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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Red star over Malkangiri

Red star over Malkangiri

Chitrakonda tehsildar D. Gopalakrishna reports to the district collector of Malkangiri but has a super boss — the Maoists. Whenever the ultras "order" him to "report", the Orissa revenue officer lands up blindfolded on a motorcycle sent to pick him up.

"They call me to their hideouts now and then and tell me to do this or that. We officers have no choice but to listen to them," says the 52-year-old Orissa Administrative Service officer, who also acts as an executive magistrate.

The Orissa government may have bought the release of Malkangiri district collector R. Vineel Krishna —freed on Thursday after eight days in Maoist captivity — in exchange for a suspension of anti-Naxalite operations and a promise to release an undisclosed number of jailed Maoist leaders in the state. But in some ways, the administration is still held hostage to the ultra left rebels who control large swathes of Malkangiri, a remote tribal-dominated district on the southern tip of Orissa bordering Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

Gopalakrishna knows that well. When the Malkangiri district administration launched a revenue collection drive, the tehsildar and his team imposed a fine on villagers growing paddy on government land. One day, a motorcyclist came to his house and handed him a note from a dalam (Maoist group) leader who summoned him. He was blindfolded and taken deep inside a jungle, where the black cloth over his eyes was removed.

The dalam leader — surrounded by 30-odd men and women, all in olive uniforms, some of them carrying automatics — was in front of him. He told him to reduce the fine from Rs 100 to Rs 50 per acre. He was also asked to avoid imposing fines wherever possible. The tehsildar agreed.

"What can you do? This is the only way to survive here," he says.

Few disagree in Malkangiri, a hilly forested district nearly 600km from the state capital of Bhubaneswar, where the rule of the law has long been replaced by the diktats of the armed Maoists.

To be sure, Malkangiri — carved out of undivided Koraput district in October 1992 with a population consisting mainly of Bonda, Koya, Poraja and Didayi tribes, apart from Bengali settlers — has long been a synonym for government apathy and neglect.

Locals blame coastal leaders for their woes, saying that coastal districts have traditionally dominated Orissa politics. Successive governments, they hold, have largely ignored the underdeveloped regions of the state, a charge that the state government denies. "It may have been true earlier but not any more. The Naveen Patnaik government is pumping crores into Malkangiri and other Naxalite-affected districts in the state under different government schemes," an Orissa government minister says.

Some argue that Naxalites, who clamour for tribal development, have actually contributed to Malkangiri's underdevelopment. Roads may be the vehicle for development, but they also give access to security forces. So the rebels allow very few roads to be built or repaired across the 1,045-village district. The Maoists come in the way of building culverts and bridges too.

The 100-km-long Malkangiri-Jeypore road, the district's only link to the rest of the state, is a case in point. The road is a never-ending stretch of craters, some of them deep enough to swallow a small car.

Officials acknowledge that connectivity is the main problem plaguing the district, once part of the Dandakaranya project set up in September 1958 to rehabilitate displaced Bengalis from what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh.

"We are floating tenders for the construction of roads and bridges but few contractors are willing to participate because of Maoist threats," Malkangiri additional district magistrate Sunderlal Seal says. "Once you have roads, development follows."

The Maoists have also foiled attempts to build a crucial bridge over the Gurupriya river, connecting villages cut off from the mainland because of a dam. Gammon India Ltd, the engineering and construction company, started preliminary work in 2007 after winning a tender. In 2008, the company withdrew from the project under Maoist threats.

But Naxalites are only half the story in Malkangiri, submerged in poverty with a literacy rate of only 31 per cent.

Take the Balimela hydroelectric project. It may well have electrified villages elsewhere but not the 151 villages severed from the mainland because of the dam created for the project. These villages — linked to Chitrakonda by an erratic launch service — were plunged in darkness until district collector Vineel Krishna, an IAS officer and an IIT Madras graduate, took it upon himself to "empower" the villages, as an official puts it.

