- Ruled by Bharatiya Janata Party for the last 15 years, the state of Chhattisgarh, which goes to polls later this month, is witnessing a strong anti-incumbency. Chhattisgarh chief minister is seeking a record fourth term and is going all out to woo the tribal communities who constitute over 30 percent of state’s population.
- However, Singh is facing a stiff resistance in his own backyard from farmers who accuse him of systematically ignoring their interests and not fulling the promises made in 2013 state elections.
- Mongabay-India travelled across the state for a week during which experts and farmers revealed that the state is now facing a severe human-elephant conflict – something that was unheard of in the state till a few years ago.
- As the states begin to go to polls, Mongabay-India is tracking the ground situation and analysing where environment and development issues stand in the election campaigns. This is the first in a series of pre-election stories.
This is the first article in a three-part series on the role of environment in the upcoming elections at Chhattisgarh. Part Two examines the impact of coal mining on the ecology of Korba and Part Three describes how the tribal communities have taken matters into their own hands for the upcoming elections, by fielding their own candidates.
It is probably the ‘resource curse’ that best explains the present condition of one of India’s most mineral-rich state, Chhattisgarh. The state goes to polls later this month and Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh, who is seeking a fourth consecutive term, knows that his government, has failed to match the expectations of the people on the social development front while the government was aggressively pursuing activities like mining.
Singh plans to focus on social development if he wins this time. But this promise probably means little for the people of the state who continue to wait for the basic necessities of life. Mongabay-India travelled for nearly 2400 kilometres across Chhattisgarh and found that at many places, even the basic facilities like drinking water, electricity, education, health facilities and roads are still a luxury.
Five states are going to polls in November and December this year – Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, Rajasthan and Mizoram. The 90 seats in Chhattisgarh state legislative assembly are going to polls in two phases – on November 12 (18 seats) and November 20 (72 seats).
Chhattisgarh was formed in November 2000 after it was carved out of Madhya Pradesh. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is ruling the state since 2003 and centre since 2014, is hoping to win a record fourth term. The state elections are also significant as BJP is closely looking at them to ascertain the mood before the national elections in the first half of 2019.
After Chhattisgarh was formed as a separate state, policymakers hoped that this would lead to the higher economic growth in the region. It did and the growth was even faster than the national average, but the growth was driven largely by industries and its fruits hardly reached the poor.
For instance, good roads are generally considered the first sign of development. In southern Chhattisgarh, the Maoist-affected Bastar and Dantewada region have smooth roads but in Korba, the northern part of the state, which has large scale mining activity taking place, the roads are in very bad shape.
Focus on tribal people
Last week, Raman Singh kicked off his election campaign from the tribal-dominated Bastar region. During one of his public meetings at Geedam, Dantewada falling in Bastar, Singh stressed that Dantewada known as a backward region is now famous for its education infrastructure. The chief minister emphasised on the development carried out in the region including roads and exhorted people to vote for his party while reminding them that the region had not voted for BJP during 2013 elections.
After the election meeting, Singh said if he wins the fourth term his focus will be on improving social indicators such as infant mortality rate, maternal mortality rate and malnutrition.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah are also expected to visit the state in the days ahead. Even in his latest ‘Mann ki Baat’ radio programme, the PM reached out to the tribal communities. On how the tribes and their traditions and rituals are the best examples of coexistence with the nature, Modi in his programme discussed the issue of environment protection and a balanced lifestyle. “Our country is also facing this problem. But, for its solution we only have to look inwards, to look into our glorious past and our rich traditions and have especially to understand the lifestyle of our tribal communities,” the prime minister said.
Chhattisgarh has a population of about 25.54 million and of those over 30 percent are tribal people.
Besides the prime minister, Congress President Rahul Gandhi and Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal are also expected to visit the state.
CM faces resistance from farmers in his own backyard
Sudesh Tikam, who leads the ‘Zila Kisan Sangh’ in Rajnandgaon area, said that the incumbent state government has failed in addressing concerns of farmers in the 15 years of its rule.
