Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence - Christian Parenti (2011)
Chapter 12. India’s Drought Rebels
The man who has gotten everything he wants is all in favor of peace and order.
BARREN FORESTS COVER the hills of northern Andhra Pradesh on the edge of India’s Deccan Plateau. It is February, summertime for this region, and the deciduous trees have dropped their leaves in the dry heat. The landscape is peculiar: flat-topped hills with steep ridges run in long lines often marked by horizontal cliffs. Between these lie broad valley plains, containing occasional piles of volcanic rubble.1
Life for the farmers here is difficult. “There is declining rain, and this affects yields, and the prices are still low,” says Linga Reddy Sama, a cotton farmer in the village of Jaamni, a few kilometers from the Sathnala Reservoir not far from the border of Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra states. Most of the people in this area are Adivasi, or “tribal people,” the Gonds of the Adilabad District. Others are Hindu migrants who came down from the state of Maharashtra.
On that day in 2009, when I sat in the shade of a roughhewn wood arbor with a group of farmers, none of them had yet heard of greenhouse gases or anthropogenic climate change. However, they all thought the weather was changing. They said that in the last ten to fifteen years, regular drought and strangely timed rains had become very common. Many of them speculated that deforestation was the culprit.
“This generation has done something wrong to affect the rains like this,” said a farmer named Mohan Rao. “ When I was a child, the forests came right up to here. You couldn’t see those hills; all of this was covered in trees. We used to have two rainy seasons. In June we planted irrespective of rain; we planted between the fifteenth and twenty-eighth, and by September we harvested.” He said typically the summer rains fall for three or four months and are then followed by lighter, shorter rains in the late autumn.
That pattern is common across South India. The summer monsoon blows in off the Indian Ocean, usually making landfall in southern India about June 1. These mighty rains arrive because the rising summertime temperature of the Indian landmass sucks moist air in off the ocean. The moisture rises, cools, and falls as rain. The monsoon is split into two branches by India’s coastal mountain ranges, the Ghats, and most of the rain falls on western coastal India, leaving much of the central region quite dry. The monsoons travel north until September; then, as the sun begins moving south, the weather system begins its retreat back in that direction, creating the winter monsoon. The summer monsoons account for fourfifths of India’s total rainfall; the lighter, retreating or northwest monsoons deliver the rest. But things are less stable than in the past. The farmers say recent years have seen only light winter rains. That makes it impossible to plant a second cotton crop.
To make matters worse, this area has been in the grip of a nasty little guerrilla war. India, the world’s largest democracy, is also home to one of the world’s oldest guerrilla movements—a Maoist insurgency known as the Naxalites. The Maoist ’s war began in 1967 in West Bengal. Their parties have fragmented and reunited as the war has ebbed and flowed.2 Today, this low-intensity conflict runs the length of eastern India and has a variety of geographically specific causes. In Bihar and Chattisgarh, the heart of the violence, large-scale mining on tribal lands is the immediate cause of troubles. But elsewhere, we find the catastrophic convergence.
If one compares maps of precipitation with those of violence, a disturbing pattern emerges: where drought advances, so do Maoists. This geography runs down the Eastern Ghats, from Bihar and West Bengal, through Orissa and Chattisgarh, into Andhra Pradesh and even further south and west.This “Red Corridor” is also the drought corridor. Drought produces a chain reaction of debt, land loss, hunger, suicide, banditry, and Maoism.
Why this neat correlation? The link is not “natural” but rather historically produced. In the years of the Naxal rise in Andhra Pradesh, drought was also intense: 1984–1985, 1986–1987, 1997–1998, 1999–2000, and 2002–2003 were all drought years.3
As India’s weather patterns have grown more disjointed, so too have its economic policies shifted rightward to effectively abandon the peasant farming class and create greater inequality. If the catastrophic convergence in East Africa pivoted primarily upon Cold War militarism, then in India the story foregrounds economic neoliberalism. The Maoist fire burns not only due to drought but also because of free-market government policy. The rest of this chapter traces the connections between climate, economic history, and political violence in Andhra Pradesh.
Deep Roots of Rebellion
The language of the guerrillas permeates political discourse among the Gonds of Telangana, as the northern part of Andhra Pradesh is known. Repression makes the farmers reticent, but any discussion of the weather and economy soon yields hints of Naxalite ideology.
“Jal, jungle, zameen,” said one of the farmers in Jamni village. It means “water, forest, land” and has been a rallying cry for the social organizations of the local Gonds. It is also a Naxalite battle cry, a defense of the commons against all who would encroach. But the concept goes back further, to a tribal rebellion against the nizam, the old Muslim ruler of Telangana. During the 1940s, tribals, led by Komaram Bheem, and communists rebelled against their feudal overlords. During the British Raj, Telangana remained nominally free as one of the semiautonomous princely states.
