To Boost Their Vidarbha State Ambitions, Gadkari, Fadnavis Try to Bring Investments to Sleepy Nagpur

The people of Vidarbha are happy being a part of a developed state like Maharashtra, but both politicians have other plans.

Reliance (ADAG) chairman Anil Ambani and Dassault Chairman and CEO Eric Trappier lay the foundation stone of their new project in Nagpur on October 27. Credit: PTI

On October 27, the foundation stone of the Dhirubhai Ambani Aerospace Park was laid at the Multi-modal International Cargo Hub and Airport (MIHAN) at Nagpur. Union transport minister Nitin Gadkari and Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, both natives of the city, were present for the ceremony. This ambitious Rs 6,500-crore venture by Reliance Aerospace, a collaboration between the Anil Ambani group and Dassault Aviation of France, is the second major project at MIHAN. For both Gadkari and Fadnavis, this is an important step forward in their ambitious plan to make Nagpur an economic powerhouse.

For close to five decades not even a leaf stirred in Nagpur, the winter capital of Maharashtra. It remained a sleepy backwater, known for its oranges and educational institutions, but little else. In the last three years, however, its growth has been nothing short of phenomenal.

It was three years or so ago in May 2014 that the city elected Gadkari as its member of parliament – the first time the BJP could break the stranglehold of the Congress and the left of Centre parties in the headquarters of the RSS. More significantly, it was also exactly three years ago that Fadnavis, another Nagpur man, was sworn in as chief minister of Maharashtra. Both politicians, though not allies, have been doing their bit to boost investment in the city as part of their Vidarbha state dream.

“I would rather have been chief minister of Vidarbha,” Fadnavis had reportedly told Congress legislator Sanjay Dutt soon after his election. That was an indication, a suspicious Dutt says, that there are plans to hive off the region from Maharashtra.

On his part, in the run-up to the assembly elections, Gadkari had attempted to incite people into violence over Vidarbha. “Agitate like they did for Telangana. We will persuade Congress to go along with us like we did with them over dividing Andhra Pradesh,” he said. But he also had a crib: “Every time we organise a show for Vidarbha, some 50 people gather on the streets and disperse after a tepid response. No one goes further than that.” Not surprisingly, the incendiary appeal left the people of Vidarbha cold.

So Fadnavis and Gadkari have decided to do something about Vidarbha themselves. As soon as he was sworn in as Union roads minister, Gadkari kick-started a metro rail project in Nagpur, which most experts believe was totally unnecessary for the one-horse town that Nagpur has remained for decades. The metro covers the outlying areas of Nagpur beyond its airport which were once villages outside the municipal limits of the city but are now being developed and brought within its purview – essential if Nagpur has to be turned into a city worthy of a state capital.

Even more significant is the MIHAN, a special economic zone which was conceptualised and started in 2001 by the then chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh with the establishment of a Boeing cargo headquarters. MIHAN had no takers until recently but is now seeing a bit of activity.

Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis along with Union minister Nitin Gadkari. Credit: PTI

Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis along with Union minister Nitin Gadkari. Credit: PTI

Now there are two more bit projects in the offing. Reliance Aviation is one and Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali is another. It has been allotted 230 acres of land for a food park at Rs 60 crore, which is around 25% of the market rate. Despite a raging controversy about crony capitalism, Patanjali is briskly building a plant that will begin to bottle orange juice – Nagpur is the orange capital of India – from November 2018. Ramdev has already said Patanjali plans to drive Tropicana out of business. There is a backstory to this challenge as Tropicana is packaged at Dynamix Dairy in Baramati, the parliamentary constituency and home turf of Sharad Pawar.

Notwithstanding this apparent competition, Gadkari, and perhaps even Fadnavis, is fascinated by Pawar’s model of business and politics. Pawar has succeeded in turning a drought-prone once-barren area into a lush agricultural and horticultural expanse and industrial hub that has generated massive employment. This has, in turn, converted the political constituency into his pocket borough – he or his family have never lost a single election there even in adverse times. MIHAN is part of the Gadkari plan to emulate that model and he hopes to bring in many more investors.

But so far there are just three investors and that is not enough, say skeptics.

Apprehensions over separation of Vidarbha

According to Rahul Kale, a second generation entrepreneur running a successful cosmetics business from the region, MIHAN essentially remains about land speculation and not about industries. The industrial zones of Baramati and Buti Bori near Nagpur were inaugurated on the same day in the 1970s by the same chief minister. Yet Baramati today is humming with industries while there are hardly any investors in Nagpur, which has essentially remained backward.

