Nine years have passed since 15th November 2000, when the state of Jharkhand was formed on the promise of freedom and self-governance for the Adivasis. The Jharkhand movement, for a long period of time, constituted the most potent symbol of resistance coming from ‘the deprived of the deprived’ in India. Adivasis of Jharkhand trace their struggle back to pre-independence uprisings against British imperialism. The Santhals, Mundas and Pahariyas are among numerous other Adivasis who rebelled as back as in the 18th century. Given this historical context, it is hugely ironical that the state is plagued with systemic corruption, widespread hunger and severe forms of under-nutrition across regions and groups. Starvation deaths in Kusmatand village, Manatu block in Palamu district reported as early as May 2002 gave rise to a popular effort from the civil society, bringing together political groups and social movements in the state. It is obvious that such attempts have miserably failed, owing to the absence of a progressive political programme taking into account concrete situations existing in Jharkhand. Over the years, newspapers and activists have consistently reported incidents of starvation deaths from different districts and regions such as Santhal Pargana, Deoghar, Chatra, Hazaribagh, Bokaro, Garhwa, Gumla and Ranchi among others. Across Jharkhand, groups ranging from the “Primitive Tribal Groups” (PTGs) like Birhors and Pahariyas to Scheduled Castes such as the Bhuiyas, have been dying of hunger and related causes in large numbers and distressing continuity.
The System of Hunger and Its Denial
Researchers as well as activists have noted the growing concentration of the phenomenon of chronic hunger in particular regions and states in India. Even within the state of Jharkhand, regions like Palamu have continued to report the largest number of cases of hunger deaths. To understand the tragedy, we need to go a little deeper into the history of regions like Palamu, which epitomize what is wrong with Jharkhand. Palamu has often been cited as the region with the worst human development indicators in the world. Undoubtedly, it falls in one of the most difficult agro-climatic zones in the state and also, possibly, in India. Most government schemes here, particularly those focused at improving the basic food security of vulnerable and deprived sections are almost non-existent. Some of the significant schemes like Antyodaya, Annapurna, ICDS, Mid Day Meal, PDS and NREGA have been struggling to make an impact in the absence of strong governmental resolve, to begin with. A study in 2002 (by Ranchi University professor Ramesh Sharan) concluded that nearly 10-11 per cent of the population of Jharkhand was starving whereas 2-3 per cent was on the verge of hunger-driven death. There are no signs of any immediate improvement in this situation. Unfortunately, despite several mass-based campaigns and active political mobilization, the issue of hunger deaths does not even seem to have created basic ‘humanitarian’ interest among the political class in Jharkhand.
More often than not, the reports of hunger deaths are officially declared false. In the months of July and August 2009, eight deaths due to starvation were recorded in Palamu itself. In Pindrahi village of Chhatarpur block, Asha Devi died of chronic hunger on 7th August. The family of Asha Devi was surviving on little or no food for a long time. The only BPL card registered in the name of her father-in-law was confiscated by the local dealer after he and his wife were killed in a witch-hunting case. Needless to say, the Block Development Officer (BDO) and the Panchayat Sewak, who visited the village, denied that the death was caused due to starvation. In July 2009, The Telegraph reported the death of a 65 year old widow due to hunger in Palamu. The state categorically denied this, while issuing an official statement that the death was a result of long-drawn illness. In fact, they claimed that there was more than sufficient foodgrain at the victim’s house. In 2003, in the Leslieganj Block of Palamu, the then Deputy Commissioner had reported 11 hunger deaths and identified 786 families that were in near-death state due to starvation. However, the Chief Minister claimed that there were only 3 deaths as opposed to the reported 11. Amongst the problems cited repeatedly to excuse the lapses in understanding and dealing with the issue, one is the Naxalite movement in Jharkhand. In 2008, a high-level state team was formed to conduct an inquiry in Chatra district regarding seven hunger deaths. The team, however, did not make necessary field visits due to ‘security reasons’ in the area. Instead, they assessed the status of government policies and programmes without actually visiting the area.
