Madhubala Sai, a teacher, is reminded every day of how far the young state she calls home still has to go. “The air quality is so bad that clothes turn black if you ride in an open scooter,” says the resident of this state capital which has earned the dubious distinction of being one of India’s most polluted cities due to reckless industrial growth.
And yet signs of small progress abound in seven-year-old Chhattisgarh as it grapples with insurgency, unemployment and a depressed rural economy. Among the first states to digitize such data, one of every six villages will soon have a citizen service centre with online land records. A citizens helpline in the eastern district of Rajnandgaon receives complaints about basic amenities from far-flung villages. Nearly one-third of the population belongs to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes; girls in the communities have been given bicycles to get to school.
One-and-a-half-year-old Maitarin at Dhuragaon
About 80% of the population works in agriculture, mostly a single crop a year, forcing rural dwellers to migrate for jobs in the off-season. Self-help groups have been linked to government-sponsored programmes, such as midday meals for schools, mining and fair price shops, to ensure year-round work.
Chhattisgarh, which gained statehood on 1 November 2000, is in transition. In many ways, it represents the challenges facing India as a whole. It wants to encourage investment in a region where more than one-third of the state is affected by Naxal-led violence and just under a third are also considered members of “backward” communities; the violence has escalated since the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government decided to arm villagers to fight rebels. As the state grapples with security issues, schools housing police forces have become targets of bomb attacks.
Chhattisgarh was carved out of an elongated stretch of land in eastern Madhya Pradesh in 2000. Raipur, a commercial town with overflowing garbage, was overnight chosen as the capital; local hospitals, government hostels and a pensioners home were quickly moved to the outskirts to make way for the fledgling state administration. Chief minister Raman Singh himself sits in what was once a surgery room in a hospital converted into the government secretariat.
The state is seeking to tap into its rich mineral wealth to reduce poverty and stimulate the economy. Almost 20% of the country’s coal reserves are located in Chhattisgarh, and the state also wants to tap into its rich iron ore reserves—but local resistance to giving up land for industry is growing. The government last year signed 217 expressions of interest with private companies for investments worth Rs1.08 trillion.
As in the rest of India, consumer demand is growing. Sheena Sukhnandan, a doctor with two young children, often travels two hours from her home in Mungeri to the state capital. “We are hoping that the Pizza Huts and McDonalds open here soon,” she says.
Geographical Area: 135,000 sq. km
About 36% of the land is cultivated; 44% under forest.
Of this population 32% belongs to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. About 1.55 million families live below the poverty line.
On a par with national average, but dropout rates remain high. Girls constitute 47% of total enrolment in schools.
Number of unemployed people:10.29 million
About 150,000 of them are registered with the state employment exchange.
Revenue earned from mineral production each year: Rs4,000 cr
Proposed investment in power: Rs98,460 cr
Rs63,137 crore and Rs11,873 crore for the steel and cement sectors; Bharat Aluminium Co. Ltd plans Rs8,100 crore expansion. GDP growth rate: 10%; industrial growth rate: 11.8%.
State of affairs:
1. The coeducational Saskiya High School in Farsaguda village in Bastar district. Students walk 7-15km to attend school every day. Now under the Saraswati Cycle Yojana programme, 60 girls ride to school. The Chhattisgarh government has distributed 40,000 bicycles to girls belonging to ‘backward’ communities. Hindi teacher K.S. Solanki (in the background) says bicycles should be given to everyone.
2. A toll-free citizen helpline kiosk in Rajnandgaon: Since its launch on 15 August, it has received 370 grievances—about a broken pump, kerosene scarcity, bad street lights and so on. The administration takes stock of complaints every Tuesday; a quarterly progress report is sent to Raipur.
3. A typical weekly market in Chhattisgarh. Women sell country liquor prepared from Mahua, a fruit tree abundant in Bastar. The market sustains the village economy. Cows are traded and cock fights are a big draw.
4. Murha Nag (wearing an orange scarf) of Sirisguda village, one of the villages earmarked for Tata Steel Ltd’s project in Lohaniguda, about 20km from Jagdalpur town in southern Chhattisgarh. ‘I won’t give up my land for the Tata project,’ he says.
5. Labourers at the Steel Authority of India Ltd Bhilai plant. With little protective gear, they load raw material into blast furnaces to make steel rails several feet below the ground. The plant supplies mostly to the Indian Railways.
6. Salwa Judum camp, Dornapal: With 15,000 people, it’s the largest of two dozen government-backed anti-Naxalite camps in Chhattisgarh. In these camps, young village boys and girls called SPOs (special police officers) receive arms training to fight Maoist rebels and lead forces to Naxal hideouts. Some, such as Jogi Mausam (in the foreground), think it was a mistake to leave her village of Argot, 11km away. They say they were forced to move out of fear of being branded Naxalites and of police reprisal. Now many fear they may never be able to return home as Naxal attacks continue.
7. One-and-a-half-year-old Maitarin in Dhuragaon, one of the 10 villages that will be affected by the proposed Tata Steel plant. About 20,000 people will be displaced by the project and have resisted giving up land.
Photographs by Maitreyee Handique