Operation Sadbhavana: Build more than just Goodwill

Operation Sadbhavana was initiated by the Indian Army as a conflict prevention measure in the violence ridden regions of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. It aimed at providing a humane face to the army, while also winning over the hearts and minds of people, scarred by twenty two years of violence through developmental initiatives thereby eradicating a perceived sense of alienation. The Army accordingly diverted a part of its efforts and funds to focus on issues which were of concern to the common people such as education, medical care, women empowerment and skill development, especially in the remote areas which were not easily accessible to the civil administration. These efforts have had a positive impact. Construction of roads and bridges, providing medical assistance and improving infrastructure in schools have been areas of focus which have topped the agenda. Women empowerment programmes have also involved training to enhance skills in knitting, carpet weaving and sewing in order to make them self-sufficient. Youth employment guidance node now provides training and counselling to the youngsters for education and job opportunities especially in the militancy prone regions. The Army also occasionally makes it resources available to civilians. For instance, civilians or patients from far flung areas could use the army bus for transportation. The rations meant for the Army have also at times been distributed among the needy villagers.

However, few aspects of Sadbhavana need to be revisited in a holistic manner. Any lapses would only tarnish the image of the Army which has come a long way playing its role as a facilitator. It needs to be understood that Sadbhavana projects are not aimed at legitimising army in these regions or act as a substitute to state machinery. It is merely a mediator between the State and the civilians when it comes to developmental initiatives. In any case, welfare schemes are not the primary objective/duty of the Army; they face a paucity of funds as well as officers to carry out such activities. Therefore, the first imperative is to synergise activities between the Armed Forces and civil administration. Projects undertaken by the Army could then be handed over to the latter at a later stage to ensure sustainability and continuity. According to one prominent civil official who was quoted in a biweekly national magazine, “The civil administration is upset with the army that it’s creating a parallel infrastructure. [Since], army-civil administration is still a far cry; this puts a question mark on the sustainability of the new model of border management.”

The ad-hocism and personality oriented approach could perhaps be replaced with a long term vision for these projects. While commanding officers and senior commanders may have their own vision in mind, it is important that a central long term strategy is executed on the ground. This may at times act as a dampener to the motivation level of troops on the ground but in the long run, effective planning and monitoring mechanisms would lead to further strengthening the relationship between the armed forces and locals. To further facilitate the aspect of ‘winning hearts and minds’ of the people, it is important that the troops have the skills to communicate with the people in their local language and be acquainted with their cultural and religious sensibilities. Focused training on these aspects would pay huge dividends in improving the image of the Army. In addition, the desire to use Sadbhavana as a tool for intelligence gathering is counter-productive and is best avoided. While it may at times give some short term returns, the long term impact is negative. If the locals view Sadbhavana activities as a means employed by the army to gather intelligence, it loses its value. Promoting a positive image of the Army will in the long term eventually lead to very high levels of cooperation between the civil population and the Army and intelligence would in any case then be more forthcoming.

Sadbhavana must also be focussed on what the people really need. Some instances of failed priorities are given below: –

  • Agricultural subsidies in the Ladakh region might not be the greatest idea since the land is not very agriculturally productive. In various regions, women who were actively involved in horticulture were asked to look after as well as seek admissions in adult education centres under Sadbhavana. The women would often absent themselves as they needed to work in their fields for economic survival and the Centres soon fell into disuse. The army however did not withdraw the abandoned centres because they had been extensively publicised.
  • The Army has constructed 425 Micro Hydel Projects under Sadbhavana. These are either non-existent or non-functional, according to a committee set up by the State Government.
  • A commanding officer while withdrawing his troops handed over the school in the area to local teachers who were poorly trained. Several people   withdrew their children from that school. A local mother said, “It was primarily because of a strong emphasis of English language is why I admitted one of my kids to Sadbhavana school, but what is the point if they are being taught by locals who themselves have a poor grounding of knowledge.”

Such initiatives are at best avoided, since they would only lead to resentment among the people. Also, working in a terrain and with groups as diverse as J&K and Ladakh, welfare schemes directed at one community might raise doubts and suspicions in the minds of the other. Prime developmental focus on the Ladakh region and intensive recruitment of Ladakhis into the army has further widened the gulf between Kashmir and Ladakh communities. Therefore, to avoid any portrayal of the Army in a negative light, it is imperative that they make provisions for tie-ups with the State schemes like MNREGA and ICDS. This would be helpful to clarify misconceptions about the army patronising a particular community.

The educational exposure trips conducted under Sadbhavana for the students from these regions is making headlines at present. However, this initiative needs to branch out of the charity approach of merely familiarising students with opportunities and culture that exist in the rest of India and instead develop a chain through which these youngsters can also avail them. For instance, often students in remote areas drop out after completing middle school because they have nowhere to go. There could be tie-ups between Sadbhavana schools and other Government administered schools and universities, across India if possible, to keep the process of education ongoing. Perhaps are evaluation of school curriculum and incorporating secular, democratic, human rights values might help countering religious extremism at its roots. This would also require trained teachers and a way towards this needs to be found.

To prevent conflict and to earn confidence of people, it is essential that the efforts be directed towards harnessing youth energy in the most efficient manner. They yearn for the same exposure, educational and economic opportunities as is available to others in the rest of India, failing which, they succumb to militancy. If Sadbhavana needs to achieve the desired results, tapping the youth energy from these regions could be a priority target.

The audit of Sadbhavana funds need to be available to the public. While funds are generally well accounted for, there is a need to allay suspicions that the funds are not being used in the manner intended. Also, it is worth noting that the emphasis should now shift to conflict prevention mechanisms, rather than being confined to just “winning hearts and minds”. A statement by the J&K Chief Minister has great significance. In his words, “a lot of goodwill and rapport depends upon the action of the commanding officers and troops on the ground. Sadbhavana is a good project, but if you put a good CO on the ground without Sadbhavana, he will show better results.

In the final analysis, what is needed is empowerment of the people within their own region. Their self-worth and confidence has to be restored so that they can take charge of development in their best capacity. This can only be achieved through long term investment. While Sadbhavana has been an enabler in the last two decades of conflict, we would have to look further now to ensure a long term peace.

The author is a Research Assistant at CLAWS.

Original Source: Centre for Land Warfare Studies

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