How Raman Singh Became ‘Chawal Waale Baba’ For Chhattisgarh

by Pratyasha Rath - Dec 17, 2018 11:11 AM +05:30 IST
How Raman Singh Became ‘Chawal Waale Baba’ For Chhattisgarh
  • With his share of successes and controversies and lost time, Dr Raman Singh needs to be given the due credit he deserves.

“What is the name of the Chief Minister”, I asked a group of tribal women in Mahasamund. It was my first field trip to Chhattisgarh and I was a rookie with one year of experience in the development sector. With all the scepticism that new idealists could gather, I felt that women not knowing the name of the Chief Minister of the state would reflect on their agency, and hence would give me a starting point to discuss decentralised governance with them!

“I do not know his name, but ‘chawal waale baba’ is what we call him”. Mahasamund has always been a Congress dominated belt and the response came as a shock to me. For the next couple of hours, I went on to talk of a lot of things, but what dominated the discussion was how the women in the village zealously monitor the fair price shops and how this ‘chawal waale baba’ is doing some good work for them.

Few days back, Dr Raman Singh was about to face a defeat in his constituency of Rajnandgaon from which he has been contesting elections since the early 90s. He somehow managed to scrape through but the government and his party could not be saved. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been reduced to 15 seats in the state and has lost out across all demographies and geographies in the state. But, 15 years is not a small time and Dr Raman Singh has presided over the most significant period of change in the state. So what is his legacy and what is the way ahead for him, politically?

Before the arrival of the Gujarat success story by the fag end of 2014, Chhattisgarh was the state where the issue of development was front and centre in electoral terms. It was a state carved out of Madhya Pradesh to help the tribal and the Scheduled Caste communities and hence, the articulation of development here was also very different. Development in Chhattisgarh in the way Raman Singh articulated meant a turnaround in fortunes and not just a facelift.

As one of the states with the largest tribal population, abject poverty and violent Left wing extremism, Chhattisgarh needed that narrative of transition and Raman Singh was the one who provided it. And this was not the development of mega industries and four-lane highways and metros criss-crossing cities. This was the development of getting people adequate food to eat and putting the first generation of learners in schools and bringing the first pucca roads to a village. It was development from scratch.

If we look at the Chhattisgarh story since the past 15 years, there are two aspects of governance which would stand out as the legacy of Dr Raman Singh.

Social Development Legacy

The biggest success story in Chhattisgarh under Dr Singh was the efficiency of the public distribution system (PDS). Chhattisgarh took an unabashed Left route in approaching food security and increased the PDS coverage to 74 per cent. Moreover, when other states were experiencing major issues of pilferage and looting, the Chhattisgarh government undertook a slew of reforms to address the situation.

The first concern that Raman Singh identified after taking office was that more than 50 per cent of the below poverty line (BPL) population, were unable to access the food grains meant for them. The first reform he brought in was taking away the ownership of PDS shops from private businessmen and handing over control to the local community.

Then came other measures like issuing new ration cards with holograms which weeded out over 3 lakh fake beneficiaries, increased commission and even a seed fund to shop operators for making the business viable, increased monitoring and vigilance including community audits, doorstep delivery of food grains and raids and massive crackdown of corrupt rice millers. Raman Singh without any doubt made PDS the key to his re-election in 2008 and there was no other issue which worked, except ‘chawal’.

The victory of 2008 was on the back of the almost transformational change in the supply chain of the PDS and sealed the tag of ‘chawal waale baba’. The Chhattisgarh success story was so convincing that even some stalwarts in Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council (NAC) had to use it as a template.

The success of PDS in Chhattisgarh had an expected ripple effect on the nutritional levels in the state. Food scarcity in tribal belts leads to malnutrition and stunting, and Chhattisgarh managed to address this issue thoroughly. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 4 data shows that the percentage of adult women with body mass index (BMI) less than normal has decreased from 43.4 per cent in 2005-06 to 26.7 in 2015-16. It is less than the figures for MP and Jharkhand and almost the same as Odisha, even though it recorded a higher incidence level than all three states in 2005-06.

Another important change has been the decrease in instances of anaemia in infants which has reduced from 71.2 per cent in 2005-06 to 41.6 per cent in 2015-16. It has now reached below the national average, while the states of MP, Jharkhand and Odisha still register more instances of infant anaemia. The final indicator which directly speaks about malnutrition is the incidences of stunting.

The following figure provides an idea of how Chhattisgarh has progressed on addressing stunting and underweight issues in children. The only state which has fared better than Chhattisgarh is Odisha but it also needs to be seen that Chhattisgarh had a much higher base in 2005-06.

How Raman Singh Became ‘Chawal Waale Baba’ For Chhattisgarh

This is no minor feat. With the PDS covering basic food-grains in villages, schools and anganwadi centres, the savings of the poor could be used to widen the basket of nutritious food, thus effectively tackling malnutrition. The single minded focus of Raman Singh on one issue paid off both socially and politically for him.