Kale says the argument for separation of Vidarbha from Maharashtra for growth is not a valid one. When Vidarbha separated from the Mahakaushal region of Madhya Pradesh, its per capita income (PCI) and human development index (HDI) were at par with the contiguous districts of Betul, Seoni and Balaghat in MP, which are similar in terms of climate, rainfall, soil quality, etc. Yet today Vidarbha is way ahead in terms of HDI and PCI – so while Vidarbha might be ‘backward’ in comparison with western Maharashtra, it has benefited by its association with Maharashtra. There are real fears that if Vidarbha separates, it could end up like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, which today are worse off than they were as parts of Bihar and MP.

All India Congress Committee general secretary Avinash Pande, a former Rajya Sabha MP and former MLA from Nagpur agrees. “Today I can proudly say I am from an A grade state like Maharashtra. There are large sections of youngsters who look to Mumbai for their future. They do not want to end up as citizens of a C grade state that Vidarbha will become in case of separation. I am for a separate Vidarbha but not before we catch up with Mumbai and western Maharashtra. ”

Conscious of those reservations among the people from the region, that is precisely what Fadnavis is going about doing, but quietly – playing catch up. Apart from educational and career opportunities for the youth, Nagpur has some premiere markets like in wood (it is also the frames capital of India), iron, coal and manganese, etc. Traders have threatened to shift operations to Mumbai, which is an important outlet for their produce, in case Vidarbha separates from Maharashtra. This could further deprive Vidarbha of its economic importance.

To combat that threat, Fadnavis has thrown his weight behind the Samruddhi Expressway between Nagpur and Mumbai. This 750 km highway, crucial to Vidarbha, is a prestige project for him but has not yet moved forward essentially because farmers in Amravati, Aurangabad and Nashik, on the way, are bitterly opposed to the acquisition of fertile patches of land.

The expressway is also aimed at moving industries from Mumbai to Nagpur and giving those in Nagpur easy access to ports in Mumbai. There is speculation that the Bombay Port Trust (BPT) will be shifted to Porbandar and there has been an ongoing effort to shift the diamond bourse to Surat. Branches of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) have already been shifted to Ahmedabad.

Some Shiv Sena activists, especially those who deal with labour unions in the RBI and BPT, have raised the issue because they fear job losses and a depletion of their vote banks, but the party has not fully grasped the implications of Mumbai losing its industries and institutions which will be farmed out between Vidarbha and Gujarat. That will completely take away Mumbai’s status as a commercial capital and give a boost to Vidarbha.

Yet, all of Fadnavis’s hopes and plans may come up with the harsh reality in Nagpur. New malls and multiplexes have been built but that is still real estate without industry – what use will those shops selling international brands be?

Nitin Raut, a former guardian minister of the district says, “Banks have stopped extending credit to the Nagpur Municipal Corporation, the city has become a garbage dump because the corporation cannot pay wages to its workers to collect the trash and unplanned infrastructure built unscientifically has led the authorities to dig up roads again and again. Bridges are demolished within a few years of constructing them because the alignment went all wrong. Does that make for a capital city?’’

“Companies like Godrej and Tata rushed in to build townships on the expectation of the growth. But sales are at a standstill. Patanjali can at the most create 50,000 jobs, Reliance a few more. That number is not enough to sustain the economy,” he says.

No attention has been paid to rural Vidarbha. Hemant Gadkari of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena says, “What we need is not separation of Vidarbha from Maharashtra but establishment of irrigation facilities and re-establishment of ginning and spinning mills that have shut down over the decades and are now being converted into malls.” He says farmers whose land has been acquired for MIHAN will at best find jobs as peons and watchmen in Patanjali and Reliance because they are not skilled for industry.

Perhaps conscious of this, Gadkari announced last week that the long-pending – and jinxed – Gosikhurd dam project is being revived with an infusion of Rs 750 crore under the Prime Minister Agriculture and Irrigation scheme. The dam will help irrigate 2.5 hectares of land in the four districts of Gondia, Bhandara, Chandrapur and Nagpur.

For the moment, both Nagpur politicians are directing their efforts in making the state, or at least the city, a buzzing industrial hive. But they will need to do much more than bring in a couple of big ticket investors. Most people in the state are quite comfortable with being part of Maharashtra and unless they see real economic and growth prospects which translate into jobs and a better life for themselves, Gadkari and Fadnavis can bid goodbye to their Vidarbha state dream.

Sujata Anandan is an author and journalist based in Mumbai.

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  • ashok759

    A very candid assessment of the region from a Nagpur girl.