Dr R. Balashankar
The buzz of the season is the assertion of power by regional satraps. The UPA government at the centre was forced to back down on a number of important legislations, policies and diplomatic positions as a consequence of strident and debilitating pressure from its regional allies. The UPA government looks limp, bogged down and unable to take any initiative, giving the impression of a collapse of central authority. Is it more the result of the ineptitude of the present dispensation, its lack of credibility, trust deficit and inability to communicate or the beginning of a new polity where aggressive federalist sentiments moulding, manipulating and sometimes stymieing the central authority with a purpose. The dissection at this stage is not easy.
The recent assembly elections have further strengthened the federal polity with regional parties coming to the fore at the expense of national parties. From single party domination to coalition politics to a likely coalition of regional parties at the centre, power politics in India has become complex. The general impression that any coalition at the centre has to be led by one of the two national parties, the BJP or Congress, is now being turned on its head by talks of a dozen or more desperate federal war lords making a bid for the centre. Will the next government be a coalition of regional aspirations with national parties playing second fiddle?
This is not an attempt to find a definitive answer to these possibilities. This is only an exercise in analysing the events and their impact that signify the trend. Federalism in itself is not a bad idea. From a perspective of economic growth regional aspirations can work marvels. Progress, welfare and better utilisation of natural resources are assured in a federal set up. More regional autonomy, financial powers to states, the proactive role of the centre as a facilitator rather than impediment would strengthen the country’s evolving national order.
By instinct, Congress Party has a dictatorial trait. It has today degenerated into Sonia family business, which they call the party high command. This decay has largely contributed to the weakening of authority at the centre. The decline of the position of the Prime Minister as a nominee of the ruling family further eroded it. The condition was remarkably different eight years ago when the NDA under AB Vajpayee led a coalition of 23 parties. Viewed in this background, the skirmishes of local politics dictating national policy format could be a passing phase. Many events, like the centre’s attempt to constitute NCTC, rail fare hike, diplomatic position on US sanction on Iran and US resolution in the UN against Sri Lanka and relations with neighbouring countries like Bangladesh have been fashioned more by political expediency than national interest. Add to this regional fissures on water, mining, forest wealth, development projects like dams, road building, setting up power plants, the picture of the national economic hiccup is complete.
Politics has conspired to keep alive such avoidable, small micro-identities as a pestering sore on the nation’s fabric. Under the UPA, there has been a persistent effort to pander to and reward such fissiparous tendencies for narrow political gains. For instance, at the peak of the Mullaperiyar agitation, which interestingly, was fomented by the Congress and its allies in Kerala, Union Home Minister P Chidambaram raised the parochial pitch by voicing his state’s (Tamil Nadu) sentiments. As Home Minister he could have avoided it. There are genuine fears in Kerala about the safety of the 116-year old dam situated in a seismically sensitive zone that could endanger the lives of millions of people. For Tamil Nadu the dam is equally sensitive. It is a question of its five districts, dependent on the water from the dam, turning into a desert.
Chidambaram was forced to withdraw his provocative statement. Equally provocative was attack on pilgrims to Shabarimala from Tamil Nadu which led to retaliatory attacks on Malayalis in some parts of Tamil Nadu. Reports said that Tamil Nadu may disrupt power supply to Kerala from Neyveli. Obviously, there were efforts to blow up the issue to ridiculous proportions. From a nationalist perspective the lives of the people of Kerala are as precious as the prosperity of Tamil Nadu farmers.
Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have problems sharing Kaveri water. The height of Alamatti dam is a matter of concern for Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. Punjab has problems with Haryana and Rajasthan sharing Bhakra Nangal waters.
Disputes such as these over the waters of Krishna, Narmada, Kaveri, and Ravi-Beas that strain inter-state relations are many. These involve issues of allocation of waters between different states; apportionment of construction costs and benefits if a project is developed jointly by more than one state; compensation to the states prejudicially affected by the implementation of a project by another state; dispute settlement relating to interpretation of agreements and; excess withdrawals by a state. These problems arise primarily from the superimposition of political boundaries of states over the natural boundaries of a river basin. The social and the natural are envisaged in dichotomous terms. The economic, political and social dynamics of political boundaries then appear to work in tandem with the natural, biophysical boundaries of river basins in ways that lock the social–natural.