Atop the old order sat the nizam, the Muslim head of state ruling from the city of Hyderabad. From the seventeenth century until 1948, a succession of nizams ruled, but always in league with a class of Hindi landlords, the dora. Together, the nizam and dora, the landed aristocracy, extracted heavy agricultural rents from the rural population but invested little in infrastructure. By the early twentieth century, the British had insinuated themselves into the nizam’s court and controlled its finances and external relations. Nonetheless, the nizam still did well. In fact, the last nizam, Osman Ali Khan Bahadur, who ruled from 1911 to 1948, was for a time the wealthiest man in the world and even made the cover of Time in 1937.4 But in 1948, with the cataclysm of Partition as backdrop, the arrogant noble overplayed his hand when he dallied during accession negotiations with India.
As with Kashmir, newly independent India saw it as entirely unfeasible to accept a somewhat hostile Muslim-ruled state wedged into its southeast. On September 13, 1948, negotiations ended when Jawaharlal Nehru decided unilaterally and by force that Telangana would join India. The massive Indian army rolled in and crushed the nizam’s palace guard, plus a supporting cast of Muslim irregulars called Razakars. This four-day “war” was called Operation Polo in a mocking reference to the nizam’s many well-appointed playing fields. Thus, the Hyderabad state was annexed to the Republic of India.
For Telangana farmers, however, the fundamentals did not change. The region remained isolated and economically stagnant, and its peasants continued to live in a matrix of risk, caught between the vicissitudes of markets, state policies, and weather. The last of these factors, weather, tends to matter most in the arid and semiarid regions that cover 60 percent of India.5
The various Naxalite factions trace their origins to the Communist Party of India (Maoist) and an obscure 1967 massacre in the eponymous West Bengal village of Naxalbari, in the famous tea-growing subdivision of Darjeeling.6 In 1969, the Naxalites congealed into a political party called the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), but the party was outlawed. That forced the Naxals to hide in remote backwaters where they tended to fragment into factions, without centralized leadership.7 From the beginning, Naxals were found in West Bengal, Bihar, and Andhra Pradesh.8
Over the course of the conversation with struggling farmers in Jaamni, it finally comes out that this village has had Naxalite-connected mass-based organizations. Through these movements, the villagers have repeatedly protested, staging darna, or traffic stops, to demand government investment in their water systems. Collectively, they want borehole wells and lift irrigation to bring water from the Sathnala Reservoir. Individually, many of them just want to leave for Hyderabad and its promise of work on constructions sites or to go north to Maharashtra, where they can work as agricultural laborers on large farms.
The Naxalite war is a strange affair that mixes open political advocacy by students and urban intellectuals with nonviolent direct action by peasant organizations (such as road blockades), and the terrorist methods of the guerrilla cadre (such as assassinations and mining of roads). The Naxals hardly seem capable of taking state power, but neither did their fight wind down with the end of the Cold War. In recent years the state has pushed back with a classic, increasingly violent counterinsurgency, hunting down and killing both insurgents and their civilian supporters. The war is creating centrifugal forms of violence that leave the social fabric weakened and infected with corruption, crime, and pathology.
In this district, the little war against the Naxalites has mostly been won, at least for the moment. Yet, civilian Naxal supporters still close roads with blockades, and the people here still observe the anniversary of an infamous April 20, 1981, massacre in which police shot dead as many as one hundred tribals at the village of Indervelli.9 The Naxals also pass through, sometimes killing informants (real or imagined). A local student, a Gond tribal who was showing me around, said that the previous year guerrillas had accused a cousin of his of informing and killed him. Other Adilabad locals have died at the hands of the Greyhounds—the state police special forces.
