Will BJP’s projected win help Vidarbha’s cause?

Vidarbhavadis hope BJP, which during its earlier stint at the Centre carved out three new states, will be more sympathetic to their demands

By Aparna Pallavi
Published: Thursday 16 October 2014

File photo of  Chandrapur  thermal power plant. Activists in Vidarbha say that only polluting industries like power plants, sponge iron and steel units have been set up in the region, not job generating ones

Major exit polls predict a victory for BJP in Maharashtra’s Assembly elections. What this victory will mean for the long-standing demand for a separate Vidarbha state, however, remains unclear.

The party has been known to support the creation of smaller states. BJP president for Maharashtra and sitting MLA from South West Nagpur, Devendra Fadnavis, who is one of the party favourites to become chief minister, had openly committed to the creation of a separate state a few days before the elections. Prime Minister Narendra Modi threw a spanner in the works by declaring that he would not allow the division of Maharashtra while he is in Delhi.

Even as Fadnavis and the BJP’s Vidarbha cadre carry out frantic damage control, the “Vidarbhavadis”, as the supporters of a separate Vidarbha are known, are bewildered about the implications of BJP’s victory for their demand.

‘Neglect and exploitation’ led to demand for state

The demand for a separate Vidarbha was first raised in 1956, when the States Reorganisation Committee (SRC) had recommended that Vidarbha be given a separate state status, as it was culturally, geographically, politically and socially a different entity from the rest of Maharashtra. The issue of a common language, however, was used to merge it with Maharashtra.

After the formation of Maharashtra, the once prosperous industrial infrastructure of Vidarbha slipped into decline, and its thriving cotton mills and handloom textile industry died a slow death due to government apathy. Says Srinivas Khandewale, former head of the business management department of Nagpur University and a well known economist and author: “There were some 13-odd textile mills from Nagpur to Akola, which supplied yarn to the handloom textile industry. When these mills started collapsing, government did nothing to revive them. This led to loss of livelihood for a large community of handloom weavers, and the cotton farmers of the area, whose economies were secure due to local demand, were exposed to the vagaries of the international market, which is one of the leading causes of suicides in the cotton belt.”

Vidarbha’s indigenous irrigation system based on Malgujari tanks also fell into disuse, says Sudhir Paliwal of the non-profit Vidarbha Environment Action Group. “The government in Mumbai mooted huge dams which took years and years to complete and were environmentally devastating.”

No industrialisation, only exploitation

Over the years, Vidarbha has seen only highly polluting and environmentally exploitative industries – power plants, sponge iron and steel units, says Paliwal who is also an industrialist. “But the job-generating value addition industries – automobile, food processing, IT – have come up exclusively in western Maharashtra.”

Khandewale agrees. “As of now, 75 per cent of industry in Maharashtra is concentrated in the ‘golden triangle’ of Mumbai-Pune-Nashik, whereas Vidarbha’s resources are being exploited to provide ‘clean’ electricity to these industries.”

Khandewale feels that the chances of Vidarbha state being created are stronger if BJP wins a comfortable majority, as predicted in the exit polls. “If, however, it has to depend on Shiv Sena for support, then chances are less,” says he. “BJP is responsible for the creation of three states—Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand. But the Sena has always been opposed to a separate Vidarbha in the name of the Marathi identity.”

However, Modi’s statement about not splitting Maharashtra has not gone down well with Vidarbhavadis.

Sources within BJP, who chose to remain anonymous, say that the prime minister’s statement has nothing to do with the Vidarbha issue. The statement, says a source, was made in the context of Mumbai, and does not affect BJP’s commitment to create Vidarbha state. “Fadnavis and others are working towards keeping the bifurcation peaceful, unlike what happened in Telengana.”

Vidarbhavadis, however, are not satisfied with this answer. “Modi’s answer remains ambivalent,” says khandewale. “He should have clarified whether he was still committed to a separate Vidarbha.”

Rise in unrest?

Tribal activists feel that a separate Vidarbha will be a mixed blessing. Satish Gogulwar, of the non-profit Amhi Amchya Arogya Sathi, working on tribal rights and health issues in Gadchiroli district, says moving the administrative headquarters from Mumbai, which is almost 1,000 km away, to Nagpur, will certainly allow tribals greater participation in decision-making. “But going by the experience in states like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, there is a fear that the creation of a new state might speed up corporate land-grab in the name of development and create more unrest and conflict over resources.”

Manish Rajankar, forest rights activist from Gondia district-based group, Bhandara Nisarga Va Sanskruti Abhyas Mandal, says, “Development is a double-edged sword for forest-dwelling populations. On the one hand they want development so as to improve their living standards, but state-sponsored development often means displacement and loss of access to resources. To prevent this situation, rights settlement under the Forest Rights Act is a must.”

Separate Vidarbha is not much of an election issue in the tribal areas, however, he adds.

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