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‘New Raipur’ and ‘New Chhattisgarh’ in old India

‘New Raipur’ and ‘New Chhattisgarh’ in old India
The year 2015 started with a short visit to Raipur. During this visit I was taken to New Raipur (the new capital city of Chhattisgarh) with great enthusiasm. The entire township, that is still being built, already has four to six lane roads, massive office complexes, multi-storied buildings and residential areas. The amount of construction that one saw could put to shame even mammoth construction initiatives. The only jarring note was the absence of humans or signs of habitation (except the construction workers) in this new Raipur.

Raipur (old) has been completely transformed in the last 10-15 years. I have not seen such a big make-over of a small sleepy town into a bustling city—full of malls, neon signs and big cars, all signs of a booming economy. I am often told by a few acquaintances, those in the middle class, that all the construction has been phenomenal for Chhattisgarh’s growth. In the last one decade, much of the mining/minerals market (earlier controlled from Kolkata) is now controlled from Raipur. I was told with much pride that “mandi yahan khulti hai or bhav yahan tay hota hai” (the market opens here and the prices are decided here).

Chhattisgarh recently was in news for the tragic deaths of more than 10 poor women during a botched sterilisation drive of the government, which reflected criminal neglect of basic norms. The state continues to lag behind the national averages (many of which are going to fail even the modest targets set in the Millennium Development Goals) under most Human Development Indicators and has very high rates of poverty. According to the report of the panel headed by former Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister (PMEAC) Chairman C Rangarajan, 47.9 per cent people are poor in Chhattisgarh, making it one of the poorest states in the country. Large parts of the forested and hilly areas of Chhattisgarh are conflict torn with large populations alienated from their Fundamental Rights, as they get caught between the crossfire of armed forces on the one hand and Maoists on the other.  

The term “New Raipur” sounded rather hollow to me, particularly when I remembered my first political interface with Chhattisgarh as a young researcher. I still remember the poster of Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha with the slogan Naya Bharat ka Naya Chhattisgarh (New Chhattisgarh of new India). I also remember reading reams of pamphlets explaining how a new Chhattisgarh cannot be built without changing the exploitative and oppressive socio-economic structures prevalent in India. The demand for a separate Chhattisgarh, therefore, was actually a slogan for transformative politics and building a just society. However, the “new Chhattisgarh” we witness today, with its trajectory of growth aligned with the larger development model of India, has reinforced and further accentuated an inequitable order and concentration of wealth, reflecting the current neo-liberal times.

Not-so-smart cities
At the heart of agitations for creating new states have been the ideas of suppressed ethnic identities and distributive justice (often articulated as unequal treatment or exploitation by other dominant regions of the state). Unfortunately, the experience of Chhattisgarh tells us that the idea of distributive justice has long been forgotten. The state has only replicated and further amplified extractive and exploitative development models leading to displacement and growth of obscene inequality. Additionally, mineral rich highly forested areas like Chhattisgarh have also become a battleground or rather a final assault on environment due to the over reliance of the economy in these areas on extractive industries. These activities display complete disregard for Mother Earth.

It is ironic to read local media reports that claim “New Raipur” as the first smart city of the country. New Raipur certainly appears to have solid physical infrastructure but are smart cities only about physical infrastructure or are they about the people who inhabit it? The whole idea of smart cities needs to be alternately conceptualised where common people and their livelihoods are at the centre and the city responds to the needs of the women, elderly, and children. Possibly, the new Raipur and Chhattisgarh could still go back and draw inspiration from one of its first heroes, Vir Narayan Singh, who the British arrested in 1856 for distributing a trader’s grain stocks amongst the poor in a year struck by severe famine. DOWN TO EARTH

Amitabh Behar

Amitabh Behar

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