In 2008 Naxals even attacked a police boat on the Balimeda-Sileru reservoir near the Andhra-Orissa border. In that fight, fifty-nine Greyhounds on “combing operations” decided for some reason to cross the reservoir in a single boat, only to be attacked by Maoists firing from nearby hills. The police boat capsized, and thirty-eight of the commandos were killed.10
Climate, Water, and War
In Telangana, water is political; to manage water is to manage society. The region is bound by the Godavari River to the north and the Krishna River to the south. Both began as rain-fed rivers, not glacier-fed ones, like the Ganga and Indus. As such, Telangana’s rivers are extremely vulnerable to climate variability and local deforestation. The Godavari and Krishna both rise in the Western Ghats—the mountains and escarpments that catch the greater part of the summer monsoons—and drain east across the Deccan Plateau, through Telangana, eventually discharging into the Bay of Bengal. When the monsoons fail, the rivers are reduced to mere memories. Even in the epic monsoon of 2010, Adilabad still had a 25 percent deficit below the regional norm.11
Climate scientists predict cataclysmic physical changes for the subcontinent in the very near future. The Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made an infamous and very serious error in predicting the speed of future glacial melt. 12 But after all the science had been subject to hostile vetting, the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report’s core findings remained true: “The entire Hindu Kush–Himalaya ice mass has decreased in the last two decades.” And it continues to do so at an alarming rate.13
Now consider this: two-thirds of Indians are farmers, most of whom depend on Himalayan glacial runoff or the monsoon rains. And the region’s hydrological system is sliding into crisis: monsoon variability is increasing; the rains are late or too light, or they come heavily all at once. In the winter, some areas get no rain.
When I interviewed one of India’s top climatologists, Dr. Murari Lal, he was distraught: “The political class are in total denial. They are not dealing with the issue of climate change. They think it is a rich man’s problem. Nothing can get in the way of ‘India Shining.’You understand? They are thinking, ‘Development first, then address the environment.’It has only been due to pressure from the international community, and only in the last three years, that they have even begun to realize that there is a problem.” A few months later, India’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, shocked the world when he accused rich nations of needlessly raising alarm. “Science has its limitation,” said the minister. 14
Lal’s specialty is the monsoon system, and he is a crucial player in the IPCC. He says the monsoons are “exhibiting increased variability” with a slight increase in overall precipitation, but in such an erratic fashion that, in combination with bad land management and inadequate attention to water harvesting, the general direction is toward increased desertification and drought despite more rainfall. “Ten years ago I predicted the decline of the winter rains in the north, and already that’s happened,” said Lal in sad exasperation.15
The US intelligence community has also noticed. In February 2010, National Intelligence Director Adm. Dennis C. Blair told Congress, “For India, our research indicates the practical effects of climate change will be manageable by New Delhi through 2030. Beyond 2030, India’s ability to cope will be reduced by declining agricultural productivity, decreasing water supplies, and increasing pressures from cross-border migration into the country.”16
The core issue is water, both its quantity and quality. When the rain comes and how it falls is almost as important as if it falls. In other words, monsoon variability is bad news for Indian farmers. It has a negative effect on crop yields beyond what aggregate and average precipitation data can reveal. In social terms, monsoon variability manifests as increased debt, immiseration, migration, and social conflict.
India’s other source of water is the Himalayan ice pack—the so-called third pole—and it is melting fast. The Himalaya’s 46,298 glaciers hold water in frozen reserve for hundreds of millions of people in Asia. 17 If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase unabated, and world temperatures continue to rise, and these masses of ice completely disappear, the Ganges, Indus, Yamuna, Brahmaputra, and other rivers that traverse the northern Indian plain will become mere seasonal waterways flowing only when the monsoons unleash.18
For example, the Ganges—or Ganga Ma, Hinduism’s most sacred river, the water source for some 500 million people—has a dry-season flow that is 70 percent meltwater from the Gangotri Glacier, a vast channel of ice 5 miles wide and 15 miles long. The Gangotri is shrinking at a rate of 40 yards per year, nearly twice as fast as it was two decades ago.19 This is typical of the “super-rapid decline in the glaciers of the region.”20 The Ganges is now in such serious decline that it is considered among the 10 most endangered rivers of the world.21
In the short term, this Himalayan melting will lead to increased runoff, but in the long term, Asia’s glacier-fed rivers will largely vanish.22 Meanwhile, population and water demand increase: by 2050, India will likely have a population bigger than China’s, and some 900 million of these people will still be working the land.23
Hydraulic States—in Theory and Practice
Back in the village of Jaamni, in Adilabad District, the talk still turns on the issue of water. Some farmers here irrigate from small wells, some from a local river, but most depend primarily on rain, nothing more. They live by the mercy of the monsoon, much of which is kept off the Deccan by the Western and Eastern Ghats. Not far from the village is the almost completely dry river, which the locals simply call the Big Stream. It flows into the Sathnala reservoir, which is the product of a dam built in decades past.
In such a climate, rainwater harvesting and irrigation are essential parts of the landscape. In Andhra Pradesh and Tamul Nadu, most agriculture has traditionally been dependent on water impoundment and storage; “rainfall is diverted, captured, stored, and controlled in a large number of reservoirs,” known locally as tanks, formed by blocking the drainage of natural depressions with crescent-shaped earthen dams. 24Canals feed out from the tanks, and elaborate rules govern how and when water is allocated.
