Small steps, big goal

Print edition : November 03, 2006

Interview with Raman Singh, Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh.

CHHATTISGARH HAS A forest cover of over 40 per cent and many people depend on forest produce for a living.-

DR. RAMAN Singh became the second Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in the State on December 8, 2003. An Ayurvedic doctor by profession, he entered politics in 1976. While Chhattisgarh was still a part of Madhya Pradesh, he was Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) in 1990-92 and 1993-98. He served as Union Minister of State for Commerce and Industries in 1999, when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was in power. In this interview to Frontline, Raman Singh talks about his government's development projects, the main impulse behind them being provision of "gainful employment to poorest section of the society".

Chhattisgarh has around 40 per cent forest cover and more than 44 per cent of the people depend on forests for their livelihood. Please tell us something about the development work centred around these people.

Actually the forest cover is more than 50 per cent, because there is around 10-12 per cent area which, though belonging to the Revenue Department, should also count as forest land. In Bastar and Sarguja districts in particular, forest-based activities such as collection of saal seeds, tendu leaves, mahua and so on are particularly important. Imli [tamarind] alone accounts for a business turnover between Rs.75 crores and Rs.100 crores. A large number of herbal/medicinal plants and minor forest produce, all of which grow naturally in our forests without application of fertilizers, generate business worth over Rs.600 crores annually.

We have recently increased the wage rate for saal seed collection from Rs.2.50 a kg to Rs.5 a kg, which alone has conferred in one year a benefit of about Rs.18 crores to these poor people. In view of the good price that tendu leaves fetch in the market, the workers can look forward to an additional bonus in the next season. At present, our main focus is on expanding employment opportunities and adding value in forest and forest-related activities and we have identified some special areas for development. Lac is a very important forest produce and has a good international market too; and our forests abound in trees like kusum, bel and polash, on which the lac insect thrives. We have launched a training programme for those involved in raising lac-bearing trees commercially, which has already started yielding good results.

RAMAN SINGH, THE Chief Minister.-

Now we are experimenting with a new method on saal and ashoke trees and mulberry bushes. We are not only training people but also arranging credit for them to cultivate forest produce and take care of marketing needs. I have directed that in all schools in which children have to sit on the floor, the mats must be purchased from self-help groups of poor women that we have helped set up and trained. These groups also sew and stitch school uniforms. We have set up 12 centres to train poor women in forest areas in making mats, clothes, chataries, durries and we have also seen to it that there is a market for these products.

Moreover, a network of more than 1,000 Primary Societies and 7,000 Joint Forest Management Committees is already in place. For the educated unemployed youth in the forest regions, we have developed new modules of training through Industrial Training Institutes (ITI) in Dantewada and Jagdalpur and other regions and allocated Rs.2 crores for such programmes. We are also setting up a medical college in Jagdalpur. In this way we want to equip the local youth with the necessary skills so that they can find employment when investments start flowing into the region in the near future.

We are also training tribal people, particularly women, to develop useful skills. Efforts are on to ensure that the public distribution system (PDS) is ultimately taken out of the hands of profit-seeking private dealers and, instead, run by panchayats, self-help groups, women's organisations and cooperatives that are adequately financed. We have already achieved 60 per cent success in this endeavour, and we soon hope to achieve 100 per cent success.

We are not neglecting the artisans, either. In fact, we have started a new venture of skill upgradation for potters, bamboo craftsmen and stone carvers. They are being encouraged to form groups of five, to whom we give a 100 per cent grant of Rs.1.5 lakh.

I believe that unless we provide gainful employment to the poorest section of society, it will be very difficult for us to reach at least the per capita income of Rs.29,000 at the national level. Chhattisgarh now has 45 per cent of its population living below the poverty line (BPL), with a per capita income of Rs.19,000 per annum. The improvement of the living standards of the poor in my State will also improve the national per capita income. Such small steps, we hope, will add up to make a big difference.

Chhattisgarh is the first State in the country to start bio-diesel production in the government sector. What are your plans in this field?

We tried bio-diesel as an experiment; and as for its future in the State, we are exploring its potential for creating jobs. These days, bio-diesel is being used to run trains, trucks, buses; Indian Oil Corporation and other companies are interested in buying bio-diesel. However, my main interest in bio-diesel is in its employment generation potential. If we can plant Jatropha seeds in one lakh hectares, it will be a source of livelihood for one lakh people. But we do not intend to do this through any multinational company or private players; the government itself will carry out this project.

CHITRAKOT FALLS, ONE of the principal tourist attractions of the State.-

The farmers, the forest people, and the forest committees will be engaged in collecting Jatropha seeds, which we shall buy from them and process. The plantations will be of a mixed variety, where along with Jatropha, there will also be bamboos and other trees like saal and mahua. We will mainly plant Jatropa saplings in degraded forest areas and barren tracts, and definitely not on fertile cultivable land.