Even as relief measures are extended to the household where hunger death has occurred, gross oversight is committed when the remaining households in the village are neglected in these efforts. In other words, though the state and some sections of civil society may help the households which suffer starvation deaths, the conditions which reproduce such pervasive structure of starvation-deaths are never addressed. The cases listed throughout are mere illustrations, every day numerous instances of hunger (morbidity and mortality) can be found across the state.
Two Case Studies: Hunger in Extreme Lands
The author of these lines visited many such villages recently. One of the villages was Bheemkhand in Sangbaria Panchayat, Meral block, Garhwa. Here, we had the distressing sight of Musahar families who had taken shelter in the village school. All these families keep moving from one place to another in search for food and shelter. Pareekha Musahar, for instance, had come from the nearby Bunka village a few days ago. He had four children, all girls. Most children were chronically malnourished and low weight. Vijay Musahar’s four-year old child weighed merely 4.6 kgs. These families have no access to any government scheme or economic resources. Even socially, they are ostracized resulting into severe levels of persisting hunger among them. Bheemkhand is a village with large Bhuiya (SC) population. Bhuiyas are one of the most backward and discriminated castes in Jharkhand. In all socio-economic development parameters, Bhuiyas constitute one of the lowest rung of the society. The story does not change if one moves to any other village with similar social characteristics in Palamu division.
How do we explain the persistent incidence of chronic hunger in Palamu which long political struggles based on various competing ideologies have been unable to overcome? On the one hand, there have been the Naxals, on the other we have also witnessed numerous parliamentary left parties intervening in support of land and wage struggles. It is eye-opening to know that the resurgence of Naxalites in these regions has been preceded by strong influence of parliamentary left parties (especially CPI) and other socialist groups. During emergency and its immediate aftermath, communist parties here experienced a renewal of their own and huge mass support, especially from Dalits and landless labourers. It is sad that such mobilisation in this period could not lead to formation of a left-leaning government (at the same time when CPM-led government was formed in West Bengal) at the state level because of emergence of many regional parties in different regions of Jharkhand (which, otherwise represented genuine regional disparities in material reality as well as aspiration- See note 3 and note 6). The other reason was gradual breaking away of JMM and Jharkhand Party from leftist ideologies. Throughout the 1970s-1980s, the region remained a socialist-communist hotbed (and expectedly so!) but later led to being hailed as ‘liberated zones’ by the Naxalites.
To understand the continued persistence of mass hunger in Palamu, we need to deconstruct how the concept of subsistence wage translates in a semi-feudal agrarian structure. Hunger, here, is a political tool for subjugation of small peasantry and agricultural labour classes. It is a tool to perpetuate bondage and unfreedom in a stagnant agriculture. It is to ensure that labour supply at a predetermined (extra-economic coercive) wage rate continues to exist irrespective of innovations at other levels in agriculture. It must be clarified that the political economy of hunger in Palamu is analytically different from what can be seen in Santhal Pargana and Kolhan, for instance. However, different structures and histories in regions of Jharkhand produce remarkably similar outcome- existence of a slowly dying underclass with little practical interface with any modernity and freedom.
Another village was a Pahariya Adivasi village, Tamligoda (Kairasol Panchayat) in Sundarpahari block, Godda district, Santhal Pargana division. Sundarpahari block is predominantly Adivasi with almost 70 per cent Adivasi population. Before we move to the Tamligoda village, we must emphasise that almost all the areas where “primitive tribal groups”, Adivasis or Bhuiyas (and this constitutes only an indicative list) have lived historically, the most basic government schemes remain tragically absent. For instance, in another block in Godda dominated by Santhals and Pahariyas, Bowarijor, ICDS scheme is completely missing. Reaching Tamligoda involves crossing 5-6 kms of difficult rocky-hilly terrain on foot. Here, the author found out the painful story of the most deprived Adivasis with no state presence, at least for all practical purposes. There were no immunization services for any of the children born in the village. To tell the truth, what was witnessed in Tamligoda is beyond description. All children in the village were visibly chronically malnourished suffering from various kinds of diseases. Out of almost 45 households, half did not have Antyodaya cards. Of those who had the card, received food grains only once in three months. The free food grains scheme to “Primitive Tribal Groups” (announced by the state government) could not be traced in this village. NREGA was, as expected, defunct again with not a single work undertaken in last one year. Even the villagers seemed disinterested in NREGA because of long and persistent delays in the payment of wages under NREGA. Most of the people had not received their wages for the last work undertaken from NREGA.
