It’s May 11 and day seven of the ongoing Bhent-Mulaqat (a cordial meeting) Abhiyan of Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel. As the helicopter carrying Baghel and his entourage of ministers and officials touches down at Mangrelgarh village in Ambikapur district, it triggers a flurry of activity. Villagers rush to welcome the high-profile guests who have come to solicit feedback from them on the government’s schemes. On the advice of Amarjeet Bhagat, the local MLA and minister for food and civil supplies, Baghel walks from the helipad to a temple dedicated to the Mangrelgarhi deity, after which he settles down under a makeshift shed with a thatched roof made of Saal leaves. “Has everyone’s farm loan been waived?” he asks villagers. “What do you with the handsome amount you earn by selling paddy to the government?” After hearing the mostly positive responses, Baghel switches to some light banter.
If you think the Congress is a laggard in early preparation for polls and rests on its laurels, Baghel is out to disprove that notion. By covering three villages in each of the 90 assembly segments across the state, the incumbent CM is keen on being seen as a hands-on man who susses out local issues in person. Also, most schemes launched by him in the past 42 months in office—be it the loan waiver, paddy procurement at MSP plus prices, schemes for rural landless labourers or the cow dung procurement—have focused on rural areas and the CM wants to judge their impact on the ground. Through the Bhent Mulaqat, Baghel wants to see if his political strategy of securing the hinterland to win 2023 is viable or not.
Besides fine-tuning his popular outreach strategy, Baghel also has to contend with a challenge from within the party—health, rural development and panchayat minister T.S. Singhdeo and his loyalists were conspicuous by their absence, even when the assembly segments being covered under the Bhent Mulaqat programme were in the home turf of the titular maharaja of Surguja.
SCHEMES FOR THE MASSES
What are the schemes Baghel sets so much store by and how will they help him politically in 2023? After coming to power in 2018, the first scheme the Congress government announced was the farm loan waiver, a poll promise. Consequently, farm loans of 1.67 million farmers have been waived, costing the exchequer Rs 6,100 crore. Next up was the paddy procurement scheme—called the Rajiv Gandhi Kisan Nyay Yojana—under which farmers who sell paddy to the government get Rs 2,500 a quintal for their produce, as against the Rs 1,940 announced as MSP (minimum support price) by the Union government. The state offers the highest prices for paddy in the country, and procurement has increased over the years (see box). Farmers who grow other crops are also paid Rs 10,000 an acre as input subsidy and an incentive for crop diversification.
Then there is the novel Gaudhan Nyay Yojana or cow dung procurement scheme, whereby cow dung is procured from farmers at Rs 2 per kg, is turned into vermicompost and sold to farmers and government departments at Rs 10 a kg to recover the cost.
Since the inception of the scheme in 2020, a total of 6.92 million quintals of cow dung have been procured at a cost of Rs 138.56 crore. Out of the 310,000 cattle owners in Chhattisgarh, 211,000 have sold dung to the government. A total of 1.03 million quintals of vermicompost, to be used as a nutrient-rich fertiliser, has been sold till date. Arrangements are being made to add cow urine to the scheme.
Though the scheme isn’t profitable at present, efforts are being made to give a fillip to the rural economy through the use of unutilised cow dung procured by the government. All-women self-help groups (SHGs) who work at gauthans—rural cattle sheds created under the Gaudhan Nyay Yojana—are making a variety of products from cow dung. From eco-friendly diyas to idols of Ganesha, from candlestands to flower pots, there’s a market for such things. Cement and bricks made from cowdung is the next step.
The latest scheme to be directed at rural Chhattisgarh is the Rajiv Gandhi Bhoomiheen Krishi Mazdoor Nyay Yojana, under which registered landless labourers will be eligible to get Rs 7,000 a year. A total of 1 million labourers are expected to benefit.
