Democracy and its Inconvenient Questions

Ajay Dandekar and Kaveri Gill


We, the people as a nation, constituted ourselves as a sovereign democratic republic to conduct our affairs within the four corners of the Constitution, its goals and values. We expect the benefits of democratic participation to flow to us – all of us -, so that we can take our rightful place, in the league of nations, befitting our heritage and collective genius. Consequently, we must also bear the discipline, and the rigour of constitutionalism, the essence of which is accountability of power, whereby the power of the people vested in any organ of the State, and its agents, can only be used for promotion of constitutional values and vision.” So begins the iconic judgment that the Supreme Court gave in the Writ Petition (Civil) No(s). 250, popularly known as the Salwa Judum petition. Filed against the State of Chhattisgarh in 2007, the petitioners Professor Nandini Sundar, Professor Ramchandra Guha, and Mr E.A.S Sarma, a senior retired IAS officer, had “alleged inter alia, widespread violation of human rights of the people of Dantewada District, and its neighboring areas in the State of Chhattisgarh, on account of the on-going armed Maoist / Naxalite insurgency, and the counter-insurgency offensives launched by the Government of Chhattisgarh. In this regard, it was also alleged that the State of Chhattisgarh was actively promoting the activities of a group called “Salwa Judum”,which was in fact an armed civilian vigilante group, thereby further exacerbating the ongoing struggle, and was leading to further widespread violation of human rights.”1 In her numerous writings as an anthropologist, the result of a lifetime’s dedicated research work in Chhattisgarh, Professor Sundar has repeatedly made clear, and underlined her respect for constitutional, democratic and human rights principles. It was to uphold these very principles, enshrined in the constitution, that she and other concerned citizens filed the PIL in the first place.

The recent attempt by the Chhattisgarh Police to frame one of the petitioners, Professor Nandini Sundar, as having alleged links to the Maoists in the state needs to be understood against the backdrop of the petition and the judgment. The contempt case against the Chhattisgarh government for not following any of the Supreme Court’s orders is waiting to be heard. It also portends what is to come in the time of flailing neoliberal policies and slowing growth, with the polity poised to take a decisive right-wing turn. Such attempts also raise serious questions about a fundamental disregard for constitutional guarantees, human rights and democratic values. All the three, incidentally, are woven into the imagination of the republic as it was conceived when the constitution itself was first discussed and framed. In this piece, we illustrate the deeper, immediate and wider context for the latest disturbing turn of events.

I Contextualising the protagonists

The background to the petition was the fact finding reports on the events that were unleashed in Chhattisgarh, post the launch of Salwa Judum. One of the reports was done by the petitioners themselves, the ‘Independent Citizens Initiative, War in the Heart of India’. We need to clearly understand the context not just from the perspective of the report that the petitioners did, but also the other equally important reports that were done independently, preceding or succeeding the report done by the petitioners.

One such report was the Planning Commission report that was done in the year 2008. In an evocative narration, the Report of the Expert Committee on Developmental Challenges of the Planning Commission expert group stated;“Encouragement of vigilante groups such as Salwa Judum and herding of hapless tribals in make-shift camps with dismal living conditions, removed from their habitat and deprived of livelihood as a strategy to counter the influence of the radical Left, is not desirable. It delegitimizes politics, dehumanizes people, degenerates those engaged in their ‘security’, and above all represents abdication of the State itself.”2 . This stance was anticipated in a report submitted by the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights, with its fact-finding mission (including Professor Shanta Sinha, Mr. J.M. Lyngdoh (former Chief Election Commissioner) and Mr. Venkat Reddy) stating that “many people shared accounts of family members being killed and women having been raped by the Salwa Judum.” This fact finding was done in the year 2007. The National Human Rights Commission, in its report completed in the year 2008, too, accepted that atrocities were committed by Salwa Judum.

II The immediate context

It perhaps is pertinent to understand that anthropological research of the kind Professor Sundar – or for that matter any other anthropologist – does, requires a close engagement with the cultures and people they are attempting to understand 3. Other researchers as well have for decades engaged with not just the communities but also with the issues that have infringed on the constitutional rights and constitutional guarantees (as the context of engagement is shaped not just by culture but by issues of justice). We cite one such case of infringement, of the many that have been documented, to further illustrate the point. This infringement concerns the Bhilai Steel plant and peoples’ grievances against the proposed mining of iron ore for the Bhilai Steel Plant (BSP), a public sector undertaking, at Rowghat, located in the Matla Reserved Forest Area of Kanker and Bastar Districts of Chhattisgarh, a Fifth Schedule Area.