As the drought situation is getting severe with every passing year in Jharkhand, the availability as well as distribution of food grains would only become increasingly deficient. Added to this is the strange practice of BPL-Antyodaya cards based on faulty estimates and use of discretionary powers of state governments. Though, this is not the right place to get into extremely significant questions of PDS procurement and allotment (and its national policies and state-wise quotas), the process of identification of households deserving Antyodaya cards and dwindling state finances (with corresponding impact on the ability of state governments to spend on social sector schemes); it must be said that these issues are crucial to the desperate food situation in states like Jharkhand. Added to this is the gross negligence in the implementation of schemes such as ICDS, Mid Day Meal, PDS and NREGA which, in themselves, could provide only some basic support for subsistence in a context like Jharkhand. In this way, it is clear that hunger and severe shortage of food has become systemic in these regions affecting not just singular households but entire communities.
In remote villages of the state, the staple diet is found to be Gethi which is a toxic, tuberous potato-like vegetable. Gethi is cut into slices and left in a stream to wash away its bad taste for 24-40 hours. After this, it is removed and boiled before eating. This constitutes a ‘complete’ meal for the locals. What is more distressing is that often, consumption of Gethi has resulted in deaths across the state. It is ironical that now the communities are experiencing difficulty in finding even these tubers, as more and more people in the region depend on it for staple diet. It is also common practice to drink fermented rice water (hadiya) which is filling and intoxicating – importantly, distracting the person from the hunger pangs.
How does one explain such state of affairs? The fact that even countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have throughout displayed much better human development indicators than Jharkhand reinforces our preceding observations which are also reflected in the proportion of starvation deaths, neonatal and infant mortality, underweight children and anaemic mothers in the state. There is, as has been pointed out by other researchers, a cycle of ‘inter-generational transfer of extreme forms of under-nutrition’. It is also significant to note that the problem of starvation has often been analysed in the framework of occasional shortfall of food supply at the household level, almost like a sudden accident. On the contrary, however, as the instances of starvation deaths across Jharkhand show, hunger constitutes a systemic failure of the most fundamental character.
State and the Naxals: How Far Can It Go?
In addition, inhuman forms of feudal exploitation and appropriation have left agricultural labour at the mercy of big landlords in Palamu and other regions. One finds very few studies about Palamu, but most available academic studies conclude bondage and debt peonage as characteristic of agrarian structure here. With persistent droughts and the miserable condition of small peasantry and landless agricultural labourers, quite large populations staying in remote inaccessible villages, mostly survive on potentially harmful eatables of the forests. Brahmin-Baniya-Landlord troika works with great impunity to ensure that for those at the bottom of production relations have no route to escape. Agrarian servitude of the most violent nature continues to persist in Palamu. No wonder, Palamu and Latehar districts are the most Naxal affected districts in Jharkhand, as pointed out earlier, the so-called ‘liberated zones’.
Various ML groups (particularly CPI-ML-Liberation) have also suffered from mindless Naxal violence. Underground Maoist groups in Bihar and Jharkhand have always considered ML-Liberation and other groups as the ones who have 'betrayed' the 'movement'. It is also true that the Naxal strategy has been/is politically counterproductive, because of its sectarian and shortsighted politics often resulting into depoliticisation of larger issues of land and relations of production in agriculture. The Naxal movement (even in its most comprehensive form) has failed to bring in any systemic change at the state, national or global level. However, it would be useful to understand the enormous violence from which numerous versions of Naxalisms have emerged. It is not simply about the binary between being pro or anti-state (or pro or anti-Naxal) and condemning one violence or the other. Intellectuals like late K. Balagopal have consistently made this point. A visit to hinterlands in Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa and Chattisgarh would pose a completely different story, at least about the aspects of the consciousness pertaining to Naxalism. Palamu, as always, is a model case study in this regard.
