First Person | Cost of Conflict

Vested interests across political-bureaucratic divide prevent resolution

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

Recently, in a conversation with a few retired senior Government of India bureaucrats, I came across the term ‘conflict economy.’ Interesting term this was, but I had no idea what it meant. Resorting to lazy journalists’ first source of research, I googled the term and ended up with nothing but a bizarre name Wikipedia entry called ‘conflict economics.’ According to this online fount of knowledge, conflict economics is actually a stream of economics where appropriation of resources (for instance, taxes) is done through violent fighting.

But actually this is not what the bureaucrats were talking about. Since I could no longer hold my curiosity I asked one of them at a subsequent meeting. He retired from the ministry of home affairs, so he knew what he was talking about. Conflict economy is the parallel economy which runs in India’s conflict-ridden states, for instance, the Northeast (that’s six states barring Sikkim), Jammu and Kashmir and over 70 districts across four central Indian states afflicted by Left-wing extremism. That is a lot of area and people, in sheer statistics.

According to this bureaucrat, since these conflicts have been allowed to linger on for so long, people — some residents of these territories, politicians, bureaucrats, military and paramilitary forces — have developed long-standing vested interests in the continuation of the conflict. As a result, they resist, by all means, a resolution. The vested interests pertain not just to the unaccounted money that flows into these areas from the Union government, but also the routine economic activity, like trade, infrastructure etc., from which funds are siphoned off on a regular basis.

He narrated a very interesting story about a road that never was in one of the NE states. When he was in office he received a file with the proposal for the construction of a 10 kilometre road which would provide connectivity to seven tribal villages. Convinced of the utility of the road, he recommended its construction, moving the file further for the release of funds. A few days later, one of his junior officers brought to him another file, about five years old, in which a similar sanction was given; the road was not only completed but inaugurated by the oldest man in that cluster of villages.

Smelling a rat, the bureaucrat urged one of his youngsters to visit the area to see the state of the road. There was no road. There was no sign of any road ever been there. There are hundreds of roads, culverts, bus stops and water pipelines that have been built and inaugurated in these remote, conflict-ridden areas where hardly any government officials ever go. Only on paper.

The most important job in these areas is that of a government contractor. On paper, he is the last recipient of the developmental funds that are released by the central government. So, he has to ensure that the supply chain remains adequately greased and fool-proof. It’s a well-oiled conveyor belt which keeps all the stake-holders happy and gradually carries the contractor to the position of a minister in his state.

The other source of funding comes from the Security Related Expenditure (SRE) which the government releases for small/ tactical requirements of the forces battling insurgencies. In many instances, this money is in addition to what is released for tactical intelligence gathering. Both are unaccounted. Then, of course, there are opportunities for smuggling, if not directly then by turning a blind eye to the smugglers and extracting protection money. It is not just the officialdom which benefits from a conflict. According to a government commissioned committee to investigate the funding pattern and budget of Communist Party of India (Maoist), which released its report last month, the insurgents generate at least Rs 140 crore annually from extortion from industrialists and by siphoning off government’s developmental funds. In addition to this, they make up to Rs 1,500 crore every year from illegal mining and forest produce.

In Kashmir, there is a saying that the hard-line separatist leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani who heads Hurriyat Conference (G), is an honourable man because he accepts funds only from Pakistani intelligence agency unlike others who play the game both ways, accepting illegal money from both Indian and Pakistani agencies. Clearly, a resolution will render them unemployed.

Is it any wonder then that in the last 66 years of Indian Independence, not a single internal conflict has been resolved despite several rounds of talks with one group or another, in India and abroad? That from no state, wherever it has been imposed, the Armed Forces [Special Powers] Act has been revoked despite long spells of peace? That not only the army resists revocation of the Act, the local politicians resist it too? That whenever one Paramilitary is replaced by another in Kashmir, the outgoing one rants about how the situation will completely collapse if it is removed?

Yes, our politicians are corrupt opportunists, but in this game, the mud is sticking to a lot of people, some who ought to have been the role models for young India. Unless we tighten the noose on this parallel economy, more and more people will continue to develop stakes in conflict instead of peace. And we will remain a country at war with itself.


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