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Towards an entente

Print edition : Oct 22, 2004 T+T-

With a series of measures for the benefit of tribal people, Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik makes a conciliatory gesture to the naxalites who thrive on tribal discontent.

in Bhubaneswar

THE problems that lie at the root of the extremism spearheaded by the Maoist rebel groups in Orissa have finally caught the State government's attention. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, on his return from a meeting of Chief Ministers of naxalite-affected States in Hyderabad, described naxalism as a "socio-economic problem" and announced a series of measures to help tribal people and woo the extremists to join the mainstream.

But there is scepticism about the implementation of the welfare programmes. Experience shows that the tribal areas have remained under-developed primarily because of the callousness of the administration in implementing development projects.

With more than 60 tribal communities accounting for 22 per cent of the State's population, Orissa is now affected by extremism of the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) from the north and the People's War from the south. While the Centre has recognised seven of the 30 districts as affected by extremism, the State puts 10 districts in this category.

The Chief Minister said that the government was open to talks with the extremists, unconditionally and within the parameters of the Constitution. A delegation of sympathisers of the naxalite movement met him at the State Secretariat on September 14 and submitted a memorandum listing various demands. The naxalite groups too have offered to hold talks with the government several times in the past. But the formal peace process is yet to begin.

A DAY after the Hyderabad conference, Naveen Patnaik ordered a review of all naxalite-related cases within two weeks. Soon the government announced the withdrawal of cases against 162 naxalites, including six of the 18 arrested in Malkangiri district on September 16.

The Chief Minister announced measures to create employment opportunities for one lakh tribal people, fill up vacancies in government offices and hospitals in backward districts, improve health care facilities, set up a college of nursing and pharmacy at Koraput, and disburse loans to the tune of Rs.50 crores to women self-help groups in tribals areas.

In an effort to appease extremists who have taken up land issues, he said that the homestead land would be provided to the landless tribal families within a year and that land dispute cases would be disposed speedily at the Tehsil level. The District Collectors would tour extensively to speed up the development process in areas where tribal people are predominant.

On September 25, Naveen Patnaik, in a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, sought the Centre's support to provide land rights to the tribal people who had settled in the reserve forest limits before 1980.

Pointing out that land dispute was one of the main reasons for the growing discontent among the tribal people, Naveen Patnaik said that the State government's efforts to regularise about 2,023.43 hectares (5,000 acres) of forest land had been constrained by of the provisions of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980.

The Patnaik government has introduced a series of changes in its Forest Policy that would benefit tribal people and other improverished sections living in and around forests. The changes include the abolition of licence for the sale of 68 items of forest produce, increase in the price of sal seed and tendu leaf and the revival of bamboo collection. But the measures seem to have benefited traders rather than the tribal people.

Patnaik expressed the hope that these measures would solve the problems of the tribal people, restore peace in the tribal areas and motivate the naxalites to shun the path of violence and join the mainstream.

The People's War, which had offered to hold talks with the government gave a call for a bandh in south Orissa demanding the withdrawal of the Central Reserve Police Force from the southern districts of Malkangiri, Koraput, Rayagada, Gajapati and Ganjam; the withdrawal of the cases against innocent tribal people and the immediate release of the 18 persons arrested in Malkangiri. The 18 naxalites, including 10 women, were arrested when they were returning from a pro-naxal rally organised by the Daman Pratirodh Manch, in Bhubaneswar on September 14. The bandh passed off peacefully. Soon the Chief Minister announced withdrawal of 1,513 minor cases against tribal people. A majority of these cases relate to violation of forest rules and land disputes.

But despite the State government initiating a series of confidence building measures, the peace process in the State continues to be plagued by distrust between the government and the extremist groups. While the naxalite leaders have termed the Chief Minister's recent moves an "eyewash", a section of the police and the bureaucracy is unhappy over what they see as Naveen Patnaik's surrender to the extermists.

ORISSA has experienced quite a few naxal attacks in the past resulting in the death of policemen and personnel from the para-military forces and looting of arms. But the extremist activity of the Maoists has not been like their attacks in Andhra Pradesh or Bihar. The State government has also not been very harsh on the naxalites. But the problem continues to fester in the interior pockets of the State

The real solution to the naxal problem seems to lie with the government itself. As denial of basic human rights to the tribal people contributes to the growth of naxalism, the government has to ensure that the police operate in a people-friendly manner and fulfil the promises it makes to ensure economic development of the poor population.