We must distinguish our analysis of Naxalism from what the neoliberal Indian state considers the 'menace' of Naxalism, with specific reference to the state of Jharkhand. Who are the targets of ‘Operation Greenhunt’? Is it the CPI-Maoist as a political formation (where the foot-soldiers again are largely the invisible Adivasis and Dalits) or the large terrains of resource rich Chattisgarh and Jharkhand? Who are the Naxals? Or, in other words, how does one define a Naxalite? Some villager in Palamu who is sandwiched between the viciously oppressive feudal landlordism and the Naxalites? Do we also need to distinguish between the CPI-Maoist and other groups which have been maliciously put under the homogenous category of ‘Naxalites’? What about those numerous localized struggles that are resisting to survive in complete absence of strong, pro-people left ideology and practice and their claims of gradually exhausting democratic space of dissent in the country? What would be its impact on left praxis of all shades? Is there more to Operation Greenhunt and its timing than what meets the eye?
If we only speak of Jharkhand, the Naxalite problem has a definite historical-political context which has to be tackled in concerted and politically sensitive manner. The overarching discourse of “development” as part of the neoliberal package cannot substitute long drawn political struggle on issues of land and agrarian reforms. An unqualified insistence on the recipe of “development” as the effective counter to Naxalism is as misplaced as the Naxalite strategy itself which is riddled in a complex web of tactical blunders. In the specific context of Jharkhand, historical injustices done to Adivasis cannot be undermined in any process of change. The need of the hour is an alternative conception of progressive politics for regions where Naxalites wield the gun which might also incorporate the positive experience in areas like Palamu during the 1970s-1980s. It is time that a genuinely mass-based political alternative is posed against the Naxalites which aims at transforming unequal land and production relations in the countryside and bring greater freedom to the people. Late Com. Mahendra Singh, CPI-ML-Liberation MLA from Bagodar constituency remains an inspiration on how to convert legitimate popular concerns into tools of progressive mass-political mobilisation. He was murdered by the administration after being labeled as a Naxalite himself; the SP responsible for his killing is now a promoted officer in the state secretariat. Drawing a lesson from the experience of several murderous regimes that Jharkhand has witnessed in last nine years, any covert/overt support for a military solution of Naxalite problem is not only inhuman and unjust but also politically regressive. It is not an exaggeration to say that such an operation would fatally harm the possibility of a progressive left alternative in the state by alienating the Adivasis, Dalits and other toiling masses even more from the democratic space of politics.
Corporation, Corruption and Electoral Democracy in Jharkhand
The Assembly elections are scheduled for next week in Jharkhand but the central point remains the corruption cases against Madhu Koda, the former chief minister of the state. Though, the media has unearthed many conspiracy theories regarding a scam ranging in various estimates to be around Rs. 4000 crores, the factors which enable such an environment of systemic loot (epitomized in Jharkhand) need deeper analysis.
So, as the story goes, Madhu Koda usurped huge amount of public money using his position in the government and enabled his cronies to extract equally enormous sums. Apart from the usual accusation of corruption in the political class, we have hardly seen any analysis which explores the nexus between the corporate sector, the political class and the travesty of electoral democracy. To begin with, it is interesting that this scam cannot be strictly categorized as belonging to the proverbial “rent seeking” in the government sector. Recent times have witnessed a new twist in the tale with the entry of powerful corporate interests in “developmental” projects. It is surprising that the analysts are not bothered by the whole fact that a group of people in power can actually earn Rs. 4000 crores only through kickbacks and commissions without a trace of anything happening on the ground. In Jharkhand, numerous MoUs were signed in last nine years with the promise of rapid industrialization and development. Major corporate groups like the Tatas and Mittals have shown interest in the state. This is the ‘enabling environment’ for a scam of such proportions. We have seen how different states have to compete with each other, offering unreasonable incentives to corporate groups in order to “attract” investments. With decay of the public sector almost complete and neoliberal policy reigning supreme with its orthodoxy, the only way states can industrialise and create meaningful employment is through lobbying with private enterprise. In this process, democratically elected governments are forced to kneel before corporate groups to ensure that ‘development’ occurs in their states and regions.
