January 12, 2020
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Ante-Natal Cramps

The new state's birth throws up many posers. Where will its government sit is just one of them.

Ante-Natal Cramps

There is a vast, barren stretch called Zero Point as you drive out of Raipur towards Mandir Hasaud. That’s the geographical centre of the new Chhattisgarh state - a good site for a new capital. The 15-km area is all sold out - speculators and realtors have grabbed every single acre for over Rs 2 lakh per unit as compared to less than Rs 10,000 two months ago. It’s the same story with Sigma, on way to Bilaspur, where land is not available even at an astonishing price of Rs 2.5 lakh an acre. Inside Raipur city, frenzied builders are rebuilding every available commercial space, while property rates in Bilaspur have doubled overnight with investment in hotels becoming the latest attraction.

"Who has acquired how much land" is, however, not the only question political leaders ask of each other at any gathering. The other equally important one is: who’d find a place in the new cabinet? Even as property sharks and political vultures floss their teeth and sharpen their claws for the day Chhattisgarh formally becomes a state and the treasury doors are thrown open, the state’s 33 per cent tribal population, second only to the Northeast, are only faintly aware of what statehood means to them.

In distant Dantewada and Sarguja, a large number of tribals - the majority of them illiterate - literally live in the shadow of the most abundant natural resources in the country, yet earn much less than its annual per capita income. More than 80 per cent belong to the scheduled castes and tribes and obcs. But they rest easy because they have been told that all the natural resources would be theirs, that there will be easier access to the state capital which means faster redressal of grievances, and that they would also be the richest state in the country in no time. Pity, they are still not used to the lies told by political leaders.

The alacrity with which the exploiters of the tribal society have responded is adequate indication of the future. Unlike Jharkhand or Uttaranchal, Chhattisgarh has had it easy. Originally a part of the Central Provinces and Berar, it went to Madhya Pradesh after Maharashtra, Bihar and Orissa refused to accept it at the time of reorganisation of states by Vallabhbhai Patel. While all political parties agreed on a separate state, they did little to achieve it. Until the bjp took it up as an election plank - and even after - the issue has been seen more as a pet grouse for out-of-work politicians and petty businessmen than a serious politico-economic agenda.

Is it surprising then that the most popular pastime here right now is Kaun Banega Chief Minister, or cabinet minister or chief secretary, among others, with Kahan Banega Capital as a side quiz? A local newspaper is even offering Rs 1 lakh for the right guess. Since the location of the capital is usually the decision of the chief minister, one joke doing the rounds is that Vincent George has bought 300 acres of land; so that could be the chosen site. Finally, the state government has banned all land registrations within a 15-km radius of Raipur, thus putting a stop to fresh transfer of property on paper.

Says A.K. Malviya, political commentator: "The movement for a separate Chhattisgarh state was a very urban phenomenon led mainly by politicians and businessmen of Raipur and Bilaspur, the two principal towns. For a large section of the rural population, however, life is unlikely to change. " Bilaspur, which is the smaller of the two, has reconciled to its non-capital status but the local Bar Association now wants the High Court to come up there. In Raipur, investors from neighbouring states like Maharashtra and Gujarat have converged, drawn like flies to the honeypot of construction and road building contracts worth Rs 2,000 crore over the next two years. Says Girish Patel, who runs a Baroda-based, Rs 200-crore construction company: "A new capital will need housing for at least 20,000 officials, office complexes, roads, parks and other works and I’m ready for the show." Patel estimates a direct and indirect investment of at least Rs 5,000 crore over the next three years in Raipur.

The greed, though, is rooted in reality. Chhattisgarh has a very real potential to develop into a prosperous state on par with Haryana or Punjab. It has immense bauxite, coal and iron ore deposits. The diamond deposits in the Devbhog region alone may return an annual revenue of over Rs 10,000 crore. Apart from rich forest cover and the bidi (tendu) industry, Chhattisgarh’s power industry is its biggest draw, generating 45 per cent of MP’s total output but utilising a mere 35 per cent. That surplus can only go up as more irrigation projects are taken up. The state has also a very rich, well-designed existing irrigation system which, once augmented, will make it the only state free from drought, floods or famines.

Says V.C. Shukla of Chhattisgarh Sangharsh Morcha, widely expected to be the new chief minister: "Irrigation would be my personal top priority. Then come land reforms, education and health, infrastructure development and (tackling) the Naxalite problem. Administrative reforms are the key." That sounds good to private investors like Sandeep Maheshwari of the Enbee Group. "Chhattisgarh is an investors’ dream. It has two fully-developed industrial areas, huge projects like the Bhilai Steel Plant and ntpc Korba, immense potential for power and a good river system. What more can one want?" Well, a plan for development of those for whom the state was originally sought to be created could be a good start! For instance, a plan to give the tribals authority over the rich forest produce and to make them owners of water, jungle and land. A plan which Shukla emphasises, at least for now.

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