If Vasundhara Raje has been the most economic right wing chief minister from the BJP, Raman Singh has undoubtedly been the most towards the Left. He is known for a slew of populist welfare schemes in the state. His focus on health and nutrition extended to his CM Health Scheme whereby Rs 30,000 worth of free treatment was provided to citizens. Other welfare schemes ranged from the Saraswati Cycle Yojana for school girls to the Mukhyamantri Teerth Yatra Yojana for elderly citizens.

Combating Left Wing Extremism In The State

Since the day the new state of Chhattisgarh was born, the single biggest problem impeding the development initiatives was the ‘red terrorism’ plaguing multiple districts of the state.

Raman Singh has been at the centre of a lot of controversy when it comes to combating Left wing extremism and his government has been accused of custodial violence against tribals, harassment of activists like Binayak Sen and most importantly tacit support given to the Salwa Judum. Raman Singh in the past has openly defended the Salwa Judum as being the primary resistance force against the Maoists.

In 2009, just two years before the Salwa Judum was disbanded by the Supreme Court, Dr Singh had credited the members of the vigilante group as being the custodians of the republic. The formation of the Salwa Judum led to one of the bloodiest phases in the state and the tribal communities were divided and displaced like never before. It is a cross that both the Congress and the BJP have to bear. But, as the CM for 15 long years, it can never be dissociated from the legacy of Raman Singh.

While Chhattisgarh continues to be the state, most affected by Maoist violence, through the course of the past 15 years, the Raman Singh government had many big and small successes in addressing the alienation of the tribal communities and ushering in peace. From the construction of state highways to schemes like allowances for pregnant and lactating mothers, a mix of infrastructural and welfare measures had been implemented in tribal areas along with numerous awareness and sensitisation campaigns.

While the districts of Sarguja and Jashpur have now been removed from the list of Maoist affected districts, the most significant transformation has been seen in the district of Bastar. The Dandakaranya belt is the hotbed of Maoist activity in the country and has been the scene of the most dastardly acts of violence against the state. Carrying out development activities in this area and then seeing tangible returns of inclusion is no mean feat.

It is a three-pronged strategy where the security forces and the civic administration work in tandem to ensure that relative peace facilitates rapid infrastructural development and the cycle continues without further incidents. The third prong is ensuring that key entitlements to the local communities and their rights under PESA are respected. This has been a strategy that the Chhattisgarh government under Dr Singh has made moderate success in.

One of the most significant changes in the Maoist areas of the state has been the rapid construction of roads. These roads have not only ended the alienation of remote villages but have pushed the Maoists further into the jungles. Conversely, it has also been the cause behind much of the attacks in the state since 2014.

The two stretches which have seen the most attacks are the Dornapal-Jagargunda stretch and the Injeram-Bhejji stretch which are incidentally the two critical road construction stretches. Bastar, today, is being dotted with educational institutions and health care centres. There are three districts in the region which still can be counted as war zones and the Maoist threat is far from over. But, change has happened right under the barrel of the gun and for that Dr Raman Singh deserves a lot of credit.

My first trip to Mahasamund for a study was in 2013. The last one was in 2017 when I travelled to Ambikapur, Sarguja, another Congress belt. This time I was not working with women but with adolescent girls. Their concerns were different. They needed English classes and computer skills, and well-paying jobs. Some of them told me that the ‘sattu’ provided by the government under the SABLA scheme is used for feeding cattle, a far cry from conversations of adequate nutrition. Survival and chawal was not the topic of discussion. Aspiration and jobs were.

I again asked them about the CM. All of them knew his name, Dr Raman Singh. For the new generation with new hopes, he was not ‘chawal waale baba’ anymore. He was just another politician who needed to deliver on new demands. That, perhaps, sums up why the development agenda of Raman Singh did not work. There is a new generation holding the keys to power now and the old guard could not keep up with their aspirations.

While the legacy of Dr Raman Singh has been development, it has mostly been around subsistence. Food security, access to health, even footwear for tired feet! It is perhaps what the need was that point but subsistence will never be enough. With his share of successes and controversies and lost time, Dr Singh needs to be given the due credit he deserves.

It is to his credit to have governed one of the most difficult, conflict ridden states in India and gradually relieve parts of it from the backward status it had been stamped with. While a large number of districts in Chhattisgarh continue to be aspirational while the rest of the country surges forward, it is to his credit that the dreams of Naya Raipur and Naya Bastar have not been pushed to the background.

And importantly, his PDS success story has been the one which exhibits what true political will can achieve even in the face of immense odds. This could very well have been the end of his stint as the CM of the state, but the road from Raipur via Bastar may just lead to New Delhi.

Pratyasha Rath is a consultant working in the social development and political sector.

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