It's Festive Season in Poll-Bound Chhattisgarh as Ruling Party Hands out Freebies

If the distribution of land deeds translates into votes, Raman Singh may be looking at an unprecedented fourth term. But best laid out plans have a queer way of going awry in the bustle of Indian elections.

Gariyaband, Chhattisgarh: In remote Naxalite-bound Gariyaband, a stage has been set up for mantriji to play Santa Claus. He is not wearing Santa’s usual red coat – he is in a saffron bandi – but he has gifts for everyone. You want a pressure cooker? Here. You need a helmet? Here, this is yours. Janata is clamouring for more. ‘Free’, after all, is the most-loved word in the country. The list of semi-expensive items of daily use contains gas stoves, umbrellas, shoes and sewing machines. Santa-Mantriji hands them out cheerily as if he is aiming to become a Jain monk himself after sharing his wealth.

That, of course, is as far from truth as Pluto from here. It is all government’s cash supposed to be spent on public welfare but being used to net votes. It is not clear which part of the constitution allows such jamborees, but it has become commonplace in Chhattisgarh, which votes in two phases on November 12 and 20. Everything from mobile phones to land pattas and cash for housing for the poor was being distributed with a flourish till the very last hour before the election dates were declared on October 6. The smiling face of chief minister Raman Singh is ubiquitous, from the land pattas to requisition forms for mobile phones and free housing.

The mobile phones are bursting during recharge and the pressure cookers are fun. But the land pattas – these are serious business. Gariyaband is one of the districts in the state where pattas for people living on abaadi land for generations had not been given. Abaadi land is actually government land on which towns or villages come up over generations and is to be understood as separate from the land that can be bought, sold and registered. Without a patta, the hold over land is tenuous. And people in any case love to hold a title deed.

A policy decision was taken in this regard by revenue minister Prem Prakash Pandey around three years ago that pattas be distributed to existing occupants of abaadi land. The basis for the decision was manifold: Pandey’s main aim was to raise his department’s revenue-earning capacity. At present, people living on abaadi land, especially in scheduled areas, are unable to register sale of their land. Land or housing deals of unregistered abaadi land do not produce much revenue for the government. With a patta, ownership title becomes clear and in due course one can sell or purchase the land. Another important reason was that, places like Gariyaband that have recently become Nagar Palika do not have a tax structure based on square footage as in planned towns. Once the land is measured and recorded, tax collection would go up.

While the mobile phones are bursting during recharge and the pressure cookers are fun, the land pattas are a serious business.

The whole process takes a long time, as land in each revenue village has to be measured and ownership ascertained. Patwaris and revenue officers have to dig into their records and come up with accurate drawings based on ground realities and then put it on paper – nowadays on computer and Google-aided revenue maps. The process was begun three years ago, and it has culminated just in time for Raman Singh and the BJP to claim credit. Patta is being distributed like gold, and the recipients might feel obliged until they realise that they have actually brought themselves into the tax net.

The distribution of pattas has been tried before too as an election stunt, most noticeably by Arjun Singh in the 1980s. He may as well be credited with having invented the patta politics. He distributed pattas to all jhuggi dwellers in all major towns in MP, especially Bhopal. The distribution was so indiscriminate and rampant that JJ clusters near the mantralaya also profited. They have now become a problem for urban planners.

During his tenure as chief minister, Ajit Jogi also gave away pattas, which began to be referred to as Jogi Pattas. These were given on all types of land – nazul, forest and abaadi. But the process itself takes so long that in his short tenure of two-and-a-half years, he could not reap the benefit of his own scheme. Raman Singh did not try this trick during his first two terms, as he focused on distributing free salt, rice and pulses. He came to be known as Chaur Baba – Rice Santa. But the novelty of free rice and food guarantee programme has naturally faded after 15 years. In fact, in some areas of the state, it has become counter-productive where people are selling their one-rupee-a-kilo rice for Rs 15 and using the money to buy liquor, which is also sold through government shops.

An internal assessment of the BJP has concluded that free mobile phones with data given under the SKY scheme may not get the expected advantage, but the patta and the Pradhan Mandtri Awas Yojana have won over households. If this translates into votes, Raman Singh may be looking at an unprecedented fourth term. But best laid out plans have a queer way of going awry in the bustle of Indian elections.

Neeraj Mishra is a senior journalist who has covered elections in central India for more than two decades.