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IT is unfortunate that the recent police firing in Kalinga Nagar which claimed the lives of 12 agitating tribals and one policeman has got reduced to scoring political brownie points. And now with UPA leader, Sonia Gandhi, making a publicised visit to the site, and announcing on behalf of the Centre an ex-gratia payment of Rs 5 lakh for each life lost, the flurry of charges and countercharges as to who was responsible is only likely to escalate. As always, forgotten in the cacophony will be the underlying reasons that give rise to these tragic and avoidable clashes.

There is nothing new or unusual about the happenings in Kalinga Nagar. Way back, in 1992, the Biju Patnaik government had acquired hundreds of acres for a proposed industrial complex. As is routine, some cash compensation was paid out to those whose lands were taken over in national interest. Simultaneously, the government promised jobs to affected families in the industries likely to come up as also help with rehabilitation. As always, the compensation, if actually awarded, was perceived as inadequate and unjust. And expectedly, little was done to help displaced families to resettle elsewhere and acquire skills needed to participate in the organized labour market. All par for course.

In the 13 years since the original land acquisition, Orissa has seen many shifts of government. But none of them, Congress or BJD, thought it necessary to act on their promises. Meanwhile anger amongst the affected tribals, weary of being continually treated as non-citizens, grew. No wonder, this time around when the state government, under pressure from the industrial groups to whom they had subsequently sold the land at huge profit, moved to clear the site from encroachers, there were clashes.

To treat Kalinga Nagar as a one-off unfortunate incident would be a fatal error. For one, a similar situation is brewing in other parts of the state, and country, where tribal and agricultural lands are being acquired to facilitate industrialization and urbanization. Equally, it would be short-sighted to only blame the state government. After all, as has been pointed out, those displaced over five decades back to make way for the Rourkela steel plant, a central government undertaking, have still to receive their compensation. There is thus an urgent need, in a nonpartisan manner, to evolve consensus on the terms of which land and other natural resources are acquired from those dependant on them, as also modifying relief, resettlement and rehabilitation policies.

Unlike elsewhere in the world, in a populous country like ours, there are no free and unencumbered resources. Even lands and forests seen as degraded, and not in legal possession of individuals, have many dependant on them – as grazing land, for fuel and fodder, and so on. It also happens that tribal lands, so far the least incorporated into the modern economy, are the last remaining sites of exploitable resources – be it for mining, industry or dams.

For over a decade now, Orissa has been experiencing a militant movement for tribal rights, for equitable and just entitlements to ‘jungle, jamin and pani’. Unfortunately, all governments tend to treat these struggles as anti-development if not anti-national and crush them with use of indiscriminate force. Given such experience, it is no surprise that many of these struggles turn militant and violent, sometimes with assistance of groups and forces with little faith in democratic politics. The net result is that the stage is set for a violent confrontation between state forces and those struggling to protect their livelihood resources. The tragic events of Kalinga Nagar are an exemplar of this process.

Deciding on a rational and just use of resources supporting multiple and often conflicting users is never easy. But then, what we expect from a democratic government is to consult and take into confidence the multiple stakeholders and collectively decide on an equitable development path. Not, as more often happens, to dupe the less well-endowed citizens, keep them in the dark, offer inadequate compensation and routinely renege on promises of relief and rehabilitation.

For the UPA regime, which came to power on the slogan of working for the ‘aam aadmi’, Kalinga Nagar offers yet another opportunity to work in collaboration with various state governments and citizen groups to evolve a commonly acceptable policy, as also ensure that the agencies of government, long used to getting their way, do not scuttle the effort. Trying to sidetrack issues by appointing one more judicial enquiry or embarrass opposition regimes by engaging in competitive populism may yield short run political gains but is a sure recipe for long-term disaster.

Harsh Sethi