During Krishna's 13-month tenure, 11 villages were provided with electricity under a central scheme. Work is on to electrify another 27 villages in that area.

In fact, on February 16, the day he was abducted, the collector had inaugurated the electrification of a village before leaving for a jan sampark programme at Badapada. That was when a group of Maoists, posing as locals, persuaded him to visit Papermetla on a motorcycle. On his way back, Maoist rebels stopped the vehicle and abducted him and the motorcyclist, junior engineer Pabitra Majhi.

As was his wont, Krishna was travelling without his personal security officer or any armed escort that usually accompany senior officials visiting Naxalite areas. But the collector thought he was safe because he was working for the people of region.

The list of all that he has done is a long one. But prominent among them is the distribution of land rights to nearly 5,000 tribal families living in forests in the cut-off area and elsewhere in the district.

He set the clock of progress ticking in Malkangiri, where Biju Janata Dal member and former sarpanch Ganesh Chandra Mondal says nothing moves without bribes. If locals are to be believed, 30 per cent of the cost of a construction project goes to a section of officials who are corrupt. About 5 per cent goes to the Maoists. "Who will carry out a project here," asks a Malkangiri civil contractor.

Malkangiri has no industry worth speaking of. The banking sector has been hit too. Bad loans are mounting at the State Bank of India's Chitrakonda branch. "We have now more than Rs 25 lakh in non-performing assets, as no bank employee wants to go to villages to recover loans," branch manager R.K. Behera says.

After Maoists ambushed an SBI van carrying cash and looted Rs 99 lakh last April, the branch has been facing a serious funds crunch. "The insurance claim has not been settled yet and we have stopped bringing cash from Malkangiri," he says.

The fear is palpable. Intelligence source say at least 250 armed Maoist cadre members, who belong to the CPI (Maoist)'s Andhra-Orissa border special zone committee, are operating in the district. They are split into different groups, named after places.

In their fiercest attack yet, they killed 38 jawans of the anti-Naxal Greyhounds force in June 2008. Officials say they blew up several panchayat offices and schools last year, forcing security forces staying there to move to camps.

The Maoists have left their telltale signs all over Malkangiri. A 40-foot cemented memorial, painted red with an iron hammer and sickle perched atop, presides over Janbai Ghat, another gateway to the cut-off area barely 20km from Chitrakonda. It is dedicated to fallen Maoist leaders Patel Sudhakar Rao and Venkatiah. "The blood of the martyrs will not go to waste. Let the young men and women join the movement in hundreds," a plaque reads.

Seventeen people were killed last year, police stations attacked and their guns and ammunition looted. To counter the Naxals, three battalions of the Border Security Force (BSF) and six units of the special operation group of the state police have been deployed in the district. "We are now in a better position because of the reinforcements but the cut-off area remains a major problem mainly because of poor communications," says Malkangiri superintendent of police Anirudh Kumar Singh, who has asked for three more battalion of paramilitary forces.

The Chitrakonda police station, guarded by BSF jawans, looks like a fortress, with barbed wires and sandbags thrown around it. "The fear of the BSF is keeping away both the Naxalites and the locals," says a policeman.

Shaking off years of inertia, the district administration is making efforts to develop the backward district. It is constructing 100 hostels for tribal students and has asked the state government to turn five high schools into junior colleges. An archery institute has been set up to train tribal boys. It has also proposed that the mobile health units for tribals be doubled from five to 10.

Nearly 22,500 tribal families living inside forests have been given land pattas (deeds), a tribal rights issue often cashed in on by the Maoists.

But for local government officials, life in the district is full of danger.

The Chitrakonda tehsildar, for one, wants out. "I have given representations to the government twice for transfer since I have completed more than three years here but no one is willing to come here to replace me," says Gopalakrishna.

After all, who'd be willing to serve the super bosses of Malkangiri?