The irrigation systems of southern India were famously, and somewhat incorrectly, theorized in both Marx and Weber as the products of wellorganized, stable, autarkic states. A long line of scholars following these foundational thinkers has assumed that large-scale irrigation is normally accompanied by despotism and stable state bureaucracies that absorb the surplus created by the society. This link between irrigation and state power is essential in Marx’s theory of the “Asiatic mode of production.”
In his classic Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power, Karl Wittfogel described water’s political imperatives thus: “No operational necessity compels [a farmer] to manipulate either soil or plants in cooperation with many others. But the bulkiness of all except the smallest sources of water supply creates a technical task which is solved either by mass labor or not at all.”25 Another scholar explained, “The need to control corvee labor and competition between societies requires ever larger works; larger works require heavier corvees of labor, heavier corvees require higher levels of integration and co-ordination and therefore large permanent systems ultimately require permanent specialized bureaucracies who will decide how many people are needed for what, and where. These must be ‘vertically’ organized.”26 In other words, the argument behind the idea of hydraulic despotism or the Asiatic mode of production: large-scale canal irrigation systems seem to require mass organization, and that seems to require a centralized powerful state.
In reality, India’s old irrigation systems seem to have evolved slowly, piecemeal, haphazardly, through a succession of political arrangements that were often unstable and punctuated by violence. Viewed over the long term, plenty of social change and instability existed, especially at the political and geographic margins of states .27 As the anthropologist David Mosse argued contra the old consensus, in southern India war and the rule of warriors was always bound up with irrigation and water rights—but that did not always mean stability. Political conflict was ongoing, and irrigation systems most likely have always existed in a state of relative crisis and ill repair.
British representatives of the East India Company latched on to this fact and used it as an ideological prop in their larger mission. They took great pains to note the dilapidation of water works in their reports; as Mosse explains, “These officers were the first to put into place a representation of tanks as part of the noble tradition of the ancient community eroded by contemporary exploitative rulers. And from this damaged landscape, they read justification for the extension of a British rule of order and property.”28
Thus, water, irrigation, and extreme weather have been central to Indian politics, power structures, property arrangements, and traditions of repression and resistance for centuries. Climate change—and the catastrophic convergence by which it is expressed within the social world—is only enhancing water’s significance.
Neoliberalism and Death by Cotton
The farmers in Telangana all grow genetically modified Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton, a product of the agricultural giant Monsanto. The new cotton became available a few years back. Although advertised as not needing pesticides, it does. At first it boosted output and incomes, but after a few years, incomes fell and the new cotton became a curse. Its roots penetrate deep into the soil, sucking up all the nutrients. Before long the farmers need large amounts of artificial fertilizer—and that means taking loans. Scholars call this the “vicious cycle of chemical agriculture.”
“We know that after three or four years, the land will be dead,” said Linga Reddy Sama, whose family are Hindu migrants rather than of the local tribal Gond people. The farmers in these villages know they are mining the soil, extracting and exporting its nutrition in the form of cheap cotton. While their crops decline, their debts increase. And in the worst of cases, farmers are killing themselves. This is the catastrophic convergence at the local scale, at the scale of specific crops and actual families.
Had anyone committed suicide in Jaamni? Yes, a man named Anjanna, who was about forty-five years old and had killed himself the previous year by drinking pesticide. “He killed himself to escape his debts,” said one of the farmers. “Now his wife and grown son are in Maharashtra State working as farm laborers.”
The problem, again, comes back to water. In recent years, irrigation has suffered under a wave of neoliberal disinvestment. The state has removed important subsidies from small farmers; as result, thousands of them have killed themselves.
The process went like this: Starting in 1991 the Indian government began a process of economic liberalization. Efficiency became the watchword ; the state cut power subsidies to farmers. With that, running pumps for wells and irrigation became more expensive. To cope, farmers started taking loans from local banks or usurious moneylenders.29 The neoliberal withdrawal of developmentalist policies meant that local irrigation systems fell into dilapidation. With bad irrigation works soon the norm, farmers turned to drilling privately-funded wells and taking groundwater. This was typically done on an ad hoc and individual or village-by-village basis, with little planning or proper water management. As a result, the aquifers soon fell into decline. These private coping strategies require private capital. To drill wells, farmers had to borrow from local moneylenders—often at exorbitant rates. Now, when crops fail or wells run dry, which is becoming more common due to climate change, farmers cannot repay their debts.
