Pragmatic | Free lunch as COIN strategy

Hot rural meals on paramilitary wheels in Jharkhand

“I have taken this Saranda project as a challenge and as a way of demonstrating how development and security can and should go hand-in-hand.”

That was Union Rural Development Minister, Jairam Ramesh talking about his Saranda Development Plan. Saranda forest, for those who came in late, is Asia’s biggest Sal forest comprising 56 villages in Jharkhand’s West Singhbhum district. After being a liberated area of the Maoists for nearly a decade, it was ‘cleared’ of the Maoists by security forces in Operation Anaconda earlier this year. Two additional battalions of CRPF were then moved in there to ‘hold’ the area. After the ‘clear’ and ‘hold’ phase, as per the prevalent COIN dictum, now is the time to bring in the ‘build’ phase.

While all the other initiatives being launched by the government as part of the Saranda Development Plan make immense sense, the one which struck out as a sore thumb was this — “Hot rural meals on paramilitary wheels”.

The CRPF’s 197th Battalion, engaged in weeding out Maoists, today launched its operation food, thanks to what they claimed was the first paramilitary mobile kitchen unit in India. The initiative is aimed at distributing food among villagers everyday as a part of a civic action programme to earn the trust of people in rebel areas.

“This mobile kitchen unit costs around Rs 30 lakh and has been launched specially as part of the Saranda development plan,” commandant of 197th Battalion Lal Chand Yadav told The Telegraph. He added that every day, the van would reach one village and offer its people a hot meal. “There are 56 villages in the six panchayats — Loilar, Makranda, Chiria, Gangda, Chotanagra and Digha — with an extremely poor population of around 36,000,” the commandant said.

The staple diet of villagers in the rebel-hit forest is pokal bhaat, which comprises rice mixed with water to which a pinch of salt has been added. Onion and green chillies are a rare luxury for most. Compared to that, today’s lunch comprising vegetables and eggs was akin to cordon bleu fare. And yes, it met the approval of the Union minister and the chief minister, who inspected the kitchen and tasted the spread.[TT]

If everything goes as per plan, each village will receive one hot meal once in nearly two months. That is, another if, if the quality of food can be maintained over the period of time and the mobile kitchen runs as per schedule. If the idea is to provide food to the hungry, then sending cooked meals once in two months is the most inefficient way of doing that. If the idea is to win trust of people in these areas, then this is the worst possible way of doing that. Furthermore, how long can you continue with this project? Because you will have to stop it at some point, and when you stop it, there will be people who will feel cheated and disappointed that the free lunch has stopped.

What’s worse — the unintended message of this initiative seems to be very feudal: You poor, hungry, tribal people, this is from the mai-baap sarkaar. We will bring you tasty food to eat, once in a while. You should be grateful to the government for this lunch. Now that you are indebted to us, you jolly well support us against the Maoists.

The roads, the schools, the hospitals, the jobs in Saranda… they are all fine. But the pointlessness of this “Hot rural meals on paramilitary wheels” is mind-boggling. Free lunch as counterinsurgency, even if it is cordon bleu fare, is more amusive than effective.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.