Growth in the state and its capital city has reinforced and further accentuated an unequal order and concentration of wealth
For me, the year 2015 started with a short visit to Raipur. During this visit I was taken to New Raipur (the new capital city of Chhattisgarh) with great enthusiasm. The entirely new township that is still being built already has big broad four to six lane roads; massive office complexes; multi-storied buildings and residential areas; the amount of construction that one saw could put to shame even mammoth construction initiatives. The only jarring note was the absence of humans or signs of habitation (except the construction workers) in this new Raipur, spread over kilometers.
Raipur (old) has been completely transformed in the last 10-15 years. Though I have to travel across the country for my work, I have not seen such a big make-over of a small sleepy town into a bursting city—full of malls, neon signs and big cars, all signs of a booming economy. I am often told by a few acquaintances who belong to the middle class of the city that all the construction has been phenomenal for the growth of Chhattisgarh. They also take pride in the fact that in the last one decade, much of the mining/minerals market (earlier controlled from Kolkata) is now controlled from Raipur. I was told with much pride that “mandi yahan khulti hai or bhav yahan tay hota hai” (the market opens here and the prices are decided here).
Chhattisgarh recently was in news for the tragic deaths of more than 10 poor women during a botched up sterilisation drive of the government which reflected criminal neglect of basic norms. The state continues to lag behind the national averages (many of which are going to fail even the modest targets set in the Millennium Development Goals) in most of human development indicators and has extremely high rates of poverty. According to the report of the panel headed by former Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister (PMEAC) Chairman C Rangarajan, 47.9 per cent people are poor in Chhattisgarh, making it one of the poorest states in the country. Large parts of the forested and hilly areas of Chhattisgarh are conflict torn with large populations being alienated of their fundamental rights as they get caught between the crossfire of armed forces on the one hand and Maoists on the other.
The term “New Raipur” sounded rather hollow to me, particularly when I started remembering my first political interface with Chhattisgarh as a young researcher. I still remember the poster of Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha with the slogan Naya Bharat ka Naya Chhattisgarh (New Chhattisgarh of new India). I also remember reading reams of pamphlets explaining how a new Chhattisgarh cannot be built without changing the exploitative and oppressive socio-economic structures prevalent in India; therefore the demand for a separate Chhattisgarh was actually a slogan for transformative politics and building a just society. However, the “new Chhattisgarh” as we witness it today with its trajectory of growth aligned with the larger developmental model of India has reinforced and further accentuated an unequal order and concentration of wealth, reflecting the current neo-liberal times.
At the heart of agitations for creating new states have been the ideas of suppressed ethnic identities and distributive justice (often articulated as unequal treatment or exploitation by other dominant regions of the state). Unfortunately, the experience of Chhattisgarh tells us that the idea of distributive justice has been long forgotten. The state has only replicated and further amplified extractive and exploitative development models leading to displacement and growth of obscene inequality. Additionally, mineral rich highly forested areas like Chhattisgarh have also become a battleground or rather a final assault on environment due to the over reliance of the economy in these areas on extractive industries with complete disregards for the rights of mother Earth.
It is ironic to read local media reports that claim “New Raipur” as the first smart city of the country. As already discussed, New Raipur certainly appears to have solid physical infrastructure but are smart cities only about physical infrastructure or the people who would inhabit it? The whole idea of smart cities needs to be alternatively conceptualised where common people and their livelihoods are at the centre and the city responds to the needs of the women, elderly and children. May be the new Raipur and Chhattisgarh could still go back and draw inspiration from one of its first hero, Vir Narayan Singh, who “the British arrested in 1856 for distributing a trader's grain stocks amongst the poor in a severe famine year”.