Since this is the overall structure in which governments have to work, states like Jharkhand would surely need many brokers at every stage of negotiation and some highhanded lobbyists who claim to get the job done. We must wait till the investigation is complete to find out the proportion of money which has been drawn directly from the treasury through the old method of forgery on government programmes/accounts and the money which belongs purely to the new realm of commission-middlemen-lobbyists on both sides, the government and the corporate. The kind of corporate influence over policy vision as well as practice that one sees in states like Jharkhand is matched only by the self-righteous high moral ground that ‘corporate developmentalism’ has come to achieve in recent years. Among all this, what happened to the much-celebrated MoUs in Jharkhand?
There is another aspect of pervasive nature of corruption in Jharkhand, which concerns the electoral processes in the state. Some facts are presented here to provide a context. The state has seen deep political instability produced by various factors since its formation with five CMs in a period of nine years. It is strange that the decline of Jharkhand began even before its formation i.e. during the 1990s. JMM which, at one point in time, was touted as a centre-left ideological group soon gave way to tired leaders with pockets of influence in the state. The confluence of ‘green’ and ‘red’ was turned into a compromise between money and muscle power. A brief period of resurgence was seen with student leaders taking over (formation of All Jharkhand Student Union (AJSU) inspired from All Aasam Students Union (AASU) in the late 1980s, however it soon fizzled out and it is clear that the Jharkhand movement was losing ground throughout the 1990s, both politically as well as ideologically. It is the same period when Lalu Prasad Yadav became the Chief Minister of Bihar and started to negotiate his way into Jharkhand politics through Jharkhand Autonomous Area Council (JAAC), to which Shibu Soren was nominated as the chairman. Also around this time, when JMM MPs received suitcases in parliament to save Narsimha Rao government at centre, the mass character of Jharkhand movement was completely shattered. Insiders of Jharkhand movement privately admit that they had lost all hopes of separate Jharkhand when the state was actually formed. When Jharkhand came into being, the process of appropriation of both the ‘Adivasi’ identity as well as once-furious Adivasi leaders was almost complete. Ideology was never a question in the 1990s, at least for the ostensibly legitimate heirs of Jharkhand movement, the JMM, AJSU and some splinter groups and leaders associated with it.
The first government of Jharkhand was a minority government headed by BJP leader Babulal Marandi supported by independents. Soon, a small group of independent leaders rebelled against him and Arjun Munda emerged as the compromise candidate. With this, the state witnessed the consolidation of the process which started in the 1990s- the complete fall of ideology and coming to prominence of few independent brokers who could take government to hostage and turn the powers at their will. Madhu Koda was one such MLA who had been in different governments (he was with the BJP till the first election in the state when the BJP refused a ticket to him- nevertheless he won and came back to assume office again in the BJP-led government, though as an independent) but in a strong ministerial position- Mines. Meanwhile, Guruji Shibu Soren attempted to grab CMship twice and failed, the most recent instance when he was defeated in his assembly constituency and had to resign. Madhu Koda was then propped up as the candidate who could make the multiple ends meet. Madhu Koda regime has accomplished what it was intended for- to keep all power brokers, corporate lobbyists, local interests and the UPA happy throughout his term. What followed was, as they say, history. The regime was open loot from every quarter and corner of the government. One of the biggest scam of recent history in Jharkhand occurred in health ministry (ironically with a Forward Block MLA as the minister) where the secretary and the minister siphoned off more than Rs. 150 crore. We must understand here that the blame of corruption should ideally lie with the UPA which supported Madhu Koda regime and reaped rich dividends. Notwithstanding UPA’s role in sustaining Madhu Koda, when new Governor Sankarnarayana assumed office, people felt much relieved. Governor’s administration was viewed as fair and sensitive keeping in mind past experiences. With his tenure record in fresh memory, UPA has earned goodwill across the state, plus it has also, at least theoretically, completely dissociated from the misdeeds of Madhu Koda government.
