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Jharkhand Prepares to Vote on the Burning Issues of a Young, Tribal State

On April 29, the incumbent BJP's talk of vikas will be tested against the opposition's demands for “Jal, jungle, zamin”.

In 2014, Jharkhand, a state with a 42% population of Scheduled Castes and Tribes, sent 14 MPs to the Lok Sabha – 12 from the BJP, and two from the opposition Jharkhand Mukti Morcha.

This time, as its 22 million voters and 220,000 first-time voters prepare for the polls, many of these seats seem up for grabs.

High-level BJP leaders like Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, Yogi Adityanath and Hema Malini are campaigning in the state, but regional parties are raising their game on social media and on the ground.

The BJP state government is the first to see out its full five years. Its term has been marked, however, by serious resistance to state policies forcing the eviction of Adivasis and other forest-dwellers, the merger of schools and the service regularisation of mid-day meal cooks, Anganwadi workers and school assistants.

Also Read: ‘Treated as Mere Vote Bank,’ Say Muslims Left Out of Jharkhand’s Grand Alliance

This organised resistance has, in various ways, coordinated with the Congress party’s grand alliance (with regional parties), creating a definitive shift in the state’s electoral narrative. Some headline issues from the past five years have become key electoral issues. Others have been swept under the carpet.

Leaders of the Grand Alliance in Jharkhand

Hunger

Over the past two years, more than 18 hunger-related deaths took place in Jharkhand – a strange phenomenon for a resource-rich state. Independent reports, the Right To Food Campaign and the opposition alliance blame the starvation deaths on the state failure to provide ‘food security’ – implicating the state and Central government’s policies on ration cards, pensions, mandatory Aadhaar-linkage and MGNREGA work.

The government, for instance, ordered 11.64 lakh ration cards of households without Aadhaar seeding to be cancelled. Food and civil supplies minister Saryu Roy later termed this as a “mistake”. But the ruling party has denied responsibility, and portrayed hunger deaths as natural – the result of prolonged illnesses, malnutrition or neglect.

Land rights

Land rights may be the crucial electoral issue in the state. Adivasi groups have desperately opposed amendments in laws that dilute tribal ownership and make it easier for the state to transfer land to industrial projects without local consent. This issue has brought together civil society and the political opposition, giving it a voice.

Also Read: Fact Check: Is Modi Really the Guardian of Tribal Rights in Jharkhand?

Despite the intensifying protests, Jharkhand chief minister Raghubar Das has consistently held that changes in the century-old tribal land protection laws are required for the welfare and development of the tribal population.

Modi, Jharkhand, Tribal rights, BJP Jharkhand

PM Narendra Modi with Jharkhand CM Raghubar Das in Lohardaga on Wednesday. Credit: PTI

Drought

Jharkhand has endured drought for two consecutive crop seasons: kharif (last year) and rabi (this year). There was extremely low yield, leading to an increase in migration as agriculture is the main source of employment for 75% of the population. Despite new irrigation projects, the state is still among the most  deprived of piped water. Drinking water is a major issue that resonates throughout the state.

Since 2014, the Centre has cut funding for rural drinking water and siphoned it towards sanitation projects. The issue has not gained much traction.

Jobs and wages

Another major issue for Jharkhand, as the rest of the India, is unemployment. The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy pegs unemployment rate in Jharkhand at 14%, as opposed to 7.3% nationally. The National Rural Employment Guarantee (MGNREGA) has not fared well in the state. Each eligible household got only 40 days of work on an average, against the guaranteed hundred. About 39% of the work demand was not met.

Also Read: Jharkhand’s Starvation Deaths Raise Questions About India’s Welfare Schemes

Under NREGA, the current wage is Rs 168 per day, as opposed to the Jharkhand government’s minimum wage of Rs 239 per day. The participation of Adivasi and Dalit workers in MGNREGA employment fell from almost 50% to 38% during the past three years. Further, according to Jharkhand NREGA Watch in the last three years, the state government has deleted seven lakh job cards.

Hate crime and women’s safety

An issue which has failed to make a mark is the state’s crumbling social milieu. 27 women were lynched in the past year alone after being accused of witchcraft. The numbers keep rising and Jharkhand has remained as the top state for “witch hunt murders” for the past four years.

Cow-related mob lynching is another distressing phenomenon in which Muslims, who constitute 15% of the state’s population, are the major victims. According to a conservative figures, around 17 Muslim men were lynched in the past three years. Of the most recent victims of cow related mob violence was an Adivasi christian who was murdered as the mob mistook his carved dead ox for a slaughtered cow. All political parties have steered clear from bringing this up in their public speeches or manifestos.

One of the Adivasi men injured in the mob violence. Credit: Twitter/Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha

Only time will tell whether “Jal, jungle, Zamin”, the cry of the opposition, or the incumbent party’s promise of vikas will prevail among the conflicting political narratives in Jharkhand.

If Human Development indicators are to be believed, the burning paradox is why a state with 40% of India’s mineral wealth still has the highest rate of poverty in India. Whether the state will depart from its previous preference or stay the course, the pre-election stage should be grounded on issues which matter.

Sania Mariam is a postgraduate from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She is currently working as an associate consultant with the Policy and Development Advisory Group. She is interested in politics, slam poetry and minority studies.