This is what the official Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report of 20064 for this project has to say about its fallout, and as a presumably impartial document, we shall quote from it extensively. Justifying the location of the project in forest areas, it begins by saying that “the availability of iron ore in non-reserve forest areas within an economic radius of BSP [emphasis ours] has been studied by GSI, IBM, State Govt. and SAIL and the best future resource to meet the requirement of BSP is Rowghat, which happens to be in the forest area (ibid., pp.1.7-1.8).” Moreover, the proposed site for the mining activity is described as, “The Landuse / Landcover classification indicates 78.69% dense forest cover, 17.43% wasteland, 2.22% agriculture land, and 1.66% cover waterbody, including river, reservoir and ponds. Most of the study area is covered with forest, comprised of dense forest, mixed jungle and open mixed jungle” (ibid., p. 2.52).Therefore, the economic feasibility for an individual steel plant clearly takes precedence over any collective concerns over forest preservation.

Describing the process of iron ore extraction, the EIA continues that the deposits at Rowghat are to be exploited by “open cast mining method with Shovel-Dumper combination. Considerable amount of waste overlying the iron ore as well as intercalations (rejects) will need to also be excavated during the course of mining for which sufficient space will be required for dumping. The entire mineralized area of about 678.63 hectares needs to be excavated to win the ore. Additional area may also be required depending on the configuration of the ore body” (ibid., p.1.4). In terms of activity spread, “It is envisaged to locate the foot-hill complex (industrial area) in the adjacent protected forest land (ibid., p. 1.5), with crushing plants “on the hilltop / slope of the ranges”, with “secondary crushed product from these units to be taken to the screening plant through downhill conveyors of adequate capacity (ibid., p. 1.6).

In terms of the ecological characteristics of the proposed site, “The study area having 314 km² area is only .23% of the total geographical area of the state but harbours 13.26% of the floral elements (angiosperms only) of the state” (ibid. p. 2.98). This team feels the need to conserve an almost well stabilized forest ecosystem, which can act as a gene pool reserve for the future days to come” (ibid., p. 2.99). “As has been mentioned earlier, the rapid survey in and around forests of Rowghat house 104 tree species” (ibid., p. 2.100). “Such a contiguous habitat [of the Rowghat ridge] with a mosaic structure tree composition is a suitable habitat for a wide range of wild life” (ibid., p.2.101)5. “Presence of such a large number of endangered, rare and indeterminate plant species included in the RED LIST of India makes the whole ecosystem of Rowghat forest ‘fragile’[emphasis theirs]. It can be confidently assumed that if this ecosystem is opened to indiscriminate human access these species of rare occurrence would become totally extinct from this location in near future. The present level of human access has not proved to be detrimental to the species stated above. But a large-scale access in the form of mining will surely bring about a devastating change in the habitat of these species” (ibid., p. 2.106).

Talking about the project and the forest, EIA states, “In the three profiles taken on the top of the hill where two OB (over burden) dumps have been proposed, the canopy is observed to be open in all the three cases…dumping of over burden material in both these cases …will surely have damaging effects on the vegetation in the valley and the drainage pattern of the western and southern parts with devastating effect on the ecosystem as a whole and the biodiversity of western valley in particular” (ibid., p. 2.103). On the reclamation of degraded land used for over burden dumps in the proposed mining area, the EIA states, “the degraded mined out land and over burden dumps need to be stabilized by developing plantations through eco restoration measures. No such measures are available in the area as it is a proposed mine (ibid., p. 2.103). As for regeneration of forests, future existence of woody flora depends on the conservation and sustainable utilization of the few remnants of natural forests of East Deccan like Rowghat (ibid.,p. 2.103).

Finally, the report recognises “The forests of Rowghat are the home for a wide diversity of tribes of ancient origin” (p. 2.178), primarily sub-groups of the Gonds. Verrier Elwin has written about these communities and about the sacredness of the Rowghat hill in particular for many among them. The EIA report summarises its “salient observations” of the nineteen villages it covered so: “Most of the people are not aware about the proposed project. Literacy level amongst the people is very poor. Education facility is very poor. Communication and transportation facility are also poor. Condition of the roads is very bad. Respondents have also reported very poor medical facility (ibid. 2.181-p. 2.182).

Allowing that the EIA process and report are of high quality and integrity (challenged by many, for example, activists against the Posco steel project and the Vendanta aluminium projects6), it is clear from all the above excerpts that there are many serious grounds – not least of which are the extinction of both endangered and rare plant and wildlife species, as well as vulnerable tribal communities – on which the proposed iron ore mining project in the Rowghat area ought to be resisted.

Yet, local people and others who are raising their voices against mining activities, in Rowghat and elsewhere, or against the fig leaf of getting Gram Sabha consent, are being labeled as anti-nationalists. On the contrary, the mockery being made of this requirement under FRA and PESA in the Fifth Schedule Areas should prompt greater protest from all upstanding democratic and concerned citizens. As the Minister for Rural Development, Jairam Ramesh notes, “I don’t think that we should get into a mad scramble to clear projects and give a go-by to the Environment (Protection) Act and the Forest (Conservation) Act. If a government finds these Acts obstructionist, then it should just say, “Sorry, we are declaring a law holiday as far as these two laws are concerned and for the next ten years, we are going to have click-free clearances.” But we have them on the statue books. We passed these laws with a noble intent and we should not be bypassing them.” (Frontline, 21 February 2014, p.8).

