In Jharkhand, the poverty of better governance
Bokaro Steel City was a once-booming industrial township which developed around the Bokaro Steel Plant, one of the largest and oldest in the country, owned by the Steel Authority of India Ltd, a state-run company.
The company isn’t doing well, and so both Bokaro Thermal and Bokaro Steel, once posh industrial towns, are almost in ruins today. Residential quarters are falling apart, public spaces and utilities are unmaintained and dysfunctional. Neither Congress nor BJP activists in Bokaro Steel City want to talk about these issues though. One of the Congress workers at the party’s office says that villagers’ votes matter more than that of plant employees. Indeed, no permanent workers are being hired
Between Bokaro Thermal and Bokaro Steel City lies a big coal mining belt. Bermo is a town in the belt, where defence minister Rajnath Singh addressed a meeting on December 1, 2019. A couple of BJP workers in the local office are upbeat about their (BJP’s) political chances, but extremely demoralised about the town’s prospects, given the state of coal mining public sector units (PSUs). All work has been outsourced, nobody stays in the colony, where will business come from, one of the workers asks.
That sentiment finds an echo in Steel City, at the office of the plant’s Communist Party of India (CPI) affiliated trade union. “This government’s policies are against the public sector, people do not understand this, so they deserve all the suffering they are facing”, the secretary, who is in his 60s and tending to pension related cases, says, sitting under portraits of Karl Marx and Lenin.
The state-owned companies that once drove the region’s economy, providing jobs, and, more importantly, education and health infrastructure in the townships, hire few people in permanent positions.
In Bokaro Thermal, Asia’s first thermal power plant set up in 1952 by the Damodar Valley Corporation, a former DVC employee, who is also a long time CPI worker wants the government to revive rather than privatise the DVC, which he fears is a distinct possibility. He does not want the next generation to migrate out for work.
In Petarvar, a small market town between Ranchi and Bokaro Steel City, three young men working in an auto repair shop want to be able to make at least ₹500 each per day instead of the ₹150 they earn today. All three of them received skill training under a government programme and migrated outside; two to Chennai, one to Uttarakhand, but wages were too low to survive there. These boys were born around the same time Jharkhand was formed. They repeat the common refrain used during the Jharkhand agitation: all good jobs go to the Biharis. This is not true anymore, because there are hardly any good jobs being generated.
Indeed, there are almost no jobs being created.
A group of jobless ST labourers sitting at the village square in Biru in Simdega district wants the government to provide work in their village to pay just ₹150-200 a day. Going out for the same work means spending ₹30-40 in transport and food, they say. However, they will not work under the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). One of them has still not been paid for last year’s work under the scheme. They are grateful for the subsidised ration they get under the Public Distribution System, and some of them have got money for toilets and houses too, but the real challenge is employment.
Yet, while business is suffering, there’s infrastructure being developed. Roads are much better than what used to be the case.
In Ranchi, a Marwari businessman dealing in mining, who is also a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporter, does not want a return of khichdi sarkar (read Jharkhand Mukti Morcha-Congress-Rashtriya Janata Dal alliance). Political interference and corruption will kill all the development that’s happening, he says. However, he is very candid about the recession in the regional economy. Under the JMM government, you had to give 1.5% commission for bagging a big contract, and you could get away with substandard work and shoddy paperwork (read tax evasion). Under the BJP, the commission is 2.5%, but you also need to do good work and keep your papers in order. If you do not want to do it, bigger firms are willing to do so. In his current avatar of tolerating personal loss for the greater good, his hope is that the economy will pick up soon under Narendra Modi’s leadership. Others are not as forgiving as he is. Upper Bazar, the traditional seat of Marwari businessmen in Ranchi, has fielded a candidate of its own this time, just to make a statement.
In Kolebira, a small town in the southern district of Simdega, activists of the Jharkhand Party, are upset with the government for exactly the same reason the Marwari businessman quoted above is pleased. Bureaucrats do not listen to activists, even those from the BJP, anymore, they complain. A very senior district level bureaucrat in the state said nobody, not even an MLA, can interfere with or derail the implementation of the government’s flagship projects. We have been given a free hand by the chief minister’s office, he added.
Once all the dots are connected, there is a seven-decade old story to be told here.
Large parts of what constitutes Jharkhand today is where India’s public sector led industrialisation and mining push was launched. The costs – displacement and exploitation – and benefits – jobs and a modern industrial town lifestyle and amenities – were shared unequally. Outsiders usurped the benefits, while the natives, both tribal and non-tribal population, had to bear either the cost or exclusion from the game altogether.
This sense of injustice was the most crucial factor behind the Jharkhand agitation, which achieved its goal on November 15, 2000. However, none of the promised benefits materialised. Not because there is still discrimination, but because the benefits have disappeared.
Jharkhand has undergone deindustrialisation after its formation. The share of industry in the gross state domestic product was almost 60% in the late 1990s. Today, it has come down to 40%. Number of persons engaged in factories has come down in absolute terms between 1999-2000 and 2017-18. Factories have become smaller.
Average number of persons per factory was around 150 in the late 1990s, it is down to 70s today. Chhattisgarh, another tribal majority state which was created with Jharkhand has had a reverse trajectory. These shares have been more or less the same at the all-India level.
Which is perhaps why the BJP government has focused more on benefits and infrastructure development rather than an industrial push.
As one of the BJP workers in Bermo said: “People in towns might vote elsewhere, but villagers will vote for us, they have got toilets, houses and cylinders”.
The BJP can also take heart from the fact that most businessmen will still vote for it.
The population which wanted Jharkhand aspired for a life in public sector industrial towns like the ‘outsiders’. Two decades later they are being sold corruption free toilets and subsidised houses in their villages. There is definitely an element of good governance here. And, this is the BJP’s biggest political plank. However, large sections of the voters long for the massively corrupt but booming industrial towns, which once characterised the state. Nobody in the electoral fray is even willing to promise that this is possible.
Who will win the political struggle in these elections in Jharkhand is a difficult question to answer. But one thing can be said with a lot of certainty. When the multi-decade long class-caste struggle for Jharkhand finally achieved its victory, the site of struggle itself had started to collapse, pretty much like the burning coal mines in many parts of the state, which will bring the ground down sooner rather than later.