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An appeal for peace in South Bastar

by Ilina Sen (The Hindu, October 21, 2008)

Dr. Ilina Sen presents certain proposals made by Dr. Binayak Sen, medical practitioner and leading member of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Chhattisgarh. She has written this based on discussions with him during recent visits to the Raipur Jail where he is since May 14, 2007.

The present situation in South Bastar is characterised by an infinitude of chronic deprivation, along with a complete absence of political discourse. On the one hand we have the Salwa Judum, which the government dishonestly tries to characterise as a “people’s response to Maoism.” On the other hand, there is a purely military engagement between the state-based forces and the Maoists, which act as a proxy to a political discourse. Both parties to this enga gement deliberately ignore the fact that a purely military solution, imposed by either party, even if it were possible, would be neither valid nor sustainable.

Phase 1 Any quest for a resolution of this situation cannot start by addressing the humanitarian problem on the ground alone, catastrophic as that no doubt is. The humanitarian situation in South Bastar today is both the end product as well as the precipitating factor behind the current impasse. Any standard appeal for peace would begin with an agenda for the resolution of the humanitarian situation, but given the total breakdown of societal mechanisms in the area, this might have limited possibilities for success. Instead, the first and most urgent necessity is the establishment of an institutional forum for political engagement without preconditions. The purpose of this forum will not be to search for solutions, but rather to concentrate on the identification and recognition of participants in the forum, and the elaboration of an agenda as well as the guarantees necessary for the forum to conduct its business, that is, talks about talks.

Essentially this proposal resembles that suggested on certain occasions for the resolution of the current situation in Jammu and Kashmir. The identification of members of the forum must be an inclusive process. This must include, apart from the government and the Maoists, representatives of political parties as well as civil society in the area of South Bastar.

Phase 2 Once this institutional mechanism is in place, it would undertake, within its overall supervision, a specific series of measures directed at relieving the humanitarian situation on the ground. As an immediate priority, the problems to be addressed will include Food and Water, Shelter and Livelihood, Health Care, and Transport and Infrastructure.

Education is a more contentious subject and may be addressed once we move beyond the preliminary stages.

Food and Water: For all intents and purposes, the entire region is famine-stricken and should be treated as such. The indigenous systems of food production and livelihood have been destroyed. A universal public distribution system (PDS), at zero cost to the identified card-bearing consumers, should be put in place as an immediate priority. The identification of consumer households should be through electronic ration cards that can be redeemed at any geographical location in the affected area. This will leave the option open for households and household members to either return to their villages or continue to reside at whichever camp or other place they may have relocated to. The PDS should supply, in addition to cereals, pulses and oil. Adequate locally relevant measures to obtain potable, safe drinking water should be put in place.

Shelter: Village homes, which have remained unoccupied for months, will need repair and reconditioning to make them habitable. Help should be at hand to enable returning families to rebuild their homes.

Livelihoods: The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act should be extensively deployed over the entire area to secure a minimum livelihood for all returning families. Only when guaranteed livelihoods are effectively put in place will people enjoy some degree of autonomous control over their own lives. The issue of pattas to revenue lands abandoned for lengths of time, and cultivation of what are technically forest lands, are extremely complex. In view of the new Act for granting land rights to families cultivating these lands, the matter should be handled with extreme sensitivity. Pending the reclamation and recording of people’s land rights, implementation of all decisions for land acquisition must be put in abeyance.

Health Care: Adequate and accessible health care facilities, universally accessible to all on a cashless basis, must be put in place as soon as possible. This should include supplies of drugs and other necessary equipment. No discrimination should obtain between different population groups with respect to access to basic health facilities. In case state-based facilities are not available, non-state providers who fulfil these criteria should be welcomed.

Transport and Infrastructure: The network of weekly markets must be restored on a priority basis. The minimum infrastructure for resumption of agriculture, including animal husbandry, should be put in place.

Citizenship records and voter rights: Widespread displacement and population dislocation have made citizenship records and voter rights critical issues at this particular time. Transparent mechanisms must be put in place to ensure that citizenship rights are preserved and entitlements to democratic decision-making are ensured.

Demilitarisation: It will not be possible or practicable to wait until full normalcy is restored in all these parameters. However, significant progress that demonstrates the bona fides of all parties as far as their commitment to peace and political discourse is concerned will have to precede the negotiations and a move for full demilitarisation. It is our belief that significant progress towards a ceasefire and eventual demilitarisation can only take place when the ordinary people have a stake in the maintenance of the peace.