Why development projects are critical for rooting out extremism

Jehanabad in Bihar was once a Maoist hotbed. No cars could move on the district’s roads after night without a police escort. Every village had tales of killings and counter-killings, despite the presence of paramilitary forces. In 1991, when I took over as the district magistrate (DM) of Jehanabad, a posse of police officers had to escort me from Patna to the district headquarters. But today, fortunately, Jehanabad is free from Left-wing extremism.

After taking over as DM, I was keen to ensure education for the children of the Musahars, one of the least literate communities in India. They are primarily landless labourers who help in paddy transplantation and harvesting. Their children did not have access to schools. So, we started the Lok Shiksha Abhiyan with literate boys and girls from the community. In a few weeks, their enthusiasm for learning grew, and their landless parents came forward to donate copies and pencils so that their children could study.

The experience of educating the children in the Musahar community — one of the most marginalised Dalit groups — gave us insights into why they joined the Maoist movement. Many Musahars said they participated in the movement because they had nothing to lose. “Give us a pucca home, then we will have something to lose. Who wants to live in fear and with violence all the time?” a Musahar person told me.

I wrote to SR Sankaran, the then Union rural development secretary, and requested special housing units for Jehanabad. He sanctioned 10,000 units, overlooking rules, as a special case to contain extremism through positive action. In addition, we raised a cadre of education volunteers who would alert us about the movement of the Maoists. Thanks to these steps, policing became more specific in isolating an extremist leader rather than blindly attacking and arresting people from villages.

Years later, the Jeevika movement of women’s self-help groups (SHGs) also made the poorest partners in progress. The attention given to the wellbeing of Mahadalits, with a local volunteer ensuring services to their hamlets, generated goodwill for the state government. The Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) improved connectivity and made the further socioeconomic transformation possible. Policing became more targeted as information and intelligence from the project beneficiaries became specific.

When I took over as the Union rural development secretary, I pushed PMGSY, the Rural Livelihood Mission, and Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana (Gramin) in insurgency-hit parts of the country. With 500-plus population villages in the plain areas and 250-plus habitation in the hill areas connected, the newly built communication network helped in effective policing.

Since 2014, there has been a thrust on development in areas with deficits. Today, there are over 27.5 million pucca homes in rural areas, over 100 million toilets and over 90 million Ujjwala gas connections for the deprived. Over 80% of women have Jan Dhan bank accounts. The number of women members in SGHs has also increased from 25 million (2014) to 85 million in 2022. The Forests Right Act, Aadhaar, direct benefit transfer and identifying deprived households based on the socioeconomic census, which was religion, caste, and region neutral, bolstered the image of a welfare State.

Development projects bolster internal security and help policing become more focused and result-oriented, ensuring a government-people bond. This is crucial because the battle against internal terror cannot be fought without the help of the people. The partnership between three million elected panchayat leaders with over 40% women, 85 million SHG women of the Rural Livelihood Mission, and hundreds of thousands of frontline workers make for a unique community whose gains were seen in the Gram Swaraj Abhiyan in 63,974 purposively selected villages. It is important to remember that peace ends where dis-affection begins; therefore, development is key to rooting out extremism.

Amarjeet Sinha is former Union rural development secretary

The views expressed are personal