The beginning of the end

The date: 16 November 1997. The nation was abuzz with rumours that the Congress was about to withdraw its support to the government on that day itself. However the rumours remained rumours.

Sita Ram Kesri came over for lunch. He was happy (or so it seemed) after meeting Sonia Gandhi. According to the political grapevine, she had pressurised him to let my government fall. In the beginning he was reluctant to talk about this touchy matter, but later told me that "she was very emotional" during their meeting…

My tenure as Prime Minister, it seemed, was getting to be full of media-created situations. Hardly would one story have died out that another would erupt. [Editor] Vinod Mehta gave me a copy of Outlook, which provided details about the LTTE and its links with Indian political parties (mainly the DMK) but included an item (totally false and malicious) that I had offered a sop to Justice M.C. Jain in the form of the high commissionership to the UK. Such an item could cause more friction with the Congress, especially now that Sonia Gandhi was making her presence felt…

All the same, it seemed to me that the beginning of the end of my government was in sight. The Congress, which I felt was suffering from a death wish, had by then been captured by "anti-Kesri forces," which would do anything to politically humiliate him… They vociferously demanded the ouster of the DMK ministers from the government…

Till the evening of 18 November, Kesri believed that he could quieten the rising crescendo of protests against him… By the evening, the crescendo picked up more momentum, and Kesri seemed to have lost his grip over the party. When I spoke to him around midnight over the telephone, he wanted to know if I could think of dissolving the Lok Sabha and going in for a mid-term poll. I replied that I could do so "if you were to give me timely notice." He then said "naturally, when I write to you." …

Earlier the same evening, I had attended a dinner hosted by Natwar Singh (a former Indian Foreign Service member and a former Union minister of state) for the Asia Conference delegates. Sonia Gandhi, among others, was present there. She was looking very happy and relaxed. Intelligence reports revealed that the crowds at her door were larger than on previous occasions. Undoubtedly, she was now emerging as the leader…

On November 21, 1997, as on the previous day, the Congress did not let both Houses function by blocking proceedings and loudly demanding the dismissal of the DMK ministers… The temperamental Mamata Banerjee (whose actions were as unpredictable as her moods) had moved a motion of no confidence against the government… That day, rumours were rife that a Sharad Pawar-led group had crossed over to the BJP. But that was not the case. Later, I learnt that he was unable to muster the required number of backers from the Congress.

Jyoti Basu telephoned me from Calcutta, asking me to forestall any crisis by dissolving the House. I explained to him the constitutional difficulties involved in such a process…

I spoke to Kesri late in the night (on November 21) over the telephone. Despite the fact that he had virtually lost his leadership role, he told me that he was trying "to redeem the party that was bound to be wiped out in the event of a poll." He was making attempts to claw his way back to the top. He told me that even the leading industrial houses, which contributed to the coffers of the political parties, did not want elections then…

I personally handed over my resignation letter to President K.R. Narayanan in his private chamber in the Rashtrapati Bhawan. Prior to submitting my resignation, I had participated in a dinner that the President had hosted. While sitting next to him at the dinner table, I had whispered to him that I was carrying my resignation letter with me. The scene in the President's private chamber was charged with emotion… The letter was brief and conveyed to the President that "I could not accept the demand of the Congress party to throw out the DMK…" I signed my letter of resignation which had been typed in my personal office at 7, Race Course Road, with a Mont Blanc pen that I borrowed from Naryanan.

***

On April 17, 1999, the Atal Behari Vajpayee government, which had managed to complete one year in office, lost its majority in Parliament by just one vote and the question of a successor government arose. I, along with Ram Vilas Paswan, came under a lot of pressure from the BJP and its allies to reconsider my decision and in the interest of the nation lend support to the NDA...