By the late 1990s, many farmers had run out of options—they were too far in arrears to borrow more, too broke to produce crops. For thousands, the only escape from this debt trap came in the form of suicide—often by swallowing pesticides. According to data from the National Crime Records Bureau, 150,000 Indian farmers killed themselves between 1997 and 2005. But as Anuradha Mittal reports, “Farmers’ organizations believe the number of suicides to be even greater.”30 In Andhra Pradesh, an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 farmers killed themselves between 1998 and 2004. As one creditor told the New York Times,“Many moneylenders have made a whole lot of money. . . . Farmers, many of them, are ruined.”31
When the links between drought, irrigation, debt, and suicide were becoming clear a dozen years ago, the Political and Economic Weekly investigated. “A study of 50 deceased farmers in Warangal District [near Adilabad] shows that well [water] is the largest source of irrigation for about three-fourths of the farmers. Only about one-third of the wells were dug under the subsidy schemes of the government. In the rest of the cases farmers themselves have borne the expenses for digging of wells. Besides this the depletion of groundwater in recent years has necessitated deepening of wells and laying of in-well bores.”
The cost of such a well in the late 1990s averaged between $1,400 and $3,000.32 As a World Bank study on drought and climate change in Andhra Pradesh found, that means debt. The Bank noted, “Household responses to drought have been largely reactive and do little to build longterm drought resilience. Credit remains the most common coping response to drought.” In fact, 68 percent of households in the study took loans due to drought, with large landholders borrowing “from formal sources (such as banks), while the landless and small farmers borrow from moneylenders at inflated interest rates.”33 Not only are the rates usurious, but these more informal contracts rely on brutal and humiliating enforcement mechanisms.
The Green Revolution
Another cause of debt is seed purchase. The zenith of this trap is Monsanto’s genetically modified Bt cotton. The story of Bt begins back in the halcyon days of modernization theory and the Green Revolution, when Walt W. Rostow’s 1960 The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto held the intellectual high ground among Western scholars and policy makers.34 The general goal of the moment was to industrialize agriculture, thus boost yields and free up labor that could be harnessed in cities as part of the new manufacturing sectors. Toward that end, new seed varieties were introduced.
The term Green Revolution is attributed to William Gaud of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and dates back to about 1968.35 In a strict sense, the Green Revolution comprised a set of planned and targeted agricultural-intensification programs supported by the World Bank and USAID. Experts introduced high-yield-variety seeds, synthetic fertilizers, chemical pesticides, and intensive, groundwater-dependant irrigation. Governments and foundations supported farm extension and education programs to inculcate the methods of these new technologies among the farmers. More broadly, the Green Revolution refers to the unplanned spread of these same methods and technologies throughout the Global South.
In Andhra Pradesh, the official wing of the Green Revolution was confined to the coastal deltas. The first crops targeted were rice and wheat. The program’s goal, in India as a whole, was to achieve food self-sufficiency and to create surpluses of labor and capital in the countryside that could be urbanized and facilitate industrialization. According to Rostow, this would enable economic “takeoff ”—the onset of rapid, modernizing industrialization and economic growth.
Environmentalists have greatly criticized the Green Revolution in India for its wanton use of toxic chemicals, while Marxists have attacked it for creating greater inequality among farmers.36 But this modernization drive had the support of many populists and involved redistributive forms of government aid, like price-stabilization programs and basic income support for farmers.37 By comparison to the neoliberal austerity of today, the state played a robust, almost socialistic role. A government-owned company, the National Seed Corporation, provided financing and guidance, and yields did increase, essentially doubling during the 1960s. These yields, however, were a function of greater capital investment. Farmers required more capital to buy fertilizer, pesticides, irrigation piping, and machinery.38 Thus, debts rose along with output.
Soon cotton became one of the main crops. Now the issue was no longer food security but instead victory and profit on the international commodity markets. Very problematically, cotton also needs large amounts of water. Within a decade yields began to drop as the soil was stripped of its nutrients and poisoned by pesticides. The only solution for many farmers was to double down: borrow more and invest more, use more technology, take on more debt.
The Green Revolution came to the Deccan Plateau indirectly and informally, when prosperous farmers of the Kama caste migrated inland from the coast in search of land on which to farm cotton and chili peppers. The migrants settled together and maintained strong marriage links with the coast, but they brought with them and disseminated the new capital-intensive farming methods.39 Again, the pattern repeated elsewhere: at first yields were good, but then invariably declined.
With the rise of capital-intensive cotton farming in Telangana over the last thirty years, two strange contradictions have arisen.40 First, the primary cash crop, cotton, continues to decline in value; yet, farmers continue to plant more of it. Why do the farmers not shift to other crops? Second, while the region’s overall growth in agricultural output has been robust—more than 4 percent per annum for many years—the incomes and consumption of most farmers have declined precipitously, and this manifests as farmers’ suicides and support for the Naxals.41 The question now becomes: Why do farmers go into debt so as to plant a crop (cotton) for which the price is falling?
