Haldhar Joshi, a vegetable vendor from Hardi village in Bilaspur, Chattisgarh, watches the news on television. He’s heard of the big corruption cases that make headlines, but it takes some prompting for him to identify Nirav Modi, Mehul Choksi or Vijay Mallya.
“News mei suna TV par (heard in news on TV)….kuch ghapla kiya (they have done something wrong),” he said. For Joshi, it’s the corruption at a much lower level that affects his life, like the bribe of Rs 3,000 that he had to pay to get a driver’s licence a year ago. “Aaj tak karza chal raha hai (I am still repaying the debt),” he said.
With low human development indicators, Chhattisgarh is cut off from the national debates on the eve of assembly elections.
Speaking to IANS, chief minister Raman Singh, who has held the post for past 14 years, said, “Everyone, even the Opposition Congress, knows in the state that anti-incumbency is non-existent. People had some grievances in certain areas against local officials, not against the state government.”
Speak to people in Chhattisgarh, and the issues they raise are grounded in the challenges they face in everyday life.
Low-level corruption is a complaint that is raised by many in the state, which has been governed by Bharatiya Janata Party and chief minister Raman Singh since 2008.
Roshan Nirale, a rickshaw puller from Nagpura in Durg, corruption at the local level is far more serious than any other issue. Nirale says he had to give a major chunk of his earnings to obtain a ration card, which gets him subsidised food. Another rickshaw puller, Bikram Sahu, said, “I paid a good amount to an official to make my health insurance card.”
Another factor in the upcoming assembly elections is unemployment. This election, Chhattisgarh will see 118,000 lakh new voters and for these young people, the lack of job options is a major concern.
According to official figures, 2.5 million people have registered with various employment exchanges in Chhattisgarh. Yet till 2013, the state had the lowest rate of unemployment in the country, as per the annual employment and unemployment survey report for 2012-13, released by the labour bureau under the Union ministry of labour and employment.
Speak to people in their 20s, and the frustration is evident. “We want jobs. The rest doesn’t matter for us,” said Bishember Sahu, a resident of Panchseel Nagar in Durg.
Since he completed his graduation in 2017, the most important part of Sahu’s day is going through newspapers, looking for jobs. Once he’s finished scanning the classifieds, the day stretches out before him. “I just roam around with my friends. There is nothing to do but I can’t stay at home. I get depressed,” he said.
“This government has turned a laggard after 14 years. Time has come for change and we know change is always good,” said Hira Netam.
In the rural parts of the state, agrarian distress is likely to be a key issue with nearly 1,500 farmers having committed suicide in the past three years.
According to the state government figures, of the 1,500 farmers who committed suicide in Chhattisgarh between 2015 and 2017, 85 were from Bilaspur and 20 from Durg.
Last year, 96 tehsils in 21 districts were declared drought-hit in September and Chhattisgarh received 12.8% less rainfall, as compared to the last 10 years. Inadequate rainfall during the kharif season last year affected over 1.1 million farmers in the state.
Last year’s drought forced farmers and agricultural labourers from different parts of the state to migrate to urban centres in search of livelihood.
Those who have remained in Chhattisgarh feel like they’ve been backed into corners by their misfortune.
Mahesh Ram, a farmer from Barampur village in Bilaspur, said, “We have been running from pillar to post to get our insurance claims,” he said. “There is no one to listen to us. What does the government want? That all of us should die?”
Farmers in the state have been protesting for the past four years, demanding hikes in the minimum support price (MSP) of paddy, bonus and free electricity for water pumps that use up to 5 horsepower (HP).
The government response hasn’t mollified anyone. Even the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor of the BJP, has been up in arms against the state government, demanding a guarantee from the state that it will buy the entire paddy stock at a reasonably high MSP to check the rising incidents of suicides by farmers.