There are more fronts in the fray across the State this time. And with multi-cornered contests in almost all seats, there could be some major upsets.
Unfazed by either drought or swine flu, the Congress party in the State was celebrating a victory in the upcoming Assembly elections even before these had been announced. The Congress-NCP alliance had won 25 of the State’s 48 Lok Sabha seats in May this year. The rival Sena-BJP front won 20 and others took 3. This convinced the Congress of two things. One, they would repeat their win in the Assembly polls now set for October 13. The ‘bounce’ from the Lok Sabha win will boost them further. And two, the NCP is at their mercy (which at this point it does seem to be).
In the Lok Sabha polls this year, the Congress-NCP led in 133 of 288 Assembly segments. That’s just eleven more than the number of segments the BJP-Sena alliance led in. If this were repeated in the Assembly polls, neither side would have a majority on its own. And new fronts will cause upsets in sundry seats. Then what accounts for the confidence? In two words — Raj Thackeray. The MNS’s showing torpedoed the Shiv Sena in the Mumbai-Thane region. (Never mind that these polls could be fought on different terms and issues.)
With voting just over a month away, it’s worth asking: How has this State done in the past few years? How have governments performed?
Maharashtra lost two million jobs before the “economic slowdown” began. Food production was reckoned to have fallen 24 per cent — oilseeds 49 per cent and sugarcane 43 per cent — in 2008-09. All that, without a drought. The State is third from the bottom in the country in terms of people living in poverty. Fifth from the bottom in terms of percentages. Over thirty million people, or close to a third of Maharashtra’s population, are BPL. It is also the State worst-hit by a policy-driven agrarian crisis — a very different thing from drought. It has seen over 40,000 farmers suicides since 1995.
The State government’s own economic survey reveals plenty. It shows that employment in Maharashtra, “which was on the rise till 2004-05 at 4.3 crore, declined to 4.1 crore in 2007-08, clearly indicating the footprint of recession.” The last six words are a joke. That figure ends at March 2008. The global shock struck more than five months later. It does raise the question, though: if the State could lose so many jobs before the slowdown, how many must have vanished once that began?
Maharashtra lost those two million jobs in 2005-06, 2006-07 and 2007-08. It means that, on average, over 1,800 people lost their jobs every day in that period. In a time of rising food prices (and falling foodgrain output in the State). So how did it fare in 2008-09? We don’t know the half of it. But we do know that employment generation under various schemes fell 30 per cent. In fact a drop of 18 million days compared to 2007-08.
However, it was also during that time that India made steady progress in the Forbes lists of dollar billionaires, crossing the 51 mark (i.e. Rank 4 in the world) by 2008. More than 20 of those billionaires had an address in Mumbai. One of them is doing the city proud, building what must rank amongst the costliest residences in the planet. That, while over half the people in his city rot in slums. His Xanadu — with 27 storeys and three helipads — will be a tourist landmark. Also a shining symbol of the obscene inequality this State revels in.
As the price rise shredded household budgets these past few years, some governments tried to reduce its impact on their people. Those in Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, amongst others, unilaterally increased the “BPL population” in their states. They then gave them cheap rice at Rs. 2 a kilo. (Or even Rs. 1 a kilo as in Tamil Nadu). The government of Maharashtra did nothing of the sort. The number of workdays fell when a hungry population needed them most.
Next door, Andhra Pradesh mourns a chief minister who will be remembered for boosting the NREGs, old age and women’s pensions, and rice at Rs. 2 a kilo. The previous chief minister of Maharashtra’s most memorable moment came when he visited the terror-attack shattered Taj and Trident Hotels with his actor son and Bollywood’s Ram Gopal Varma in tow. Disaster tourists checking out the rich cinematic promise thrown up by the tragic events. But he too cared for the down and out, too, he told the media. After all, pointed out Mr. Vilasrao Deshmukh, he had not prosecuted all those farmers committing suicide in his State on his watch. “Committing suicide is an offence under the Indian Penal Code. But did we book any farmer for this offence? Have you reported that?” ( The Hindustan Times, October 31, 2007).
The present Chief Minister, less given to such talk, nonetheless declares he will take the State even further ahead. “It is my dream to raise the per capita income in the state to Rs. 1 lakh.” Well he’s got part of it right. It is a dream. The government is proud that Maharashtra’s per capita income (2007-08) “is higher than the national income.” And that “the State ranks second after Haryana among the major states of India.” The State’s per capita income was a hefty Rs. 47,051. Per capita National Income was a piffling Rs. 33,282.
The State’s per capita income is an odd construct resting on a few rich regions. Move out of those and it plummets. Mumbai — home to more dollar billionaires than all the Nordic nations put together in 2008 — has a per capita income of Rs. 73,930. In the well-off Konkan region that is Rs. 66,197. Get down to Aurangabad in Marathwada and you’re looking at Rs. 30,499. Cross into Vidharbha and you’re a little over Rs. 29,000. So the Rs. 47,051 figure reflects no one’s reality well. What’s clear are the stunning regional, class and caste inequalities of the State.
Only Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have more human beings below the poverty line than Maharashtra does. In percentage terms (at 30.7 per cent BPL), the State moves up a slot — above Madhya Pradesh amongst bigger states. In 1993-94, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Maharashtra had more or less the same BPL ratio — around 36 per cent. By 2004-05 those two states had sharply reduced their poverty figures both in absolute terms and in percentages. Maharashtra’s percentage fell much less than theirs. And the Sate’s total BPL number went up not down. But heck, let’s dream. Rs. 1 lakh per capita income it shall be.
Mumbai, too, with all its wealth, has its own Third World within: The National Family Health Survey (NFHS - 3) shows us that 40 per cent of children below 3 years of age in Mumbai are malnourished. That, by the way, is higher than the State’s average. Mumbai also has millions who live on less than Rs. 19 a day. Yet rural-urban disparities, too, are real. As the NGO Sathi points out in its “Report on Health Inequities in Maharashtra,” the rural parts of the state have 22 hospital beds per lakh of population. In urban Maharashtra, that is 431 beds. This does not stop the government from claiming to be “at the forefront of health care development in India.”
Per capita foodgrain production in Maharashtra was just about 100 kilograms (2004-05) says the State’s economic survey. (That’s a nearly 40 per cent deficit against its minimum requirement.) It was around 212 in Madhya Pradesh, 166 in Andhra Pradesh, 186 in Karnataka, all neighbours. It was 262 kg in Bihar at the time.
And then there’s all those farmers the government was nice to. The suicide victims it did not prosecute. National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data reveal 40,666 farmers suicides in Maharashtra between 1995 and 2007. The State accounts for over a fifth of all such deaths in India. In 2007, Maharashtra logged over 38 per cent of all farm suicides in the five States worst-hit by the phenomenon. It was the only State that saw, since 1997, an increase of over 100 per cent in farm suicides — while actually recording a two per cent decline in suicides by non-farmers.
All this has not dampened the Congress’ spirit. It is sure it will win the way it did in the Lok Sabha polls: against a split opposition, with the Shiv Sena hobbled by a lame duck BJP on the one hand and undercut by an aggressive Raj Thackeray on the other. But there are more fronts in the fray across the State this time. And with multi-cornered contests in almost all seats, there could be some major upsets. The more so in a situation where no one is sitting on a majority.