A brilliant young economic historian, Vamsi Vakulabharanam, has identified and explained the politics of this contradictory, seemingly nonsensical set of facts. The answer, he writes, lies in the credit system. The moneylenders demand that cotton be planted with their capital because cotton is inedible, so during times of crisis, producers cannot “steal,” that is eat, it. Moneylenders essentially give advances on crops, then receive the harvest. If a farm family is dying of hunger and their crop is grain, chances are they will eat the collateral crop to stay alive, rather than give it to the moneylender. Cotton avoids that problem. Thus, even when food crops, like grains, command higher prices, they carry greater risks for the moneylenders. Cotton is the moneylenders’ biological insurance; they steer farmers away from food crops, even if the potential for profits is higher, because only cotton is guaranteed collateral. Using this insight, Vakulabharanam shows that since 1980, farmers in Telangana have moved away from planting coarse grains, like jowar, barley, and millet, toward growing cotton, even as the price signal should have them doing the opposite.
This shift has coincided with the neoliberal reforms that removed from agriculture many legal protections and government subsidies—including public credit and public investment in irrigation.42 In response to the relative withdrawal of the state, farmers took on more expenses themselves and, in turn, had to raise capital wherever they could—that meant from moneylenders. The more farmers turned to private moneylenders, the more they were under pressure to grow more cotton. And the more cotton they grew, the lower its price sank.
Thus, Telangana farmers become trapped in a downward economic cycle: they need expensive inputs and capital to produce a crop that drops in value even as they invest more heavily in it. And the central equipment—especially as climate change makes the region drier, due to extreme weather and frequent drought—are the well and irrigation systems. So, the farmers borrow. Vakulabharanam calls it “immiserizing growth”—agricultural output rises but incomes sink. Others have described the same set of contradictions as “modern poverty” or a form of “development-induced scarcity.”43
Recent mismanagement and political meddling have compounded the climate-change-driven water problem in Andhra Pradesh. In particular, the neglect of the traditional water-management system is due to the interventions of N. T. Rama Rao. A Telugu-speaking film star, N. T. Rao, as he was known, scripted himself into the political scene by founding the Telugu Desam Party, a Telangana regionalist party that sought greater development in northern Andhra Pradesh and governed throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s. He made his charismatic appeals directly to the people with a populist mix of ideas from the Left and Right.
On the one hand, he fought vigorously against the Naxalites, presiding over the creation of the Greyhounds—those police counterinsurgency forces. On the other hand, he did much to disrupt old power groups and deliver services to the popular classes of the region. As part of this attack on established and inherited privilege, he abolished the feudal munasob and karanam system in which local dignitaries inherited tax-collection, water-management, and irrigation maintenance jobs—all opportunities to shake down the farmer. The film star did away with these village satraps—a bit of justice but also just one more layer of political interference between himself and the masses—but, unfortunately, nothing better fully replaced them. Some village committees, raitu sangam, were organized but not funded. The transition to a different, more democratic system of water management remained incomplete and disorganized, so local irrigation has suffered.
Corruption is also a problem affecting water management. In the village of Patagvada, a few kilometers down the road from Jaamni, across the Big Stream and up a small hill, the people are in thrall to the Congress Party. The reasons for that are very concrete (forgive the pun): Congress paved the village’s main street with cement and has promised to legalize and upgrade the jerry-rigged electrical connections that the village has been using to pirate power. The villagers tell me how five boreholes were promised, and five boreholes are listed in district records as having been drilled, but only one was actually completed. And so, the people suffer diminished yields, lower incomes, greater stress, illness, fear, and frustration. The winter rains having failed, the Big Stream is but a few stagnant pools.
Dry Cocktail of Rage
All these social factors—the withdrawal of the state, the rise of capital-intensive farming and the depredation of moneylenders, and the incompetence and corruption of the local state, all in a semiarid climate—make up the preexisting crisis upon which climate change now descends. This, like counterinsurgency and war, contributes to the catastrophic convergences of climate, poverty, and violence.
From under the arbor, I can see why Linga Reddy Sama and the other farmers in Jaamni are so pessimistic about farming. They have a clear a set of ideas about the environmental politics of what they are doing: the Bt cotton they use is killing the land. A few say that population growth has led to overharvesting of the forest, which they (correctly) believe is adversely affecting rainfall. Further away in the hills there’s been commercial and often illegal logging. Here, though, the deforestation is a by-product of their local fuel and construction needs.