In the impending elections, JMM is contesting all 81 seats alone, BJP and JD (U) on 67 and 14 seats respectively, Congress has aligned suddenly with the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (JVM-led by Babulal Marandi-former CM) and both the parties are fighting on 62 and 19 seats respectively. They are supposed to have friendly contests in 5 seats. Governor’s rule has boosted the confidence of Congressmen and the party has dumped all its UPA allies including JMM. JMM is receiving explicit support from the Naxalites in various regions. The party has slowly become the safe haven for many Naxals who are willing to fight elections inspired by Kameshwar Baitha (now an MP from Palamu on JMM ticket).
Talking of the left, Rashtriya Janata Dal-CPI-CPM-Marxist Coordination Committee (headed by the legendary A. K. Roy-one of the founders of JMM) are fighting the election together with little hope. (Correction -
 The date has its own significance in Jharkhand being the birthday of Bhagwan Birsa Munda.
 In other words, this was one of the first publicized cases of starvation deaths in Jharkhand. It was not the first such case, by any standard.
 It must be noted that Palamu is not a predominantly Adivasi region. Further, mapping Jharkhand in terms of districts is analytically less useful. We should rather speak about regions and communities. For instance, Palamu division, Chatra and Gaya (Bihar) forms one axis of hunger, again variable among blocks and communities. Adivasi-dominated locations of Simdega, West Singhbhum (Chaibasa) and western parts of East Singhbhum (Jamshedpur) form another axis with northern regions of Orissa. And this is not an exhaustive mapping incorporating whole of the state.
 The north and northwestern parts of the state fall in a rain shadow area, the agriculture production is very low, seriously hampering the food sovereignty in the region. This region includes parts of Garhwa, Palamu, Chatra, Hazaribagh and Koderma districts. This is also the region with high concentration of scheduled castes viz. Bhuiya, Chamar, Dusadh etc.
 What is absolutely farcical is that people in Jharkhand villages now talk of a new form of deceit (which also reflects on how instances of starvation deaths are taken by the state) where one has to swiftly transport grain to a household which is either on the verge of starvation or recently faced hunger deaths. This is done right before any official/civil society visit.
 Almost 52 per cent of the population in Jharkhand lives below the official starvation (poverty!) line. However, regional variations are immense. For instance, districts like Godda, Dumka and Pakur (Santhal Pargana) and Gumla and Lohardagga (North and South Chhotanagpur) and West Singhbhum-Chaibasa (Kolhan); all Adivasi majority regions have 60-70 per cent BPL population.
 Jindal group is also establishing a steel plant near this area which is supposed to displace many of these already near-extinct Adivasi communities like Pahariyas which are the oldest Adivasi group living in Jharkhand. Few reasons why their population has swiftly declined are chronic starvation and displacement.
 For instance, that a trader comes every month riding on a horse with exchangeable goods to the village and buys the local produce in exchange for goods like salt!
 One such study is by Sudipto Mundle in 1970s.
 It was told to the author that the famous ‘Sunday’ magazine once carried a story of the Man-Eater of Manatu in late 1980s. The man-eater was the local Zamindar whose palace still stands in Manatu. It is said that the Zamindar kept a leopard, which was fed on his slaves. The Man-eater is gone, but more compatible forms of bonded labour and violence still exist.
 In case of Fodder Scam, for instance, in which Jharkhandi politicians played an equally significant part.
 It is said that a dispute related to distribution of the bribe led to the murder of the PA of ‘Guruji’ Shibu Soren. His skeleton was found years later in the jungles of Jharkhand. The case still lies unsolved with the CBI.