Himachal Elections: As Polls Near, People’s Issues Emerge on top
Apple producers march to the civil secretariat in Shimla
Shimla: Himachal Pradesh is witnessing an intense battle for 68 seats scheduled for election on November 12. The Congress(INC) is pinning its hope on anti-incumbency, while the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) is relying on its work in the last five years.
Various issues continue to dominate the election campaigns. BJP pins its hopes on the improvement done in health infrastructure, roads and their ‘double-engine’ government. On the other hand, Congress raises corruption issues and the Old Pension Scheme. The new entrant to the pitch, the Aam Aadmi Party, seems to have limited presence. Another interesting participant in the election is the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPIM), which has fielded its candidates in 11 seats. Both the main parties continue to be marred by in-fighting, whereas many leaders were denied tickets.
Apple Farmers Reel Under Burden
The state has witnessed massive protests by farmers in the last five years, the biggest of which continue to be by those producing apples. Apples are one of the most produced goods in the state. However, the apple industry in Himachal is facing an acute crisis due to the rising cost of production, weather anomalies, increase in fuel cost and favouring of big agro-industries by the government.
The cost of fertilisers has grown along with the cost of fuel, resulting in increased transportation expenditure. The hike in Goods and Services Tax from 12% to 18% on cartons has also left farmers at the mercy of corporate giants as small procurers have exited the picture.
Similarly, most of these agro-industries procure only high-quality apples, constituting only 20-30% of the total production. These companies also decide the parametres of what constitutes high quality. This results in complete neglect of 70% of the produce, which later is bought at a meagre rate. Unlike Jammu and Kashmir, there is no minimum procurement rate fixed for apples in Himachal Pradesh.
The agitation against these government policies has been led by All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), the farmers’ wing of the CPIM. The AIKS has demanded from time to time that the GST on packaging cartons be withdrawn, fertilisers be provided at subsidised rates and procurement of apples be done through Market Intervention Scheme. The agitations have also demanded an independent body composed of apple growers, agents and the government, which acts as a regulator.
Unemployment a Big Concern.
As per the report by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), Himachal Pradesh’s rank among states with the highest unemployment rate is fourth, with the rate being 9.2% in October. The national average is 7.8%. As of March 31st, 2022, the number of registered unemployed youth in Himachal was 8,77,507. Experts attribute the lack of industrialisation and the decrease in government vacancies to this. The state has seen a broader shift to contractualisation and a reduction of permanent appointments. There have been various demands criteria of 75% jobs for locals, just like in Haryana, as most of the workforce in the private sector is primarily of migrant workers. While the govt boasts of double-engine governance and pro-people policies, the youths remain jobless.
Roads and Mobility are a significant factor.
In October, during a rally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a road scheme in the state to upgrade3,125km of rural roads, primarily seen as an election gimmick. Poor road connectivity has also been a significant cause of accidents. Himachal is the only state which requires the Supreme Court’s clearance for the construction of roads, as a large part of its land is covered under forest areas. To the chief minister’s admission, only 10,899 out of the entire 17,882 villages in the hill state are connected by roads which leaves a whopping 39 % of villages unconnected. Himachal, a hilly state, relies primarily on roads as means of transportation, ferrying goods and better connectivity for tourists,, which remain one of the major source of earning for the locals. Mobility becomes restricted without all-weather roads. According to estimates, only 1222 clearances have been sought from Supreme Court in the last five years for various projects, 70 % for roads. Theog, a constituency held by Rakesh Singha of the CPI(M), has been able to secure 173 of these clearances, out of which 114 are for roads, the highest in the state.
Old Pension Scheme Haunts BJP
In February 2022, a union of employees of the state government called for a march to seek restoration of the Old Pension Scheme(OPS) in Himachal Pradesh. Last year, the state government constituted a committee to look into the demands of employees covered under the New Pension Scheme.
The Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led government abolished the OPS in December 2003. People feel that the incumbent BJP has been indifferent to demands for the restoration of OPS in a state where government jobs are an important source of employment. The Congress is pitching for the restoration of the OPS on lines of Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, where they are ruling.
The foot march had begun on February 23 from CM Thakur's home district Mandi. Image Courtesy: NPYKM/Facebook
CPI(M) Pitching Itself as Alternative
The CPIM has fielded its candidates in 11 seats and hopes to perform better than in the 2017 elections. It has a lone MLA from Theog and secured only 1.48% votes in the last election. Being part of the struggles of students and farmers, and the work done by Singha in the assembly have ensured the presence of the CPIM among the people. The party hopes to bank on it to provide an alternative.
According to Tikender Singh Panwar, a CPIM candidate from Shimla urban assembly constituency and a former deputy mayor of the city, the road to the Left party’s emergence as an alternative to the BJP and the Congress is a long one. Still, the party hopes to improve its tally this time.
The elections for 68 assembly seats in Himachal Pradesh are scheduled to be held on November 12. The BJP has 44 seats in the outgoing assembly, and the INC has 21 seats. In the last elections, two independent candidates emerged victorious, while the Communist Party of India (Marxist) bagged one remaining seat. The BJP garnered 49% and Congress 42% votes in 2017. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP bagged all four seats. The campaigns are set to gain momentum after October 29, the last date for withdrawal of candidatures, but the competition remains stiff.
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