Chhattisgarh elections: Maoist threat, farmers' plight, lack of road connectivity among key poll issues in focus

As preparations for the upcoming Assembly elections in Chhattisgarh are being reviewed, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), main Opposition Congress and the surprise alliance between Ajit Jogi's Janata Congress Chhattisgarh (JCC), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) the Communist Party of India (CPI) are sharpening their election pitches.

With the Chhattisgarh Assembly polls scheduled to be held in two phases — on 12 and 20 November — there are a few key concerns that have been brought up repeatedly by parties during campaigning. Among the most prominent among them are the Maoist issue in the state, corruption, farmers' distress, road connectivity issues and power shortage, among others.

Representational image of Naxals. AFP

Representational image of Naxals. AFP

Naxalism

The issue of Naxalism has plagued the region for decades. The conflict between the Indian government and Maoists began as a violent uprising in West Bengal's Naxalbari village in the late 1960s.

The Naxals claim to represent the tribal communities of Chhattisgarh, who have alleged negligence by the government for years. According to the BBC, the Naxals claim to represent concerns of land ownership and equitable distribution of resources but ultimately aim to establish a "communist society" through a "people's war".

The current form of Naxalism began in 2004, with the formation of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). This was the result of a merger between the People's War Group (PWG) and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC).

Over several years since, Maoists have managed to launch damaging attacks on security forces. In 2006, the then prime minister Manmohan Singh described Naxalism as the "single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country". In 2009, the Centre banned the CPI (Maoists) under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).

However, Naxal rebels continue to re-group and thrive as they receive support from local residents — both through coercion and otherwise — due to their superior topographical knowledge of the hilly, forested state of Chhattisgarh. They are also believed to have a steady supply of weapons by looting, smuggling or manufacturing. Poor road connectivity in rural regions, the use of tribal civilians as human shields, extortion and links with international fringe outfits are believed to be other reasons for their dominance.

Over the past few years, Naxals have launched deadly attacks on security forces, including the Darbha Valley incident, which killed Congress leaders Mahendra Karma, Uday Mudaliya, Nand Kumar Patel, his son Dinesh and VC Shukla, among other political leaders associated with the party who were campaigning ahead of the 2013 polls.

Three-time Chief Minister Raman Singh — who will be trying his luck for a fourth term this polls — had declared, in August, that "Naxalism is on its last legs" in Chhattisgarh, but the latest attacks by Naxals in the poll-bound state's Dantewada region — one in Aranpur and the other in Bacheli — claimed nine lives altogether.

Every election in Chhattisgarh faces an open threat by Naxals to prevent or severely disrupt polling. Even this year, Maoists are threatening people to "boycott the fake Chhattisgarh elections".

Power shortage

Chhattisgarh, the 26th state of India, was carved out of Madhya Pradesh on 1 November, 2000, when 16 eastern and southern districts of the parent state were partitioned under the Madhya Pradesh Reorganisation Act, 2000.

The state came into being after accusations that Bhopal neglected the region even though it had the funds and natural resources to look over it. As this India Today article from 2001 points out, energy sharing topped the list of disputes between the two regions, given that Chhattisgarh was a power-surplus region — generating 35.66 percent of the undivided state's power but consuming only 23.86 percent. Madhya Pradesh continued to reel under a power shortage.

A Financial Express report says that even in 2018, a rise in the demand for electricity and a dearth of coal supply has pushed power plants towards outages. As per government data, power plants generating more than 10,500 megawatts of electricity have cited coal shortage as the reasons to shut their units down, and of this, plants generating 2,700 megawatts and 4,210 megawatts suffered outages in September and October. Most of these plants are located in Chhattisgarh. Also, being far away from coal mines, this issue also reflects the inadequate transport infrastructure in the state.

Despite this, a leader from Maharashtra claims that coal supply meant for Maharashtra is being "diverted" to poll-bound Chhattisgarh.

Power supply and electricity generation has been debated during election campaigns this year — BJP chief Amit Shah had claimed that 24-hour power supply was one of the achievements of the Raman Singh government in the last 15 years.

