‘Yahan ke logon ne fasal se bhi haath dhoya, aur zameen se bhi aur rozgaar bhi gaya.’ (People here have lost their fields, their lands and there is no employment) is a common refrain in Chhindwara, Madhya Pradesh. Commenting on the launch of the Rs 84 crore project by the government, Archana Bhargava, based out of Chhindwara region in Jabalpur district, said, “This announcement is nothing but a political ploy to appease people.”
As Madhya Pradesh gears up for elections in the later half of this year, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s government is feeling cornered by the opposition on all fronts. Making his last-ditch efforts to gain some momentum for his campaign, the Chief Minister along with the Union Minister of Railways and Coal, Piyush Goyal, who also attended a yatra and announced the opening of six mines in the region on Sunday. The minister said four mines in Chhindwara and two in Betul would be opened soon. Goyal heightened the poll pitch by promising the opening of six new mines in the region. "I assure you that these six mines will open as scheduled. Thousands of people will get employment due to this. They will get an opportunity to start a new business," he added.
However, activists on the ground suggest otherwise, Bhargava, who has been at the forefront of the movement, said, “There is no coal in the region, this attempt by the government has been made in the past, when they promised the locals jobs in coal mines, however, the tribal farmers, were compelled to give away their land to the state and in return no coal was found in the region.”
Confirming the sorry state of affairs, Dr. Sunilam of the Samajwadi Party added, “How will they start new mines? Coal India, which will be responsible for this project, is suffering massive losses.” He pointed out that the coal industry in the state had suffered major losses due to cheaper imports from other countries like Australia and was struggling to survive. Dr. Sunilam also termed this as a political gimmick by the ruling BJP.
However, there is more to it than being a hollow electoral promise. The proposal of the creation of the mines means a renewed fear of land acquisition in the minds of the locals.Bhargava said, “Earlier, the government has acquired chunks of land for which these people (the local tribes) were never compensated and are still suffering.” Giving the example of the land acquisition process done previously, she added that the land taken by the farmers was later doled out to Adani in the name of “Vikas”. The project never took off.
Land acquisition in the region has been a serious concern, given the volatile history of the belt. Environmentalist P. Uday Kumar said projects in this belt were nothing more than “disasters in the making”. The MP government, hell bent on coming back to power, is putting on line not just the lives of the people in the region, but also the environment.
The political significance of the Chhindwara belt is enormous for the BJP. With Congress emerging as a big challenge under the leadership of Kamal Nath as state president, the BJP is hoping to make inroads into Chhindwara, Nath’s bastion. The district holds the key to seven crucial Assembly seats. In the 2013 elections, Congress won three seats, while the BJP was victorious in four. With the government battling anti- incumbency and low popularity, Kamal Nath’s Chhindwara “model of development” is gaining popularity.
In a press conference on Saturday in Bhopal, Kamal Nath directly targeted Chouhan’s move. “Why is the BJP suddenly interested in Chhindwara, what about the Chief Minister’s own region?”he said, adding, “One can check how much the state has done for the region and how much money has been seeked by the Congress from the center to push for the region’s development.”
With the political war of words set to intensify, the BJP made another announcement stating that Coal India Limited (CIL) will build a stadium for youths in Chhindwara to showcase their skills. Bhargava said, “Ye sarkaar ki gandi rajneeti ka udharan hai” (This is an example of the government’s dirty politics)
Electoral politics and the slew of hollow promises it brings with it, is neither new nor completely novel. In the light of the elections in the state, it needs to be understood that the interests of the tribal populations and their livelihood are at stake. The political ploys used by the government to seize land from the common people and hand it over to the corporate firms and further seeking legal and political legitimacy over the same is getting exposed through such schemes.
Chouhan began his Jan Ashirwad Yatra from Ujjain on July 15, the yatra currently in its 10th phase, is likely to intensify more with the elections approaching. Meanwhile, the mines unions have also intensified their struggles to demystify the false promises made by the Chief Minister.