The Ghost’s In The Details, Ma’am

Arundhati has got it all wrong—the facts speak out against her romantic notions of the tribals’ fight

Nirad C. Chaudhary wrote in The Continent of Circe that India’s tribals were mainly found in hill forests. This was because, he reasoned, they had been chased there by the invading Aryans, who displaced them from their river plains. In an essay published in this magazine (Capitalism: A Ghost Story, March 26), Arundhati Roy expressed anguish over the tribal having no peace even in the hill forests he inhabits. From her piece, let’s isolate two broad points: first, that capitalism is generally bad, but particularly rapacious in India; second, that this has manifested itself in the exploitation of tribals and their sacred lands. She also alleges that India’s economic growth is underpinned by this pillage of minerals. She doesn’t spare anyone (including herself) who lives out life while the companies roar along and tribals suffer. She attacks the media, feminists, NGOs, philanthropists and their foundations. All are guilty—save the tribals, the exploited.

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Let us look at her argument. First, that corporations make vast sums from the minerals they have stolen from tribal lands. In Roy’s words: “The era of the Privatisation of Everything has made the Indian economy one of the fastest growing in the world. However, like any good old-fashioned colony, one of its main exports is its minerals. India’s new mega-corporations—the Tatas and Jindals, Essar, Reliance and Sterlite—are those who have managed to muscle their way to the head of the spigot spewing money extracted from deep inside the earth. It’s a dream come true for businessmen—to be able to sell what they don’t have to buy.” Now look at the facts. Neither ore nor minerals are India’s main exports. They comprise only 3.4 per cent of all exports, according to Crisil’s February 2010 report, India’s Export Sector: Resilience Amid Global Crisis. Ore and minerals haven’t made India’s big companies wealthy, for they contribute less than one per cent to India’s GDP. The export of minerals did not commence with privatisation. They began in 2004. Till then, only old firms like Tisco and sail managed captive mines.

That the Jindals, Ambanis, Birlas, Mittals and the Essar group were not involved in mining was because cheap ore was available from surplus government production. All this changed in 2004, with Chinese demand growing. In 2006-07, minerals export was worth $7.3 billion, according to Occasional Paper No. 122 of the Exim Bank of India. Of this, 55 per cent was iron ore. This year, the export of iron ore was actually down by a quarter, and today’s level is the same as that of five years ago. There are two reasons: a fall in prices, and the ban on mining in Karnataka and elsewhere. The protests against environmental damage, by Roy and so many others like her, have been effective.

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She writes that Indian states “signed hundreds of MoUs with a number of private corporations turning over trillions of dollars of bauxite, iron ore and other minerals for a pittance, defying even the warped logic of the free market. (Royalties to the government ranged between 0.5 per cent and 7 per cent.)” It is incorrect to say these royalty figures are a pittance. They are absolutely in line with what the rest of the world pays (Mining royalties: A global study of their impact on investors, government and civil society, The World Bank, 2006). The figure “trillions of dollars” is far from accurate.

Roy’s critique of capitalism includes scepticism about corporate philanthropy. It includes this comment: “What better way for usurers to use a minuscule percentage of their profits to run the world? How else would Bill Gates, who admittedly knows a thing or two about computers, find himself designing education, health and agriculture policies, not just for the US government, but for governments all over the world?” This is a puzzling thing to say about a man who has just spent $355 million to free Indian children from polio. Gates has given away $28 billion (Rs 1.4 lakh-crore), more than half his wealth. And he gives generously to fight diseases like malaria, which don’t affect his fellow Americans.

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Similarly, Roy has a problem with the Tata group: “We all watch Tata Sky, we surf the net with Tata Photon, we ride in Tata taxis, we stay in Tata Hotels, we sip our Tata tea in Tata bone china and stir it with teaspoons made of Tata Steel. We buy Tata books in Tata bookshops. Hum Tata ka namak khate hain. We’re under siege.” But many might not know that 65.8 per cent of Tata Sons’s stock is held by charities (Ratan Tata owns less than one per cent). Under J.R.D. Tata, 81 per cent of Tata Sons profits went to charity.

The maoist leadership comprises urban, upper-caste people who try to play out a rusty class-war theory using tribal fodder. The tribals’ enemy is not the state but the feudal culture permeating the state.