“Government is only focused on mining and power. Farmer issues are systematically ignored. In the last elections, Raman Singh promised a minimum support price of Rs. 2100 for rice crop and a bonus of Rs. 300. But after winning they never fulfilled their promise. The government after a lot of protest from farmers gave MSP of Rs. 1750 and Rs. 300 bonus only in 2017. We will not be fooled this time,” Tikam told Mongabay-India.
Tikam, whose group has about 20,000 farmers as members in Rajnandgaon, said the government also failed in ensuring the welfare of farmers who faced drought in 2015 and 2017.
“The other main issues for us are loan waiver, landless agricultural labour. The small and marginal farmers are also ignored by this government,” he added.
Tikam is also coordinating with farmer groups across the state to put pressure on political parties. They have already organised a series of protests and a Kisan Darbar in the constituency. They have already announced that they will support any political party or independent candidates who listen to farmers’ problems.
But it is not just in Rajnandgaon that farmers are angry with the state government for not fulfilling its promise.
A farmer from Barsur, Keshav Prasad, travelled for about 25 kilometres to listen to Raman Singh at his public meeting in Geedam, Dantewada. “This government has forgotten its promises. I was not brought here by party workers but I came myself to only see what the CM has to say about his promises,” said Prasad.
Push for mining leads to human-elephant conflict
Environmentalists allege that the Chhattisgarh government’s indiscriminate push for mining without any concern regarding environment has brought in a new problem in the state.
Alok Shukla of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan explained that till a few years ago there was no human-elephant conflict in the state but now in the last seven-eight years over 150 elephants and hundreds of people have died due to the conflict.
“Crops and property worth millions were also damaged in the conflict. The conflict is there because jungles that were elephant habitat or were part of elephant corridors have been diverted for other purposes,” he added.
Farmers also complain about the government not doing much about other animals affecting their crops.
Prahlad Verma, a farmer in Rajnandgaon area, said, “There are so many wild boars in our fields but the government has not taken any steps to control them. They destroy our crops and in some cases injure farmers as well but the process of reaching out to government is so cumbersome that it is better to avoid it.”
Verma said it is not just about animals damaging our crops but overall too there is a huge communication gap between the government and the farmers due to which they are not able to get the schemes for most of the farmers.
During the travel across the state, there are innumerable hoardings of the Raman Singh government with slogans like “Raman par Vishwas, Kamal Sang Vikas” (Faith in Raman, Progress with the Lotus/BJP) or to show the difference between Chhattisgarh of pre-2003 era and post-2003 era. But bridging the communication gap despite a blitzkrieg of messages probably remains the biggest hurdle for Raman Singh.
Preparing for a good fight
The Indian National Congress, which is the primary opposition party in the state, also seems to be fully geared up to bridge the narrow margin in the number of votes that have kept them away from power.
“There are 23 lakh registered unemployed people in the state. The original number is much more. Raman Singh’s government has ignored farmers. They have won elections only on the basis of money power. We are not fighting the election with negativity but focusing on solutions. We will ensure loan waiver and full payment of MSP to farmers if we come to power,” said Congress’s Shailesh Nitin Trivedi.
Congress has fielded Karuna Shukla, who is the niece of late BJP leader and former prime minister A.B. Vajpayee, against CM.
According to party sources, the extra push is required due to the narrow margins of the BJP’s win in 2003, 2008 and 2013 elections. In 2013, BJP won 49 seats with 41.04 percent of the total votes polled while Congress won 39 seats with 40.29 percent of the votes.
With such narrow margins and an anti-incumbency factor, the Chhattisgarh elections are turning into a good fight.
Banner Image: A tribal in Chhattisgarh in the forest for collecting minor forest produce. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India.
Part 2: Quest for black diamond leaves Korba breathless
Part 3: Tribal communities in Chhattisgarh enter the election fray to stand up for themselves