We have also set up a bio-diesel production plant in the State capital. Recently we made a presentation before the President and he was very impressed with our achievement in this field. This year, we have planted 12 crore saplings. We started this project two years ago, and it is not something that yields immediate results. But let me tell you that for the last one year my own vehicle has been running 100 per cent on bio-diesel, and so far I have not faced any problems. I now want to send its engine to the Pune Automobile Research Institute, so that they can advise me on what changes need to be made to improve its efficiency.

What I wish to emphasise again is that Jatropha is not replacing paddy, wheat or soya. Wherever we see fallow land, we plant saplings. Besides, this will improve soil fertility, prevent soil erosion and help in soil conservation. Our farmers have always been aware of the utility of Jatropha as a lubricating material. What we have now done is to integrate it with the general economy of the State.

What are the important welfare projects your government has undertaken for the underprivileged people and in backward areas?

One of the major projects we have launched is the Amrit Namak Yojana to supply salt at 25 paise a kg to 23 lakh poor families. For those living above the poverty line, iodised Mahamaya Salt is available at Rs.4 a kg. We have supplied `charan paduka' [footwear] free of cost to over 12 lakh tribal people engaged in collecting tendu leaves.

Under the `Chhattisgarh Nirdhan Kanya Samoohik Vivah Yojana' the government extends a grant of Rs.5,000 each to BPL families for the wedding of their daughters. Marriages of more than 5,000 girls were solemnised within the first year of the scheme. We have also launched a Rs.600-crore project, in which we have identified one lakh families living below the poverty and have taken up a three-year programme of skill upgradation so that these families may have an opportunity to build better lives.

THE GOVERNMENT HAS undertaken a drive to plant Jatropha saplings on barren land. Raman Singh's car runs on bio-fuel produced from the plant.-

Around 45 per cent of the State's population live below the poverty line. We have many schemes for them, apart from free ration and salt; for example, textbooks are distributed free of cost to all schoolchildren; girl in classes IX and X are provided bicycles to encourage them to continue with their education.

Another major project of Rs.3,000 crores is aimed at improving the connectivity of the villages, especially the economically backward ones. Chhattisgarh stood second among the States in the implementation of the `Pradhanmantri Gram Sadak Yojana', under which 35 per cent of rural habitats were connected by all-weather roads. Besides, we have numerous employment schemes for the impoverished in the backward regions.

The naxalite movement is a major problem in the State. How are you tackling it?

For the past 20 years, all along the inter-State borders this left-wing extremism has been prevalent, especially in the hilly and tribal areas. We are concentrating on development work in these backward belts through schemes such as the Bastar Vikash Pradhikaran, Sarguja Vikash Pradhikaran, setting up police stations, improving connectivity with a network of roads and providing employment and irrigation facilities. We are trying to set up new schools in these regions and new hospitals. The main thing is instill hope in these people that we have not forgotten them and that we care for them. Let them feel - "In our villages too there shall be roads and electricity, wells for drinking water, kerosene and other PDS facilities." It is only such belief that will give them confidence in the government.

Already one can sense that they have had enough of the violence they had to endure for the last 18 years. Today, as a reaction, many tribal villages protest outright, telling the naxalites and those linked with naxalite activities that they should not enter their villages, that they want peace and development and not violence.

Your State abounds in exotic and interesting destinations - Chitrakot Falls, Champaran, the Kutumbsar caves, rock paintings in Bastar, Kanker, Durg, to name a few. What is your government doing to tap the tourist potential of the State?

An action plan is being implemented to develop Sirpur [the ancient Buddhist historical site] as an international tourist destination. It has the potential to be a world heritage site. As for the other places, from Chitrakot to Champaran and the surrounding areas, the first thing we are doing is to make these places more accessible. Apart from building roads, we are setting up guest houses, hotels, motels, and laying out electric lines. I am very happy with the progress we have made. As for air connectivity, we are linked to the four main metros, and I am also thinking of inter-State connectivity. We have also opened publicity offices in various parts of the country. I also wish to develop Raipur as a major city with five-star hotels, shopping malls, golf courses and so on. I have already spoken to some major players in the industry, like the Taj Group, and in two years I hope we shall be able to transform Raipur.

Another achievement in Chhattisgarh is the fall in the rural infant mortality rate, to 61 per thousand from an alarming 91 per thousand, in just five years. Please tell us about some other important public health programmes in recent times.

Public health is a most important priority for our government. This year alone we have sanctioned 200 more Primary Health Centres and 16 Community Health Centres. In places where there is a dearth of doctors, we have tried to fill the vacancies. In many places we have undertaken projects to upgrade the skills of mitalins [midwives]. Besides, 74 mobile dispensaries have been pressed into service in remote and forest areas.

One major problem in this State is that two-thirds of the infant deaths are those of children between one and six months of age; the rest are between six months to five years. The main killer is under-nourishment. We are working out a way to address this situation. We have brought about certain changes in the free midday meal scheme in schools for slightly older children to ensure that they get proper nourishment. We are also setting up separate Ayurveda units in government hospitals, and we have decided to set up the State's third Ayurveda hospital in Raipur.

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