New Delhi: The government approved a Rs7,266 crore drought relief package for Bundelkhand, a region that spans parts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, in a significant victory for Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi who pushed for it as part of a strategy to revive the party in the two states.

The Congress has already scripted a comeback in Uttar Pradesh, which elects the largest number of representatives to the Lok Sabha, in the 15th general election when it won 21 of the 80 seats; in 2004 it had won only nine seats. In the just concluded by-elections in UP, the Congress’ showing reiterated that it has replaced the Samajwadi Party as the main challenger in the state.

While part of the money to be spent over three years beginning this year will be realized from ongoing Union government schemes, the Centre would spend an additional Rs3,450 crore in the form of additional plan assistance to the two states.

To manage the sensitivities of the two states—Uttar Pradesh is governed by the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Madhya Pradesh by the Bharatiya Janata Party, both Congress rivals—the spending will be overseen by the chief secretaries of the two states. To monitor the progress a group will be set up at the Centre that will include representatives from Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh and will be co-chaired by two members of the Planning Commission.

Given that the region has consistently had deficient rainfall since 2004-05, an inter-ministerial central team (MCT) was set up to visit the Bundelkhand areas and assess the ground situation in order to recommend strategies and measures required for agriculture development in the region in both the states. The team submitted its report in April 2008 recommending a drought mitigation package of Rs8,316 crore. Of these recommendations, the components relating to debt relief were covered under the farmers’ debt relief scheme announced by the government in 2008.

The package announced on Thursday calls for drought mitigation in 13 districts of the Bundelkhand region, spread over Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The districts are Jhansi, Banda, Chitrakoot, Hamirpur, Jalaun, Lalipur, Mahoba, Chhatarpur, Damoh, Datia, Panna, Sagar and Tikamgarh.

The focus of the package will be on watershed development and irrigation facilities to make the region more resilient to drought. In addition, the package will also promote drought resistant, arid-horticulture, and animal husbandry activities to provide alternative source of income.

Opposition parties were quick to claim credit for the package seeking to blunt the political advantage that is likely to accrue to the Congress party.

“We were demanding such a package and our state unit was agitating for the same, but our objection is to associate a much wanted relief like this to a particular person in the ruling party. The approach of the government to focus on Rahul Gandhi through a region’s development is regrettable," said BJP vice-president Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi.

Similarly, a senior BSP leader, who did not want to be identified as he is not authorized to speak to the media, said: “The implementation part is not clear yet, we have been demanding the same package but we wanted it to be implemented through the state government and if it is done in the manner we is welcome."

However, the Congress and Gandhi in particular have been visibly associated with the drought relief package for Bundelkhand. In fact, this was a major campaign plank for the Congress in the 2009 general election. Soon after coming to power, the party also rewarded first-time member of Parliament Pradeep Jain, who contested from Jhansi which falls in the region, with the post of minister of state in the crucial rural development ministry.

According to Indra Bhushan Singh, Lucknow-based political analyst, the package will enhance the political standing of Gandhi, who is a member of Parliament from the state—he has been elected twice from Amethi, which is in central Uttar Pradesh.

“By clearing this package, the Congress has taken an appropriate approach towards planning its revival in Uttar Pradesh. In fact, it is imperative to divide Uttar Pradesh into several parts as far as development is concerned. The Bundelkhand issue is not new. Even Mayawati had raised it earlier and demanded a special package for the region. It is an old, almost decade-long, movement which has got a political tone and thrust now. And given that the Congress is in the opposition in both Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, this is a clear strategy to chart a revival," Singh added.

In a separate development, the government sought to strengthen its mid-day meal programme in schools with the cabinet committee on economic affairs reworking the food norms for upper primary school children. In addition, it made a provision for honorarium of Rs1,000 per month for cook-cum-helpers under the programme.

Pallavi Singh also contributed to the story.