People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 36

September 05, 2010

The Dual Face of Congress Politics in Tribal India


Archana Prasad


IN recent times, two events in Orissa’s tribal belt have made the headlines. The first is the decision to deny Vedanta Alumina an environmental clearance to mine bauxite in Lanjhigarh and the Niyamgiri hills, which had become a flash point for tribal resistance against corporate penetration of natural resources. The second was signified by Rahul Gandhi’s now famous assertion that though the denial of permission to Vedanta was a result of successful resistance by the people, it was he who had given them a voice in Delhi after he had first visited them in 2008. Thus he was their ‘soldier’ in Delhi, thereby implying that if they wanted to get their demands met they would have to follow the Congress channel.


In one sense Rahul Gandhi’s script was well rehearsed and well written in a context where the congress has barely any political organisation and presence in the tribal heartland of central and eastern India. Since the 1940s, rightwing forces led by the RSS have penetrated these areas and established a network of social welfare and political organisations. Such organisations, have not only yielded a strong network of political activists and organisations, but they have also ensured that repeated political defeats of the congress since the late 1980s have left it bereft of any tribal leadership. While this is distinctly evident in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, in Jharkhand the Congress has been relying on repressive central rule on the one hand, and the leadership of tribal parties like JMM on the other hand for its political survival. Hence, the entry of Rahul Gandhi in the tribal arena has came at a time when the Congress realises that it needs to appropriate the ‘radical’ tribal space in non-Congress ruled states to build its tribal base, even as it makes systemic changes that benefit corporate capital in its own states. Hence, while the Congress attempts to recover lost ground in the tribal heartland, it is also sparing no effort to liberalise environmental regulation and facilitate the introduction of corporate capital in its own states.




The political maneuvering by Rahul Gandhi and his party has been necessitated by its own policies that have basically concentrated on the more intense exploitation of natural resources by private players. The self-criticism by the ruling classes that previous forms of state capitalism in resource management had led to both institutional and market failures has prompted certain systemic changes that have led to the commodification of the environment. Thus the UPA-I carried forward the agenda of reforming the environment ministry by the introduction of national environmental policy and environmental impact assessment rules in 2006. Both these documents were a result of the pressures to ease environmental regulations in order to facilitate big corporate projects in resource rich areas. It was claimed that these laws were world-class laws that would make environmental management both people friendly and scientifically sound. The ‘consent clauses’ in laws and policies were highlighted as being in line with international regulations that provided for rigorous consent of the local self-governments in any big project. This was to be combined with the forest rights act that was passed at the end of UPA II through a systematic pressure from the Left. It was hoped that these would dissipate the conflicts around these major projects and help to garner broad based support for the neo-liberal economic agenda that was at the heart of these policies.


However this did not take place for at least two reasons. First, the behavior of the corporate houses themselves, who not only took full advantage of weak environmental laws but also violated them rampantly.  For example if we take the case of the mining sector, the Congress ruled states have been the leaders in illegal mining. In 2002 when private players were being granted prospecting licenses, covering an area of over 90 thousand square kilometer and reconnaissance permits covering an area of over 155000 square kilometers, Andhra and Karnataka were the leaders. Similarly the annual report of the ministry of mines, 2009-2010 shows that recorded cases of illegal mines for the year 2009 till September 2009 (that is state wise recorded cases of nine months) were 30,551 for which 1,255 FIRs were registered and 3,306 cases filed showing an abysmal rate of action taken against these mines. Of these 28,055 cases were recorded for minor minerals like the rat hole iron ore mines and 638 FIRs registered and 3,174 cases filed. Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka accounted for about half these cases. There were 3,178 illegal mines in Rajasthan, 8,370 in Maharashtra, 7,570 in Andhra, 1,687 in Karnataka and 2,654 in Gujarat and 1,068 cases in Chhattisgarh (against whom no action has been taken). This shows that the states ruled by major political parties like the Congress and the BJP had major mining interests which dominated all bourgeois parties and of which the Bellary case is the most reflective.




Secondly, the widespread campaign against these regulations and the opening up of the forest rights act to consistent debate resulted in a process of public education that revealed the basic fallacies of these laws. Under Left pressure the government was forced to concede more than it had bargained for in terms of forest rights. It is well known that it took that the Congress government about one year to notify the act after it was passed by the parliament. This was followed by the narrow and tardy implementation of the act in the states where it had its own governments. The status report of the ministry of tribal affairs showed that Assam government had only received 1,14,857 claims by July 31, 2010 and it had only managed to dispose of 29,855 claims. Similarly in Maharashtra 3,27,447 claims and though it had disposed of 78 per cent of the claims (2,50,015 claims) the rate of rejections was very high with almost 60 percent (1,74,334) being rejected. In Rajasthan, out of the 60,350 claims filed about 50 per cent (30,270) were rejected. This unsatisfactory progress is not only confined to the Congress states, but also the BJP ruled states. Thus in Gujarat, a state certified for good governance by many corporate houses and politicians, only 34,675 claims were processed out of 1,91,477 and of these 15,621 were rejected. Even though the pace of the implementation of the act is relatively faster in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, the number of claims rejected is enormous. For example out of the 4,86, 386 claims processed in Chhattisgarh about 2,71,468 were rejected and in Madhya Pradesh about 2,53,887 claims out of the total processed claims of 3,48,041 were rejected. This high rejection rate in these states shows that these governments can use this law to evict people from the forests once their claims are rejected.


In the light of these two factors, i.e., the unregulated penetration of the corporate sector and the non-recognition of the legitimate rights of people, the threats to tribal survival have accentuated greatly. The first obvious impact has been in the increased displacement of tribal people. In the industrialisation project of Orissa alone an estimated 1.99 lakh families are said to be affected. Secondly we see an increase in the incidence of landlessness of tribal people in the post reforms period with the 2005 NSSO at least a third of the tribal people have no access to cultivable land. Most others only have sub-marginal holdings. These processes have led to the third phenomena of the increasing household migration of tribal people. The NSSO survey of 2008 shows that at least a third of the tribal households are migrating from rural areas to the cities for casual labour in the period between 2000 and 2008. This means that the high growth rate achieved by the Congress government is only dislocating the life of the tribal people.


In this situation the Congress has been forced to respond to the increasing conflicts within the tribal areas. In Chhattisgarh, it chose to back the BJP sponsored Salwa Judum campaign thus pushing any other peaceful protests to the periphery. This divisive and confrontational attitude towards tribal problems created a political vacuum where ‘maoists’ gained ground and the foundations of Operation Green hunt were laid. In the absence of a democratic Left alternative to both the ‘maoists’ and the BJP in this region, Operation Green hunt represents the failure of the Congress to meet the political challenges posed by non-Congress tendencies in their traditional tribal strongholds. But the public critique and Supreme Court indictment of Salwa Judum has also made it vary of repressive measures against indigenous tribal movements.  Given this context, the Congress is attempting to achieve the aim of getting the autonomous grass roots movements to support it as a viable political alternative to both the ‘maoists’ and the rightwing political parties in the non-Congress states. In the process it has also managed to create some amount of consent for its policies because it is operating amongst activists who have the commitment to fight corporate domination, but lack capacity to provide a credible political alternative. However this emerging trend is likely to benefit the Congress and can also threaten the future expansion of the Left and democratic forces amongst the tribal areas. Thus the task before the Left and democratic forces is clear: they need to expose the real agenda of the Congress by providing a political alternative to the tribal people. This can only be done if they utilise the space that has been created by anti-corporate protests to expand their organisation and intensify their activities in these areas.