While I did not want to see the country go through another election, it was extremely difficult for me to support the BJP, a party whose ideology I had opposed all my life…

At this juncture, Harkishan Singh Surjeet came up with the name of Sonia Gandhi and persuaded her to make a bid to form the next government. Sonia came over to my residence on 20 April 1999 for a cup of coffee… I told her very frankly that while I would support her candidature for prime ministership, she would be let down by her friends in the Left at the last moment. I added that she was being naïve if she thought that Surjeet was seriously backing her. In fact, their "hidden" horse was Jyoti Basu who had been convinced by Surjeet to enter the fray for the top post in case of a deadlock.

On April 21, 1999, after Sonia Gandhi met President K.R. Narayanan to formally stake her claim to form the next government, Mulayam Singh Yadav, who had been professing to support her, suddenly did a volte-face and the announced to the media that "his party would not be supporting the Congress". The next morning, Mulayam Singh's party floated the name of Jyoti Basu and the Left hurriedly endorsed it. It was at this juncture that Sonia Gandhi decided to call a spade a spade and refused support to the "Third Front".

Later, in passing, she once asked me how I had correctly guessed the course of events, to which I replied: "I have spent 50 years of my life in politics with the likes of Surjeet and certain things you learn only through experience."

Here I must reveal that in the subsequent elections to the Lok Sabha in September-October 1999, Sonia Gandhi was gracious enough to offer me a Congress ticket for contesting the polls. In case I did not wish to contest, she told me that she could back my entry to the Rajya Sabha. However, I decided that having held the position of the Prime Minister of India, I must refrain from switching parties and call it a day gracefully.

Who's afraid of Amartya Sen?

There is something very attractive about Madhusree Mukerjee, the woman who has had a bit of a spat with Amartya Sen over the reasons for the Bengal famine.

She has held up Winston Churchill as almost the sole villain in her book Churchill's Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II, while the Nobel Prize winner points to a wider range of factors, including imperial policy.

For a start, she has a lovely laugh and appears almost to be a character from a Satyajit Ray movie, especially when she talks with engaging honesty about her life in a pretty village outside Frankfurt.

Her husband, Stefan Schramm, a German, whom she met when she was a postdoctorate student at Caltech in America, teaches physics at Frankfurt University. She gets up at 6am to see off their son, Robi, 11, to school. Until he gets back, she has the whole day to herself to read, write and think since the former science journal editor and physicist does not have a 9-5 job.

"My son loves it here because he has spent the last seven years of his life here in Germany. But it is very lonely for me," Mukerjee admits.

She sounds like Charulata.

She laughs again, a nice musical laughter. "I am not looking for affairs."

Nor had she gone looking for a fight with Sen.

"I just hope Amartya Sen won't be totally mad at me," she remarks.

She reveals she did meet Sen in Calcutta this winter at an inauguration of a Rabindranath Tagore seminar. "I managed to fight through the crowd. We had a brief talk and we argued a bit and he ended up saying my book was very good. (But) our exchange in the The New York Review of Books was very sharp. I had thought I was raising some minor points that he would not take too hard."

She adds: "I feel my differences with Sen are minor compared to the points of agreement."

Nor had she set out initially to target Churchill though he was to become her main quarry.

Meanwhile, her book is proving such a success that her publishers Basic Books, which had already brought out a hardback edition (£18.99 in the UK), are bringing forward the paperback to early summer.

Though Churchill, as wartime leader, was voted the "greatest Briton of all time" in a BBC poll in 2002, British historians have not ignored the controversial aspects of his character. One was the green signal given by Churchill to the Royal Air Force to carry out saturation bombing of civilian areas of Germany, notably Dresden, when there appeared to be little military logic to the exercise.

Among British reviewers, Mukerjee has had only one "nasty review" from Arthur Herman, from the Churchill Centre, who observed dismissively that she was not a historian. On the other hand, former Daily Telegraph editor Max Hastings, a military historian, said the "book offers the fullest account I have read...I myself have argued that Churchill's disdain for the interests of black and brown peoples besmirched his awesome wartime record."