In the remote forests of Chattisgarh, Naxalite activity is so intense that the paramilitary state police are largely pinned down, restricted to their fortresslike compounds—redoubts reinforced with sandbags, wire, log walls, and gun turrets. When the police venture out, the Naxals ambush. The guerillas also mass their troops for large attacks that sometimes overrun the paramilitary police compounds and detention centers. For example, in November 2005 Naxalite guerillas stormed a jail in Jehanabad, Bihar, “firebombing offices and freeing several hundred prisoners.” In March 2006 “they attacked a police camp in Chattisgarh, killing fifty-five policemen and making off with a huge cache of weapons.” They have bombed railway stations and transmission towers. During the 2009 elections, they took a whole passenger train hostage and attacked a multibillion-dollar iron ore slurry pipeline. 44
The Naxalite weapon of choice is the command-activated landmine. As these are not pressure-detonated mines, they can be planted in a road months before use: rain, mud, traffic, and sunshine bake the road above the mines into perfect camouflage. The buried mines become impossible to detect under the hard-packed tracks, but the explosives are active and linked to long wires that can be connected to detonators and triggered whenever the guerillas are ready.
Like improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Naxalite landmines are effective on several levels simultaneously. Tactically, landmines maim and kill the paramilitary police. Psychologically, the explosives wear down and demoralize the enemy. Politically, the mines function as a social barrier between the counterinsurgency forces and the people whom they seek to control. The situation is so bad that elements in the Indian air force are lobbying to start an aerial bombing campaign upon the parched lands of the Red Corridor.45
Dark Arts of Repression
Instead of robustly embracing new, green agricultural technologies and supports for farmers facing an uncertain climate, the state is focusing on repression. The relative victory over the guerillas in Telangana results from a near-perfect mix of classic guns-and-butter counterinsurgency. At the thin end of the wedge are the above-mentioned Greyhounds, the paramilitary special forces of the state police. Established in the early 1990s, this counterinsurgency force has been highly effective, never hesitating to use violence but also investing enormous energy in intelligence. That is to say, the Greyhounds target their terror effectively. Often they travel in civilian dress, out of uniform, heavily armed but undercover, passing among the population unannounced, largely unseen, as teams of assassins rather than as occupying soldiers. They are part special forces, part death squad.
For years, the Greyhounds conducted search-and-destroy operations in the forest belt of northern Telangana, and they still do. Sometimes they confront armed dalam (the cadre) in firefights. More often, they kill unarmed guerrillas and civilian supporters.46 Aided by a network of paid informants, tribal irregulars in service to the state, and former Naxals who have switched sides, the Greyhounds spent half a decade combing the hills, mapping both the physical and social terrain, observing the comings and goings of activists, learning the social networks in the villages, and then—in the style of the US Army’s Operation Phoenix in South Vietnam—breaking the key social links between the guerrillas and the people. That is to say, they killed both the dalam, the armed cadre, and the unarmed sangam, or activists. The strategy continues, though not as intensely. Always, when the dead are displayed to the press—blood smeared and dirty, laid out, two or three at a time, on reed mats—the Greyhounds ascribe the assassinations to self-defense. The euphemism describing the killings is always the same. They are “encounters” or accidental collisions between armed bandits and the forces of order. In the Red Corridor, this is the nomenclature of state terrorism. 47
The zenith of Naxalite activity in Andhra Pradesh occurred in October 2003, when the chief minister of the state, N. Chandrababu Naidu, was visiting the famous Venkateswara Temple to attend part of a Hindu festival. As his convoy left the temple, a series of six remote-controlled claymore mines lifted the earth beneath the vehicles in a deafening shock of linked explosions. The minister’s bulletproof ambassador car was mangled and flipped off the road. But, to the credit of Hindustan Motors’ retrofitting, Naidu survived with only light wounds to the face and chest. His driver and four other members of the legislative assembly, however, were very badly hurt. The assailants were cadre of the outlawed People’s War Group (PWG), one of the largest and oldest Maoist parties in India.
