Ananth Krishnan

MUMBAI: You wouldn’t know that the 13 constituencies in eastern Maharashtra that go to the polls this Thursday are in the midst of one of the worst-ever agrarian crises looking at how well the region’s political leaders have done for themselves these past five years.

In Wardha district in Vidarbha, at the heart of the agrarian distress that has claimed the lives of thousands of farmers, the net worth of candidates contesting this election increased by as much as 1,157 per cent since the last general election in 2004, according to affidavits they have submitted.

Datta Meghe, the Congress candidate from Wardha, is the second-richest candidate in eastern Maharashtra’s 13 constituencies with declared assets worth Rs. 31 crore. He only trails the Nationalist Congress Party’s candidate from Bhandara-Gondia, Praful Patel, in the wealth-stakes. Mr. Patel, who is the Union Minister for Civil Aviation, towers over the rest with declared assets worth Rs. 89 crore.

Mr. Meghe and Mr. Patel are two of at least 29 crorepatis among the 242 candidates that will stand for election in this region on April 16. Since 2004, the average asset value of Vidarbha’s candidates has more than doubled from Rs. 31 lakh to Rs. 81 lakh in 2009.

First time

This general election, the public can for the first time assess how much money candidates have made while in office.

The general election in 2004 was the first after the Election Commission made it mandatory for candidates to submit detailed affidavits declaring their assets when filing their nominations.

According to the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), increases in the assets of candidates in Maharashtra’s 13 constituencies that go to the polls in the first phase of elections in the State were the highest in Wardha.

Other constituencies though, were not far behind. In Nanded, the average assets of candidates increased by 305 per cent, and in Akola, 230 per cent.

In Gadchiroli, a constituency torn apart by naxalite violence, its leaders were 200 per cent richer in 2009. Three out of 11 candidates here had assets in excess of Rs. 1 crore.

“When we see the assets of political leaders increase by so much, that too in one of Maharashtra’s poorest regions with the lowest Human Development Indices, it is surely a matter of concern,” said Ajit Ranade, an economist and member of ADR.

While affidavits reveal how much money candidates have made since the last general election in 2004, they do not, however, detail where the new sources of income came from — something citizen groups are pushing the Election Commission to act on by asking candidates for a more detailed declaration of their assets.

“Unfortunately, we do not know where the growth happened as disclosures do not ask for sources of income,” said Dolphy D’Souza of the Mumbai-based Group of Groups non-governmental organisation.

“When candidates’ assets have increased by such an amount, we need to know what the sources of funds were. This needs to be a priority in electoral reforms. One thing is clear though. Being a politician makes good business sense.”