Mukerjee's status as celebrity author has brought her a long way from where she began. She was born in 1961 in Dishergarh, a small mining town near Asansol on the Bengal-Bihar border. Her father worked for a mining company.

She moved at eight to Calcutta where she had much catching up to do at the Modern High School for Girls. She liked physics from an early age — "I was good at it, too".

After graduating in physics from Jadavpur, she left at 21 for the US in 1982. She did a Masters at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Then, before moving to Caltech, she did her PhD in 1989 at Chicago, where she worked under the Japanese-born American physicist, Yoichiro Nambu, who would win a Nobel Prize in 2008.

"He was a genius, he had deep insights and I was just a student but there was this democratic tradition in physics that I grew up with," Mukerjee recalls. "It's not like because somebody is famous you have to be intimidated. You can stand up for your little piece of ground."

After Caltech, Mukerjee found she could not get a job. Though she loved physics and still does, her heart was not in nuclear research. "When I left physics I underwent a real radical change. I ended up as an editor at Physics Today and went on to Scientific American. That's where I learnt to be a journalist. I had a lot of confidence that I could handle almost any topic."

She decided she and her husband could not pursue separate careers in the same town when she moved with a young child to Germany. With time on her hands, she began to explore the concept of poverty. "I thought if I understood the Bengal famine I would have some insight into poverty."

Seven years of research and writing have gone into her book. "Originally Churchill was not in my mind at all. When he showed up in the picture as such a big person, I was forced to go after him because Churchill has very, very, fierce defenders. I have this really good journalist friend in the US and he said, 'If you are hunting big game, you have to shoot to kill.' "

To Churchill, "there was no Britain without India. To him Britain would be an absolute shadow without that possession," she concludes.

Mukerjee came to London twice to get her ammunition from the ministry of war transport papers from the Public Records Office at Kew in west London. "If I had been living in India I would not have been able to write this book."

The loneliness of the long distance researcher has, paradoxically, given her the strength and time to pursue Churchill until the case against him was, in her opinion, beyond challenge. "This isolation has helped me become even more independent."

At heart, she insists she remains a Bengali. "Yes, very much so. I go back, at least, once a year to India. My entire family is there. I find India fascinating, so much social churning, so much going on. Compared to that, my local environment is so barren. May be it would not be so barren if I was more comfortable in German."

She misses America too. "Yes, I miss America, actually I do. I have friends here but nobody with whom I can talk about the things that interest me. My real friends are all on different continents which is a bit sad. Yes, life is lonely."

Shades, again, of Charulata.

Budget blues

Yashwant Sinha remembers the call. As the finance minister, he was getting ready to move the Finance Bill after the budget debate when the phone rang. A senior ministerial colleague was on the line. He told Sinha that the Prime Minister wanted an amendment in the tax proposals.

This perplexed Sinha, for the change was going to benefit just one company. He rushed to meet the then Prime Minister — Atal Bihari Vajpayee — and asked if he had indeed authorised the minister to convey the message. Vajpayee denied it and told Sinha not to make the amendment when told of the consequences.

Clearly, there's more to the budget than what meets the eye. As finance minister Pranab Mukherjee rises tomorrow in Parliament to present the year's financial plan, it will be hard to picture him as an acrobat walking a tightrope and juggling several balls at the same time. But that agility — along with the ability to sniff out vested interests — is something every finance minister has to acquire as he prepares for the annual budget exercise.

Consider all that he has to deal with. Ministries demand money. Funds have to be found for the priorities of the government of the day — welfare schemes in this case — without imposing too high a tax burden. The fiscal deficit has to be reined in. Friendly signals have to be sent to industry and business. The economy has to be kept in fine fettle.

"It is a very, very difficult task," says Sinha, who presented six budgets.

Then there are suggestions galore, including written representations and those that emerge from consultations with industrialists, small businesses, farmers, trade unions, economists and non government organisations.