“The attack on Naidu shows that there really is no alternative but to revive dialogue and peace talks between the PWG and the government,” said one of the Naxals’ aboveground spokespeople, the popular left-leaning folk singer Gaddar, who uses only one name.48 Indeed, the attack was one of the Naxals’ most spectacular assaults yet, not because of its size but because of its target; they had almost decapitated a state government. The Political and Economic Weekly lamented the implications:
With the state government panic-stricken by the attempt on the life of Chandrababu Naidu and the PWG peeved by the failure of its attempt, both sides are hardening their vengeful attitudes and Andhra Pradesh is likely to go through another cycle of vicious killings. The victims will be fall guys. The police will target poor villagers and human rights activists as “suspected Naxalites” (as they have done by raiding the house of the veteran civil liberties movement leaderKGKannabiran) and arrest or kill them in false encounters. The PWG, in its turn, will take it out on some village “pradhan” or subordinate government employee, branding them as “informers,” and let off steam by setting fire to a few railway stations or bus depots.49
After the bombing against Chief Minister Naidu, the police in Andhra Pradesh turned up the heat. Naidu’s government reopened negotiations with the PWG. (Talks had been under way starting in June 2002, but a massive attack on a bus full of police ended them.) The police were ordered to pull back and the rebels were implored to do likewise. “We have reports that squads are roaming in villages with arms. We are requesting them not to move around with weapons,” said Andhra Pradesh’s home minister.50
Initial talks were conducted via emissaries, one of them a famous Naxalite writer, Varavara Rao, who gave me his account on a hot afternoon in Hyderabad. “The government was not serious,” said the old writer. “They were using the talks to research the Naxal networks.” By 2005, Varavara Rao himself had been arrested, accused of murdering policemen. As the hammer of the state was descending again, he told the press, “The Congress is like sweet poison. While the TDP [regionalist party] government always ruled out talks with us, the Congress is talking of peace but killing revolutionaries in stage-managed encounters.”
The Andhra Pradesh cease-fire and those in other states were ultimately part of a ruse, a larger strategy to flush out the underground networks of the PWG so as to liquidate and jail them. The federal government had finally begun promulgating a three-pronged counterinsurgency: strengthened intelligence at the state level; sustained, intelligence-driven police repression; and accelerated economic development in Naxal-affected areas. Between 2003 and 2005, over fifteen hundred casualties were reported every year from each of the eleven states affected by Naxalite violence. Just over three hundred police were killed during that time.51
The Naxalite violence in Andhra Pradesh peaked just after 2005.52 Ultimately, the Greyhounds proved too much for the Naxals of Telangana; the Maoists fell back into the forest of Chattisgarh and there multiplied. In that province, police had developed a force of civilian vigilantes, called the Salva Judum, which in the local Gond dialect means “peace march.” Initially an organic self-defense organization, the Salva Judum was co-opted by the state. Participation became mandatory, and this “third force” became an armed auxiliary of police repression.53
The new paramilitaries include many former Naxals and, in this regard, resemble the civil patrols of the Guatemalan counterinsurgency or the early paramilitaries in Columbia.54 In January 2009, the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee reported that one “encounter” in Chattisgarh was actually a massacre of eighteen tribals by armed Salva Judum backed up by police.55 Critics say the government-sanctioned vigilantism of the Salva Judum has forced more than fifty thousand people into roadside refugee camps.56
India’s internal war is a stark example of the catastrophic convergence. Poverty made worse by neoliberalism meets counterinsurgency and repression meets climate-driven ecological crisis. If the monsoons fail or hit too hard, the Maoists, the Greyhounds, and the Salva Judum all threaten to play an increasingly destabilizing role in the coming years. They are precisely the types of centrifugal, unaccountable, violent criminogenic forces that insurgency and counterinsurgency leave in their wake to degrade the already battered social fabric. Total war at the grass roots—now the preferred response to social crisis and violent chaos—releases political sepsis that produces devastating corruption, anomie, trauma, and pathology—none of which are useful in confronting climate change.
The Naxals are only one source of instability. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was correct when he called India “fissiparous.” Despite the strong win of the Congress Party–led coalition in the 2009 elections, the country’s parliamentary politics are defined by fiercely independent regional political parties and locally powerful charismatic leaders.57
Across rural India, social tensions are intense. There is spasmodic intercommunal violence between Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. Mass migration of Bangladeshi Muslims into Hindu-dominated regions of India is fueling religious nationalism in both communities. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindutva fanatics, traffics in cryptofascist Islamophobia. Meanwhile, Pakistan sponsors Muslim terrorist groups, and in the northeast armed secessionists are fighting for an independent state of Assam. Across the rugged dry north, social banditry continues, and in the growing megacities, like Delhi, criminality is on the rise. These problems wait on the horizon of Indian history, threatening to grow much worse as climate change intensifies.
In the cities of the south, the information technology and business process outsourcing boom has produced a class of new billionaires.58 Yet, the Indian political leadership cannot, or will not, deliver electricity, water, basic health care and education to the majority of the population. According to the United Nations’ new multidimensional poverty index, more poor people live in eight Indian states than in all of sub-Saharan Africa.The Indian ruling classes need to wake up, or climate change will destroy them. How should India fight the Naxals? By adapting to climate change with economic redistribution, social justice, and sustainable development.