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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 1, December 26, 2009 - Annual Number 2009

Jharkhand: Economic Growth for Whom?

Saturday 26 December 2009, by Girish Mishra

As far as natural resources like minerals, land and water are concerned, Jharkhand is among the richest States of India. Yet, its people are among the poorest. Mind you, almost 30 per cent of them are tribal. Out of the total population of 288.46 lakhs, 223.1 lakhs live in rural areas and only 65.36 lakhs are urban dwellers. Even a cursory glance is sufficient to convince that most of the tribal, Dalit and OBC population live in villages and depend on land and allied activities for their livelihood. Urban areas are inhabited by upper and middle classes, engaged mostly in trade, commerce, industry, and the service sector.

Ever since the British rule, a special tenancy law has been in force to protect the tribal people from depriving them of their land. This came along with the Bengal Tenancy Act of 1885 to prevent non-tribal people from grabbing landed possessions of the tribal population and it covered the entire Chhotanagpur and Santhal Parganas (which form the present-day Jharkhand). Non-tribal people, mostly outsiders, invented one trick after another to dispossess the tribal peasantry. By pushing them in debt their landholdings were grabbed benami and they were reduced to being landless labourers cultivating the same land but without a fair share in the produce. They were deprived of forest products.

Some industrialists like the Tatas and Birlas bought zamindaris and became almost absolute owners of land and other natural resources over and under the surface of land. The Tatas bought zamindari rights to the villages that constitute the modern-day Jamshedpur from the Raja of Dhalbhum. Their leverage was so much that the then Bihar Government did not take away their zamindari rights when the Permanent Settlement was abolished. In 1967 when CPI leader Indradeep Sinha, the Revenue Minister in the SVD Government, tried to abolish the Tatas’ zamindari rights and moved a Bill in the Assembly, his efforts were frustrated. Having zamindari rights, the Tatas became the absolute masters and they could evict anyone at will if they needed land for setting up new ventures or expansion of existing ones. To ward off the pinpricks and extortions from powerful people sitting in the corridors of power in Patna and continue political pressure on the Congress, they materially supported the foundation of the Jharkhand Party, to be led by Jaipal Singh, whose main demand was separation from Bihar. At some point of time, this outfit tried to hobnob with the Muslim League by adopting a supportive attitude to the latter’s demand for Pakistan.

After the death of Jaipal Singh, leading to the splintering of his party, the BJP jumped into the fray. It was backed by moneylenders and land-grabbers and a substantial section of traders and industrialists. There was a solid ground for its operation because for decades the Hindu communal elements had been arousing feelings against Christian missionaries and there were riots in several towns including Ranchi and Jamshedpur. All this proved to be advantageous to the BJP after the NDA Government, headed by it, got the separate State of Jharkhand formed.

While the State has been in existence for almost a decade, the plight of the people, especially the tribal ones and other backward classes, has worsened. While the Tatas have been reducing the scale of their activities and public sector undertakings like the fertiliser factory in Sindri is closed and the HEC is sick, no new investments have been coming from outside. Job opportunities have been stagnant and people are dissatisfied while Maoist activities have been expanding. Coal and land mafia rule the roost. Corruption is rampant and its latest symbol is Madhu Koda, a former Chief Minister of the State, who is “in the dock for allegedly building a Rs 4000 crore business empire stretching from Liberia to Thailand”. He “began his career as a daily wager. But, by the dint of his resourcefulness, this aspiring independent MLA, whose declared personal worth was
Rs 24.25 lakhs in 2005, had his assets increase by five times to Rs 1.17 crore in May 2009…” His erstwhile Cabinet colleagues, Enos Ekka and Harinarayan Rai, too have allegedly cornered fabulous wealth though five years ago they belonged to the lowest economic strata. Ekka, who until the 1990s was staying in an Indira Awas Yojana tenement, now has two bungalows valued at Rs 18 lakhs and has acquired 18 acres of land. Rai has a Scorpio vehicle, a dairy farm in Ranchi and Rs 55.54 lakhs in his wife’s name. Political analyst A.K. Sinha has been quoted by The Times of India (November 20) to point out that a two-term MLA, a rickshaw puller in the early 1980s, has become a crorepati. Shibu Soren’s son Hemant Soren has multiplied his net worth six times in just five years. Everybody knows from where their wealth has come.

On the other hand, in Jharkhand the incidence of poverty is very severe. The just released report of Suresh Tendulkar points out that 51.6 per cent of rural and 23.8 per cent of urban population live below the poverty line. In all 45.3 per cent population is below poverty line. It is a miracle that they are still able to survive and struggle for their just demands against the people and forces responsible for their worsening plight. Had the natural resources and government funds not been looted, and if the administration was honest and committed to its duties, they would have been marching on the path of peace and progress. Jharkhand would have been among the prosperous States.

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Ramashray Singh is among the few persons organizing the tribal and other downtrodden people for their just rights and demands for decades. He has been leading them to petition the government authorities, filing cases in law courts and sitting on dharnas and staging demonstrations. In that process, Singh and his band of workers have been arrested several times and suffered imprisonment; yet they have not deviated from the Gandian path of peaceful and non-violent struggle. They have not given up their hopes.

They point out that even after the acquisition of land of peasants in as far back as 1953 for setting up the Damodar Valley Project, no compensation has been paid and the promise to provide jobs to the displaced redeemed. No sincere attempt has been made to rehabilitate them. The concerned Ministries of the Central Government have been approached times without number but, in spite of assurances, nothing concrete has happened.

Singh has been fighting on several fronts. He points out that there are a number of scams concerning public sector undertakings and he has submitted documentary evidence to the Central Government but no action has been initiated. He has also produced before the government documentary evidence of corruption charges against BJP leader and former Chief Minister Arjun Munda and his wife Mira Munda, but no concrete action is in sight. Even the self-righteous leaders of the BJP are silent. The only heartening news, at the time of writing this piece, is that the High Court is reported to be taking some cognisance and the Lokayukta has initiated some steps.

Singh has also been fighting for the just demand of 25 lakh Ghatwars of Jharkhand for their inclusion in the list of Scheduled Tribes. In spite of petitioning and leading marches, rallies and sit-ins the government has not done anything beyond doling out empty assurances. To give a concrete example how casually the bureaucracy acts, there is a letter from the Ministry of Home Affairs dated December 7 when the State was under President’s Rule, saying it was not in a position to do anything in matters relating to crimes and corruption.

One may remind the people who man the Central Government that as far back as the 1960s a Congress MP from Ghazipur, Vishwanath Singh Gahmari, broke down in the Lok Sabha while relating the plight of the people of Eastern UP, suffering from a lack of development and prevalence of corruption, and Pandit Nehru was so moved that he immediately constituted a commission to look into the allegations. The bulky report may still be in the libraries and archives. Nehru did not shirk his responsibilities by saying that the UP Government should be reproached.

The Home Minister has, time and again, pointed to the urgency to fight the increasing Maoist insurgency by removing its objective basis but no seriousness is evinced in this regard in practice.

The author, a well-known economist, used to teach Economics at Kirorimal College, University of Delhi before his retirement a few years ago. He can be contacted at gmishra@girishmishra.com

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