The finance minister starts meeting Cabinet ministers from November, and each insists his ministry's needs are more important. The finance ministry counters them with arguments (usually revolving around earlier funds not having been utilised). "The only person in the whole system who has to worry about where the money is going to come from is the finance minister," rues Sinha.

The biggest battle is with the Planning Commission on budgetary support for plan schemes. The Commission pitches for a huge increase over the previous year's outlays, while the finance ministry insists on a very small hike. There is a lot of haggling, says former finance secretary, E.A.S. Sarma. The finance ministry points to the fiscal deficit and the Planning Commission suggests cuts in non-plan expenditure (non-productive expenditure on items such as salaries). Often the Prime Minister has to step in to work out a compromise.

The second big battle, notes Sinha, is with the defence ministry, which eats up 21 per cent of government revenues. The finance minister has to ensure the expenditure does not affect the overall balance of the budget.

Alliance partners in coalition governments also have demands that are difficult to refuse. Key allies demand Central-funded schemes or other largesse for the states they represent. The main party in the coalition has its own wishlist. Sinha is grateful, though, that he didn't have what he terms "a super Cabinet" like the present-day National Advisory Council, whose demands for higher allocations for programmes have to be accommodated.

He cites the example of Budget 2008-2009, in which then finance minister P. Chidambaram announced a Rs 70,000-crore loan waiver for farmers. The fact that it was a last-minute inclusion under political pressure, Sinha says, is evident from the fact that it did not figure in any of the various related documents, barring the budget speech. "Once the expenditure budget is done, the finance minister should not accept any demand to alter it," asserts Sinha.

All these demands bring the second challenge — how to adhere to the path of fiscal rectitude that is at the centre of macro-economic stability, as Rajya Sabha MP N.K. Singh, a former expenditure and revenue secretary, puts it. The finance minister has to ensure that the fiscal deficit does not get too high, as that will result in the government borrowing more money, leading to higher interest payments which could push up overall interest rates.

Expenditures, therefore, have to be matched by revenues. The ball is now in the court of the finance ministry's revenue department. Tax revenues are the main source of the government's income and there is pressure, says Singh, from other departments within the finance ministry to raise revenue targets.

The government can tinker with tax rates or ensure that more people pay their taxes. But increasing tax rates often leads to tax evasion. "The finance minister faces a wall on the issue of raising tax rates," says Sinha.

The revenue proposals see hectic lobbying from all quarters. The ministry has to discern where conflicting interests are at work. Importers of raw materials, for instance, will lobby for low or zero import duty on those items, even as domestic producers will demand higher import duties to prevent cheap imports. When the importers use the raw material in a product, they will immediately seek a higher customs duty on it to prevent imports.

Antennas are on high at this stage, because one may fall into the trap of making a change that benefits only one company. That's where finance ministry mandarins play a crucial role, alerting the minister of the dangers of such proposals. "All the dirt of the system comes to the revenue secretary's eyes," says a former holder of the post who does not wish to be named. "He knows where a particular proposal is emanating from and why."

Sarma recalls how groundnut oil processors once got a food minister to forward a proposal to raise the import duty on palmolein oil. But the finance ministry soon realised it would create a monopoly for groundnut oil producers and help them make a killing of at least Rs 600 crore. Sarma pointed this out in a note to the finance minister, who immediately alerted the then Prime Minister. The proposal was dropped.

Pressure of this kind comes from various sources — to the finance minister, through the Prime Minister or his office, the party leadership, or other members of Parliament.

Sinha has had representations from senior BJP colleagues on his tax simplification proposals, which hurt sectors considered to be the party's vote bank. "I explained the issues and rationale to them and they agreed," he says. Fortunately, Singh adds, this lobbying has been curtailed by the simplification of tax rates over the years.

"No budget makes everyone happy," says Sinha, "but the skill of a finance minister lies in resolving as many contradictions as he can and leaving at least a majority of the stakeholders happy. That is the challenge."

Will Mukherjee meet this challenge? Wait for tomorrow.


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