Clearly, Chhattisgarh’s schemes entail putting money in the hands of the beneficiary, which is expected to translate into political support. In the recent Uttar Pradesh assembly election, this approach—seen in the PM Awas Yojana, free rations to 150 million people and the cash transfer scheme—was said to be a game-changer for the BJP. In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP government led by Shivraj Singh Chouhan is giving Rs 4,000 to every small and marginal farmer, over and above the annual Rs 6,000 given under the PM Kisan Samman Yojana.
Graphic by Tanmoy Chakraborty
HOW THEY PLAY OUT
“There are a total of 15 assembly seats that are fully urban, another 10 that are a mix of urban and rural and the remaining 65 seats out of the 90 in the state that are purely rural,” says Rajesh Tiwari, political advisor to CM Baghel. The focus on rural schemes, therefore, is not surprising.
The population of Chhattisgarh is estimated at 27.5 million and farm /rural schemes are likely to impact 401,000 families out of the total 682,200 families in Chhattisgarh. It is estimated that the various government programmes can impact over 20 million of the state’s population.
Out of the 90 assembly seats, 14 are located in the Surguja division in north Chhattisgarh, while 12 are in the southern Bastar division. Currently, the Congress holds all these seats. The bulk of seats in Chhattisgarh are located in the central plains region, largely populated by the farming community. While the rural, farm/ agriculture-oriented schemes apply equally to the predominantly tribal and forested northern and southern parts of the state, the topography and prevalent economic practices prevent them from having a big impact. To remedy this, Baghel’s government has expanded the procurement of minor forest produce (MFP)—an important economic activity—from the earlier seven items to 65.
A couple of hurdles confront Baghel. While the farming community in central Chhattisgarh seems happy enough, this is also the region where OBCs dominate and from where the BJP draws the bulk of its support. He will have to find a way to win more of them over to the Congress.
Then there is the aforementioned challenge from party rival T.S. Singhdeo, who comes from the tribal north and has emerged as a champion of tribal rights through his adamant push for a strong Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas), or PESA, Act, where gram sabhas will have more powers in tribal areas. Chhattisgarh is in the process of framing rules under the PESA Act. Singhdeo’s clout in Ambikapur (headquarters of Surguja district) was evident, with most Congress office-bearers and leaders also skipping Baghel’s Bhent Mulaqat when it covered the Lundra and Sitapur assembly segments. Singhdeo excused himself by citing an engagement; a week ago, he went to south Chhattisgarh to tour and inspect departments under his charge, while the CM was in the north, touring villages as per his Bhent Mulaqat schedule.
The BJP has termed Baghel’s outreach programme an eyewash. “Bhent Mulaqat should be renamed badtameezi aur daant,” said former CM Raman Singh after videos emerged of Baghel reprimanding a woman in Surajpur on May 8 for blaming the police over a matter. As criticism mounted, Baghel was forced to express regret.
Back in Rajapur, one of the villages under the Sitapur assembly segment, CM Baghel asks the audience if they have received all payment instalments of the paddy procurement scheme. At the end, Baghel announces plans to open schools, a stadium and a police post in the area, besides making Rajapur a sub tehsil.
The convoy of helicopters then moves to Sarmana village. A large number of people come up with personal problems, many of them related to land revenue management or securing caste or tribe certificates. Chhaya Mishra, a B.Sc. student, tells Baghel that she comes from a family of Brahmins but is forced to do menial jobs. She demands a toilet, a job and financial assistance. Baghel tells her about dignity of labour and tells her about the schemes she could benefit from. He asks if everyone was getting the promised 35 kg of rice and kerosene under the PDS (public distribution scheme). A girl asks Baghel to show her the school he studied in. “We would walk five kilometres to school every day,” the visibly proud CM says, asking the district collector to organise trips for students who want to visit his school in Durg district.
Every now and then, Baghel reminds villagers of galloping inflation or prices of cooking gas, taunting BJP leaders who protested when cylinder prices were Rs 450. With assembly election 18 months away, Baghel is clearly testing the waters. The BJP, till now, hasn’t matched him in energy and activity. But it won’t remain that way for long. A fight is in the offing.