilas Sonawane, who travelled to the Posco protest from his home state of Maharashtra where he led a successful movement to block an SEZ at Raijab. “The government gives these companies a free hand in grabbing all sorts of natural resources – water, minerals, agricultural land. If you take these things from people, they become slaves.”

On its website, Posco India, which could not be reached for comment, says that only 500 villagers will be affected and that Orissa’s Resettlement and Rehabilitation Policy is a leader in its field, making “all possible efforts to provide the locals who are directly and indirectly affected by the project a better life for tomorrow.”

It says it has adjusted its plant layout over 60 times to minimize displacement and that all issues and concerns will be addressed through an appropriate grievance redressal mechanism.

“Green Hunt Is Genocide, I Quit!”

A member of parliament in India has resigned in protest at the government’s Operation Green Hunt against Maoist rebels, which he says amounts to a “genocide” against the tribal people.

Kabir Suman, a 61-year-old MP from Kolkata in West Bengal, announced his resignation on Tuesday and although it looks like there will be some procedural delays, it is likely that one of the few voices of anti-Green Hunt dissent in the Lok Sabha will soon be gone.

When I interviewed him the other day, the former folk singer and journalist said his main worry was in losing the protection that came with being a member of parliament, but that he could no longer stomach what he was part of (he is a member of the Trinamool Congress, allied to the ruling Congress coalition at the centre).

 “What is happening in these areas is genocide. I understand the government cannot tolerate a group that wants to overthrow the state, but no one is asking what happens to the villagers and tribals in the process.

“I am a lone voice in parliament – not one person will listen to me. For my own sanity, I have to resign. But my worry is that now I will lose the protection of being an MP and they can accuse me of seditious activities. They can take me and hold me for six months under their anti-terror laws, torture me, do whatever they want. I fear that I have not much longer to live. It’s very disconcerting.”

In recent months, the government has allocated around 50,000 federal paramilitaries to bolster state forces against the Maoists, who have an estimated 40,000 armed cadres and a presence in over a third of India’s 626 districts. Both sides have been accused of widespread extrajudicial killings with the tribals caught in the middle.

Earlier this month, Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram told journalists in Kolkata: “Some success has been achieved in intra-state operations after Green Hunt started. Police forces have caught some top leaders and attacked some Maoist camps. The next stage is to launch larger coordinated inter-state operations.”

But police admit they face considerable difficulties in telling innocent villagers from Maoist cadres, and says the situation bears comparison to Vietnam.

Bhupinder Singh, West Bengal’s director-general of police, said: “When we go into the jungles, they just hide their weapons and walk like normal people. It is something like the Vietcong – classic guerrilla tactics. They know where we are, we don’t know where they are. It requires a lot of specific intelligence.”

For critics of Green Hunt like Mr Suman, this has effectively turned the conflict into a war on India’s poorest citizens – one which serves the interests of corporate interests.

He cites the example of Lalgarh, an area in West Midnapore district about 100 miles west of Kolkata, where what began as peaceful tribal protests against a steel plant being built by the Jindal Iron and Steel Company has descended into a violent conflict between Maoist forces and the state.

Violence in the district began in November 2008 when Maoists detonated a roadside bomb in a failed attempt on the life of West Bengal’s chief minister as he returned from a visit to the site.

 “The police retaliated by attacking the villages in Lalgarh, assuming they had aided the Maoists,” said Mr Suman. “For two days they brutalised people, raped pregnant women, hit one woman with their batons until she lost an eye.”

He says the villagers responded by setting up the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA), a group that has come to symbolise the blurred line between legitimate protest and armed revolt. Supporters say it was strictly a legal, non-violent movement, while the police accuse it of being a front organisation for the Maoists.

Director-General Singh said: “The PCAPA drummed up support by cooking up stories about atrocities with the obvious backing of the Maoists. All they want is to control these areas. We have been very careful that there are no human rights violations, that they respect women and children and the elderly.”

He says that any allegations of brutality should be brought to court, but those dealing with these cases say the villagers are terrified of talking to anyone for fear of retaliation.

On 22 February 2010 the PCAPA’s president, Lalmohan Tudu, was gunned down by police. Activists say he was dragged out of his village home and shot in front of his wife and daughter as revenge for a Maoist attack on a nearby police camp on 15 February in which 24 officers died. The police claim Mr Tudu was killed in a gunfight which he initiated.

“Lalmohan Tudu and his group attacked our camp,” said Mr Singh. “They ambushed us and the officers retaliated and fired on the group. We found afterwards that he was one of the dead.”

For Mr Sumat, the killing was the last straw. He made repeated demands for Mr Tudu’s body to be returned to his family, and to have the post-mortem made public. Eventually, in early March the police produced a document signed by Mr Tudu’s wife in which she stated that the family did not want the body returned.

“They are terrified of coming forward,” said Mr Sumat. “Of course they want the body returned, but how can they stand up to the police?”

For the Maoists, such stories are powerful tools. Since re-emerging as a serious threat in 2004, they have attached themselves to as many people’s movements as possible, feeding off widespread grievances among those left behind in India’s emergence as a global economic power. That gives them a huge potential constituency in a country where around 400 million people live below the poverty line.

As with the PCAPA, an association with the Maoists can prove fatal. Even if the group did maintain a distance from the insurgents when it was initially formed, the Maoists are known to put pressure on villagers to provide them with shelter and resources. This Wednesday saw yet another body of an alleged police informant turn up in a West Midnapore village.

Mr Suman said: “It’s impossible to know what connection was there between the PCAPA and the Maoists, but I can well imagine that after it was pushed so far by the police in Operation Green Hunt that the tribals had to look for allies, for protection.

“I don’t believe violence solves anything. But if you have no allies in the democratic system, where do you turn? Don’t they have a right to survive? How can we really blame anyone who takes up the gun when they find themselves against the onslaught of the government?”