III The wider context:

In their judgment on Writ Petition (Civil) No(s). 250, the Supreme Court observed that “Predatory forms of capitalism, supported and promoted by the state in direct contravention of constitutional norms and values, often take deep roots around the extractive industries. In India too, we find a great frequency of occurrence of more volatile incidents of social unrest, historically, and in the present, in resource rich regions, which paradoxically also suffer from low levels of human development. The argument that such a development paradigm is necessary, and its consequences inevitable, is untenable.” This statement comes not from a political pamphlet but from the highest court in the land.

Today we live in uncertain times. As has been observed by no less a person than the Prime Minister that “there has been a systemic failure in giving tribals a stake in the modern economic processes that inexorably intrude into their living spaces…The systematic exploitation and social and economic abuse of our tribal communities can no longer be tolerated.” He further observed, “We cannot have equitable growth without guaranteeing the legitimate rights of these marginalized and isolated sections of our society. In a broader sense we need to empower our tribal communities with the means to determine their own destinies, their livelihood, their security and above all their dignity and self-respect as equal citizens of our country, as equal participants in the processes of social and economic development.”7 However these lofty sentiments have only partially been translated in policy that would directly empower the tribal communities. The situation on the ground in many parts of Central India remains confused and contrary.

On the front of the legislation, while some headway has been made, it has not been complete. Numerous people point out, for instance, that while PESA – empowering the tribal communities to take charge of resources – has been centrally enacted (that too only for tribal communities living in Fifth Schedule Areas), the necessary enabling rules for the gram sabha’s control over minor minerals, water bodies, control and management of minor forest produce, prevention of land alienation etc and the community transfer of the forest as envisaged in the FRA are not yet in place in a manner that would honour this vaulted principle of empowerment. While such an impasse exists in the legislative context, the situation on ground has become complicated. The dominant paradigm of the neoliberal reforms of the last few decades is resource extraction, principally of minerals, land and water. The centralizing aspect of the economic reforms have centred on their exploitation, in order to push up growth rates, while at the same time the decentralizing tendencies in the polity have pushed for devolution of power and authority to the third tier of governance. The failure of the second and the success of the first have created an explosive situation on ground.

The tribal communities have been on the receiving end of this growth-centric approach, where they have contributed disproportionately more, and received disproportionately less, from it. This has been accompanied by, amongst other things, a gradual withdrawal of the state from its welfare doctrine and a rise of the service provider approach, where market forces are supposed to play a developmental role. In this mêlée, the people are often invisible, more so in the tribal areas where most of the country’s mineral resources are to be found. So in a true sense, it is they who face the ‘resource curse.’ The situation becomes much more complicated with the insurgency taking roots in many parts of the Fifth Schedule Areas. On one hand, is the inexorable force of the market, which is gaining ground as the state supports it in its pursuit of growth for growth’s sake, and on the other, is the insurgency movement that rejects the constitution and advocates a violent overthrow of the system. The people in the area are often caught in the pincer between the two, as access to justice and avenues of opportunity get blocked. What should the people do? What is the duty of the state towards its people in a democracy? Should not – as has been so powerfully argued – the minerals be left in the mountain and water in the river? Should not people be able to pose the question “why”, without the threat of a violent response from actors on ground and the fear of being framed for upholding the principles inscripted in the constitution? Should we not aim at becoming a just and fair democracy? Is it still not within us to dream with our eyes open and not worry about our backs?

1 Supreme Court Order on Writ Petition (Civil) No(s). 250of 2007, p. 19.

2 Report of an Expert Group to Planning Commission, Government of India (New Delhi, April 2008)

3 Inter alia, Subalterns and Sovereigns: An Anthropological History of Bastar (1854-2006) (Sundar 2008), a work that weaves in the intricate complexities of the tribal encounter with the world outside in the colonial times.

4 Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment for Mining and Infrastructural Facilities at Rowghat, Bastar District, Chhattisgarh (Sponsors: Steel Authority of India Limited and Bhilai Steel Plant, Bhilai, Chhattisgarh; study conducted by National Environmental Engineering Research Institute), September 2006.

5 The report admits that “There are 4 National Parks and 10 Wildlife Sanctuaries in Chhattisgarh State that provides habitat to fauna in this region. However, these are not present within 15km radius area around the Rowghat Mining Lease (ibid., p. 2.106)”.

6 See Frontline, 21 February 2014, cover story, titled: “License to Plunder”.

7 Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, 2009.


This article ​was first published in Economic and Political Weekly (May 10, 2014, vol. XlIX no 19). It has been reproduced with permission of the authors and the publication.