Infrastructure, poor road connectivity

According to the Financial Express, as part of attempts to reduce Maoist dominance in the Sukma district, the Chhattisgarh government has been focusing on constructing roads. The state has been trying to do this by connecting Jagargunda with Dornapal in the east, Bijapur in the west and Kirandul in Dantewada in the north. All three roads are under construction. The stretch along which Maoists ambushed the CRPF patrol team on 24 April, 2017, was one of those crucial under-construction roads in South Sukma that are among the worst affected by Maoist violence.

Chhattisgarh is reported to have constructed 81 roads measuring 410.42 kilometres under a new regional connectivity Scheme and upgraded two roads stretching across 8.25 kilometres till December 2017.

Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh kicked off the BJP's Bastar mission on 29 October with the agenda of peace and development. He had emphasised that growth of the region at four times the original rate was his main agenda. Given these hurdles, development and infrastructure, especially road connectivity, is a significant poll issue this time.

Corruption

The young state has only had two chief ministers in its history. Raman Singh is the only one to have completed a full five-year tenure — of which he has had three. Ajit Jogi, who was a Congress leader back then, was the state's first chief minister, but he was in power for only three years from 2000 to 2003.

Besides power shortage and political neglect, other reasons why Chhattisgarh was carved out of Madhya Pradesh was to provide the native speakers of Chhattisgarhi language their own independent state and to ensure that the region's large Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe population are represented adequately. Nearly one third of the state's population are from Scheduled Tribe communities, while 11.6 percent of it are from Scheduled Castes.

However, statehood, it appears, has done little to improve the lives of the poorest in Chhattisgarh. A report by the Rangarajan Panel had found that nearly half of Chhattisgarh's population — 47.9 percent — was below the poverty line, the highest among all Indian states, and significantly more than in parent state Madhya Pradesh, where the corresponding figure was 44.3 percent.

Despite these statistics, the Raman Singh government has remained untarnished by any major scams for the majority of its tenure. It was only in the last three years that a number of scams emerged. The AugustaWestland chopper case and the Public Distribution Scheme scam came to light in recent years, wherein the state government has faced allegations of irregularities. Opposition parties have used these allegations of corruption to their advantage during campaigning for this year's polls.

Man-animal conflict

The ruling government's failure to control the man-elephant conflict in North Chhattisgarh has become a burning poll issue for the first time. The affected districts — Surguja, Surajpur, Balrampur, Jashpur and parts of Raigarh — cover at least 16 of the 90 seats in the Chhattisgarh Assembly.

Environmental activists, lawyers and NGOs have been raising this issue for a long time, blaming the man-elephant conflict on irresponsible mining that affects habitats, lack of elephant corridors and rudimentary warning mechanisms employed by state and forest officials. When Independent MLA Vimal Chopra questioned the government about the damage done by wild animals, Chhattisgarh forest minister Mahesh Gagda had said that the man-animal conflict had claimed 66 lives, destroyed 17,110 acres of farmland and 1,863 homes in 2016-2017, and that there would be similar numbers in 2018.

The thickly forested areas of Northern Chhattisgarh are notorious for incidents of human-elephant conflict. In the past few years, there have been a number of incidents of rogue elephants killing people and damaging homes and crops.

Farmers' distress

In its campaigns, the Congress has focused on the plight of farmers in Chhattisgarh. Both the ruling BJP and Opposition view farmers as a major vote bank. In Chhattisgarh, around 70 percent of the total population is engaged in agriculture and allied activities.

The Congress has been raising the issue of farmers' distress in the state consistently and intensified its attack on the state government as the elections neared. The party has raised the issue of the minimum support price (MSP) the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government paid farmers as against the MSP the BJP-led government pays them. The Congress has accused the current government in Chhattisgarh of going back on its 2013 poll promise of providing Rs 2,100 MSP and Rs 300 as annual bonus.


Updated Date: Nov 09, 2018 09:02 AM

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