According to Forum for Policy Dialogue on Water Conflicts in India the Mullaperiyar dispute can be resolved by minimizing water storage behind the dam to the minimum regulatory storage required and redesigning the diversion of water and conveyance system and strengthening the existing structure of the dam to allay the fears of the people downstream.
Such conflicts, erupting in the name of ethnicity, language, mineral wealth and inter-state boundaries make for profitable political bargain. Maharashtra is demanding Belgam claiming that the majority of the population speak Marathi, though, the people there have developed equal and natural affinity and stake in the Kannada state and are prospering. At the time of states’ reorganization then Sarsanghachalak of RSS Shri Guruji Golwalkar had opposed the creation of states in the name of language as it could stand in the way of national integration.
India has rich traditions, languages, ethnicities and variety in its expression and exposition of its vast and vivacious cultural heritage. But they have not at any point weakened or undermined the national cultural mosaic. India is endowed with huge resources of many metallic and non-metallic minerals. Mining sector is an important segment of Indian economy with Rs 2,00,609.38 crore worth mineral production in 2010-11.
This rapid growth of mining industry in India’s mineral-rich states has escalated the battle between the state and the insurgent Maoist groups. They threaten the country’s booming economy, as attacks on mining and railway infrastructure jeopardise close to $80 billion in access to deposits of iron ore, coal, bauxite and manganese.
The presence of natural resources and the burgeoning mining industry may not have started the conflict but the environmental stress on the livelihood of the tribal and local population is being exploited by the Maoists, evangelists and other such outfits, to foment unrest in these regions. Extreme poverty and lack of development in the Vanvasi areas have only been exacerbated by the mining and industrialisation in the area by polluting land and leaving fresh water for local villages unusable. Industry caused displacement of Vanvasi villages has annoyed the locals making them vulnerable to insurgent groups, with poor implementation of national forest laws allowing local officials to harass these Vanvasis. While the Vanvasis have genuine grievances it is being exploited by the Maoists who have in fact moved away from fighting the exploitation of the hapless Vanvasis to turning into plunderers and extortionists themselves. While claiming to fight the mining mafia, the Maoists extort money from those same companies in the form of bribe and protection fee.
They even work as security forces for mining companies, steal explosive material such as RDX from mines, using some of it themselves and allegedly selling the rest through South Asia yielding millions in revenue. The central government has so far taken a very indulgent view towards these terror-criminal nexus. So far the UPA government has devised a controversial “Go-/No-Go” plan denying mining clearances in nearly 35 per cent of the country’s coal areas citing ecological concerns. This has halted several high profile mining ventures including the unprecedented step of banning a bauxite mine in the Niyamgiri hills of Orissa. This will keep development at bay from the areas which need it the most. And leave the field unchallenged for Maoist and evangelical exploitation of the Vanvasis. There is an urgent need to put down the Maoist extortionists with a heavy hand and a total ban of the conversion by exploitation and allurement in these mineral rich Vanvasi areas and ensuring their healthy development.
What is of greater concern is that politicians and political parties are turning simple issues into major conflicts between states and communities.
India is the melting pot of 2000-odd castes, eight “major” religions, 29-odd languages spoken in various dialects in 28 states and seven union territories, and a substantial number of tribes. Dealt sensitively and carefully regional issues intrinsically have the potential to enrich and cement our nationhood to greater and lasting glory.
The manner in which India solved vexed and complicated problems like Assam, Punjab, Mizoram and other such ethnic-economic issues have demonstrated the robustness of our national unity and resilience of democratic polity. De-escalation of tensions and tackling of conflict zones are ingredient to the process of nation building. The Centre has to strive to strengthen the sinews of unity and centripetal instincts even as we nurse and nourish the local sentiments and economic, developmental concerns.