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India's prime minister is calling for more attention to the development of tribal communities, who have been sidelined by the country's economic boom. His message comes as the government prepares for a massive offensive against Maoist rebels, who have steadily increased their influence in areas inhabited by tribal groups.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says there has been a systemic failure in giving tribal communities in remote areas a stake in economic development.
Addressing chief ministers of Indian states in New Delhi Wednesday, he said the resulting alienation is taking "a dangerous turn" in some parts of the country.
The prime minister was referring to the growing influence of armed Maoist rebels in poor and underdeveloped regions inhabited by tribal groups.
The insurgents, who have taken control of vast forest areas in several eastern and central states, say they are fighting for the rights of the poor and the landless. The rebellion has become increasingly violent.
Worried by the growing security threat posed by the Maoists, the government is preparing to mount a big security operation called Operation Greenhunt to take out the insurgents. Hundreds of security forces have been deployed in the worst affected states.
But the government is stressing that countering the rebels will not work without efforts to simultaneously draw the tribal groups into the development process.
Prime Minister Singh is asking state government to win the battle for the "hearts" of these poor communities.
"We cannot have equitable growth without guaranteeing the legitimate rights of these hitherto marginalized and isolated sections of our society," he said. "In a broader sense we need to empower our tribal communities with the means to determine their own destiny, their livelihood, their own security and above all their dignity and self respect."
The government is concerned that the rebels are easily winning new recruits among tribal groups, who have often complained of exploitation and discrimination by local officials. It has been asking state governments to give priority to development projects aimed at providing livelihood for tribal groups.
India's economy has been growing rapidly in recent years. But development has been unevenly spread in the country, and the boom has bypassed many of the country's poorer and underdeveloped regions.