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Raman effect

From Delhi, Chhattisgarh appears to be just a little state with a big problem. Up close, Suveen K Sinha found a little state undergoing a big transformation.

Suveen K Sinha        Last Updated: June 20, 2012  | 00:16 IST

N Baijendra Kumar, a 1985-batch IAS officer, looks away from his wide screen Apple desktop and switches on his 10-inch tablet PC. He plays a video clip that shows a young girl reluctant to go to school. A shiny new bicycle given by the government changes her mind. The next few shots show her pedalling happily to school.

Before you give that knowing look, no, Kumar does not work with the Bihar government.

But you are not the first to get confused. Recently, on live television, a prominent news anchor identified Kumar as representing Jharkhand. Nearly everyone believes Bihar was the first to start a bicycle scheme for schoolgirls. Kumar says Chhattisgarh, where he is Principal Secretary, did it first, in 2005.

Chhattisgarh has however learned to shrug off such things. Perhaps because it is a state in the throes of numerous conflicts.

Raipur, the capital, was a nondescript town when the state was created on November 1, 2000. It has since sprouted wide roads, half a dozen malls, and an IIM. On a recent Sunday afternoon in an upscale restaurant downtown, the couple on the far table could just as well be in South Delhi or South Mumbai. Both of them dressed in blue denims and black shirts, they could not have been out of college yet. At lunch, they paid more attention to each other than to the food or to those around them. Afterwards, they left in a white Hyundai Verna with dark windows.

Just about 20 minutes away, in the industrial belt of Urla, it is a different world. This is where the road, its upper surface missing, is lined with small industrial units that churn out steel rods. You do not see denims here; what you see is half-naked children playing with strange contraptions for toys. In front of houses that would require you to bend at the waist before entering, women wash utensils by the roadside in brackish water.

Another 20 minutes away is Siltara, big brother to Urla. The units here are large, owned by the big names in the area: Sarda Energy, Hira Group, Vandana Global, Jayaswals Neco, etc. Some of them ooze more than 650 tonnes of steel a day. They also leak more pollution. The roads here are good, so there is much less dust here than in Urla, but the Siltara air is thick with smoke and fly ash. Asthma is said to be rampant.

To be fair, this is the kind of conflict Jharkhand may have liked to have. Created 14 days after Chhattisgarh, it has the same dominant features: rich in minerals, a large tribal population, land-locked, and plagued with Naxal insurgency.

Yet, Jharkhand is way behind Chhattisgarh on most economic parameters. For instance, Chhattisgarh's per capita income in 2004-05 was a mere Rs 49 more than Jharkhand's. By the end of the last financial year, Chhattisgarh had widened the gap to Rs 6,733. That would be a direct outcome of the divergent paths the two states' economies have taken. In 2004-05, Jharkhand's gross domestic product was Rs 11,896 crore - or 25 per cent - bigger than Chhattisgarh's. By the end of the last financial year, Chhattisgarh was ahead by Rs 4,553 crore, or 5.5 per cent.

In fact, Chhattisgarh has been the state with the second fastest growing GDP - after Bihar's - the last two years, not counting the quasi state of Delhi and the Union Territory of Puducherry.

Experts say this has a lot to do with the political environment in the two states. In less than a dozen years, Jharkhand's Chief Minister has changed no less than seven times, with two spells of President's rule thrown in. Chhattisgarh has seen just one change. Its second Chief Minister, Raman Singh, has been leading a stable Bharatiya Janata Party government since December 2003.

The political continuity has had a happy by-product in coherent and concerted policy. Early on, Singh decided that he will not allow mere trading of Chhattisgarh's rich mineral deposits, mainly iron ore, coal and bauxite. He says he compelled public sector mining giant National Mineral Development Corporation to set up a steel manufacturing plant at Nagarnar, 35 kilometres from Jagdalpur, in the heart of the Naxal belt. "I said how long will you keep exporting ore to China, Japan and Korea? That is a crime. Why do we abuse East India Company [if this is what our companies do]? Some people in that meeting would have felt bad, but if all the ore is taken away what will be left for our future?"

Of course, the state only makes recommendations; ore comes under the Union government's jurisdiction. But Singh, who is the one non-UPA Chief Minister in the good books of the Centre and is on the Prime Minister's three-member committee to reform the public distribution system (PDS), generally has his way on matters of natural resources.

So NMDC has company in Tata Steel, which is setting up its own plant at Jagdalpur. Essar Steel proposes to build a plant in Dantewada, an area known nationally for the massacre of 73 CRPF personnel by the Naxals two years ago.

That this area is rich in iron ore does lure the steel companies. But the state government's dogged insistence makes sure no one just takes the ore out of the area to make steel elsewhere. "In nine years, we have not given a mine to anyone for trading, even though big companies, including from South Africa, have asked for it," says Singh.

Elsewhere in the state you find big plants by Jindal Steel and Power, National Thermal Power Corporation, Lafarge India, ACC, Vendanta-owned Balco, etc. The result is that Chhattisgarh produces 30 per cent of the country's aluminium, 27 per cent of its steel and sponge iron, 21 per cent of coal, 16 per cent of iron ore and 15 per cent of cement. All this with just 2 per cent of the country's population.

Singh hopes to use these statistics to get more from the Centre. "Why should the country's money be distributed according to the population? My panchayat, 60 sq km in area, is as big as a district in Punjab. I need to take roads and electricity to each part. If you give me funds according to my population, it will stay undeveloped forever. We need to think afresh."

He would also like the companies who prosper in the state to give back more. "A minimum 26 per cent of the profits must be spent on local area development. Companies now spend all of 3 per cent. A part of royalty should also be spent here."

That money will be the key to improving the lives of even those who live far away from Raipur's restaurants, by providing them with better education, health facilities and employment opportunities. That will in turn support economic development.

For, the fact is that it's not exactly a cakewalk for companies in the Naxal-affected areas.

After six years, Tata Steel has not yet received possession of the land for its Jagdalpur plant. The state has taken legal possession of this land and also paid compensation to the owners, but physical possession has not been possible.

"We decided not to use force. That is why we are moving slowly. It was easy to get land vacated but we did not want to do it by force. People have slowly begun to understand. There will soon be the right environment there," says Singh.

Essar, too, faces the same problem of land acquisition. Its proposed plant therefore remains just that: proposed.

To set the environment right, Singh has done many other things to improve the environment. As the industrial policy rolled on, he simultaneously focused on agriculture and allied businesses. Interest rate on agricultural loans was brought down from 14 per cent to 1 per cent. Farmers get up to 7,500 units of free power and the state spends Rs 1,30,000 on installation of each tube well. The state's PDS, along with Gujarat's, was touted by an entity no less than the Supreme Court last year as the model every state should follow. No wonder its agriculture and allied sectors grew more than 6 per cent last financial year.

The conflicts however remain. An operator of a fleet of taxis says he cannot think of getting into the recesses of Bastar after sundown. Every other month, a Shaheed Shaptah or a Jan Pituri brings everything to a standstill for a week or so.

While resolving those will take time, some easier conflicts will end soon. Singh, an ayurveda-doctor-turned-politician now operates from the Mantralaya, a pale building which used to be the D K Hospital before Raipur became the state's capital. His own office there is the erstwhile operation theatre.

Later this year, the capital will shift to New Raipur, a shiny new city built from scratch - the first such after Chandigarh in the 1950s - over 20,000 acre.

The conflicts do not end there. Singh, who will turn 60 this year, will be happy if his Facebook fans left him with more time to talk about the state. His account gets tagged all the time. Most recently he pleaded for mercy when tagged to a marriage bureau proposing a match with a beautiful young girl.

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