Double standards and a clean chithttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/double-standards-and-a-clean-chit/

Double standards and a clean chit

There cannot be one rule for PMRD fellows,and another for tribals and the general public

There cannot be one rule for PMRD fellows,and another for tribals and the general public

I was surprised to read about Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh writing to Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan,directing him to stop an ongoing police investigation at Gadchiroli because it involves a Prime Minister’s Rural Development (PMRD) fellow. (‘In defence of PMRD fellow,Ramesh writes to Chavan’,IE,July 1). This is a country where politicians are known to exert pressure on the police — either to initiate an investigation against somebody,or to stop such investigation. It is just that I did not expect Ramesh to join the ranks of such politicians.

One would have welcomed it if the minister had questioned the police action as being illegal. Rather,his reactions come across as squeamishness at the bad publicity for the PMRD fellowship. This much-hyped fellowship programme recruits young professionals,who are sent to one of the 29 left-wing extremism (LWE) affected districts after a two-month crash course in changing the lives of the poor in violence-hit areas. Even the design of the fellowship raises several issues that ought to be addressed by the ministry.

First,the fellowship offers elitist,unfair and temporary non-solutions to the problems of rural India. The government gives a sumptuous Rs 75,000 as fellowship stipend,plus HRA and other sundry allowances to people who are not expected to be around for more than three years. The same government doles out a pittance to Aanganwadi workers,Rozgar Sevaks,ASHA workers,mid-day meal cooks and countless other government workers. Why not pay these workers a fair wage and an HRA too? Why not pay them on time,offer high-end training and ensure security of service? After all,these workers,selected from the area,will stay to serve the villages long after the fly-by-night fellows have moved on to the next challenging assignment. The fellowship also operates with a breathtaking level of unaccountability. The fellows report directly to the district magistrate,ensuring easy,open access to the district power centre. Far away from the district headquarters,the fellows are not accountable to anybody for their day-to-day activities — not the sarpanch,not the tehsildar or the BDO,and certainly not the local thanedaar. After all,these fellows represent not just the collector saab,but the PM himself.

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The fellows also come armed with social and political capital that gives them the kind of immunity not available to other citizens. Suppose that,instead of the PMRD fellow,a poor tribal was brought in for “prolonged police interrogation”. Would the minister have dashed off a letter to the CM? The Gadchiroli police called the fellow as part of the investigation of a triple murder by Naxalites,and already a minister from New Delhi has intervened. In the same investigation,the police have arrested three tribals for whom the minister has,naturally,not said a word. The police are also in hot pursuit of an absconding ex-zilla parishad president who,by the way,is from the Congress. The police are also looking for a government doctor who allegedly helped ferry explosives to Naxalites in a government ambulance. What has the minister to say for his fellow politician and the doctor? What is the criteria for handing out ministerial clean chits?

The Gadchiroli incident should serve as a wake-up call for the ministry. What makes the minister so sure that this scheme will not be subverted by the Naxalites,who are known for infiltration tactics? The PMRDF programme is an invitation to the Naxalites — infiltrate us please!

This is not to say that each and every fellow is a Naxalite or a supporter. It is merely to say that local level officials should be allowed to conduct background checks and call for credentials of any citizen within the limits set by law. Either that,or absolutely no one should be called to the police station for interrogation. We cannot have one rule for fellows embedded in the collectorate with government blessing,and another for the tribals and the general public. Personally,I have faced the tag of Naxalite-supporter by the same Gadchiroli police. Along with several colleagues,I too faced a false charge of murder registered by the Thane police for which we were interrogated for days. We fought the trial for 12 long years before being acquitted. At present,I am facing two trials in different courts for protesting injustice and in two other cases,the state withdrew prosecution. Each time,I have abhorred the politicisation of the police as a system,but I did not question anyone’s right to question me.

The writer is a TISS alumnus and tribal activist from Chandrapur,Maharashtra. An Ashoka and Eisenhower Fellow,she has worked among tribals in Chandrapur and Gadchiroli for the past 15 years