Roy also hints at a link between the rise of a brutal anti-Maoist militia, and the firm: “Only days after the Chhattisgarh government signed an MoU for the construction of an integrated steel plant in Bastar with Tata Steel, the Salwa Judum, a vigilante militia, was inaugurated. The government said it was a spontaneous uprising of local people who were fed up of the ‘repression’ by Maoist guerrillas in the forest. It turned out to be a ground-clearing operation, funded and armed by the government and subsidised by mining corporations. In other states, similar militias were created, with other names.... (In Orissa) ten platoons of police arrived at the site of another Tata Steel plant and opened fire on villagers who had gathered there to protest what they felt was inadequate compensation for their land. Thirteen people, including one policeman, were killed, and 37 injured.... In Chhattisgarh, the Salwa Judum burned, raped and murdered its way through hundreds of forest villages, evacuating 600 villages, forcing 50,000 people to come out into police camps and 3,50,000 people to flee.” Roy posits the Maoist struggle as tribals versus an exploitative state and its capitalist allies.

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This is the wrong way of looking at it. Who are the Maoist warriors? Tribals. Who are the Salwa Judam thugs? Tribals. Unless we accept that the whole lot of them are government-sanctioned mercenaries, this is an internal tribal conflict. It has become externalised by Maoist violence against non-tribals. An assertion demonstrated easily. The Maoist central committee members are: V. Subramaniam, A. Hargopal, P.S. Mukherjee, M.R. Reddy, V.K. Arya, N.K. Rao, Kobad Gandhy, S. Singh, N. Sanyal, P. Mishra, A. Bagchi, P. Bose, K. Sudarshan, A. Yadav, Ramakrishna, B.P. Singh, M. Venugopal, Misir Besra and M.L. Rao ‘Ganapathy’. This is a list of caste Hindus and one Parsi. Of these 19, only one—Besra—is a tribal. Why is the tribal unrepresented in the body that does battle for him? Because the tribal is uninterested in the ideology of extremist Marxism. He is fighting for something else. The Maoist leadership is essentially urban, upper-caste people playing out the class warfare theory on tribal fodder. Maoist tribals are told by these non-tribal ideologues that their problem lies in the nature of the Indian state. This logic is innocent of any real understanding of India. Our problem is not the state, but culture. We cannot solve this by replacing the state. The corrupt, caste-minded, feudal, oppressive Indian will remain to man it, whatever form the new state may take. It is wrong for Maoist ideologues to see this as oppression of one community by another. The tribal is as rapacious as the Hindu when he has power. Shibu Soren and Madhu Koda are tribals.

To see excessive mining as causing Maoist violence is false because, as we have seen, that is recent. The problem lies elsewhere. So what is the internal tribal conflict? It is about whether tribalism should continue or whether tribals should open themselves to modernity. Let’s look at the data. Scheduled tribes are India’s least educated people. Surveys have found that literacy rates among tribal women are as low as three per cent in Bastar and 2.66 per cent in Midnapore (Health Status of Tribal Women in India, S.K. Basu). This is accompanied by all the problems we associate in India with illiteracy: early marriage, high infant mortality, early death. Infant mortality in tribal groups can reach 190 per 1,000 births, four times higher than India’s average.

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A study on tribals in Madhya Pradesh found that they died 17.5 years earlier than other people of that state (Fertility and Mortality in Tribal Populations of Bastar District, Basu and Kshatriya). Such figures about another community would cause a riot, but tribals are exoticised by their sympathisers. It is romantic to see the tribals’ struggle as being against capitalist exploitation. But it is false.

When all’s said and done, the solution to such problems in dysfunctional societies like India is simple, though boring. Communities must start taking responsibility for themselves. They cannot wait for a revolution to come to their doorsteps and clean their neighbourhoods, or to care for their infants, or to teach hygiene to their women or to educate themselves. Nor can they entirely depend on the state either, though they must vote against those who fail to help them do this.

Experience has also shown that in tribal areas where external influence has been allowed, it can be a force for good. The tribals of Mizoram have 90 per cent literacy because of work done by the Presbyterian church. Shielding tribals from the outside world keeps them just as they are. This might have aesthetic appeal for some, but most tribals don’t think so. That is why the Salwa Judam militia attacks those who are their brothers and sisters. Unfortunately, this isn’t the sort of thing we can blame the whole world for, and so it isn’t good material for belles lettres.

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