Looking for Modi

Looking for Modi: Cows, lies and thirst in a border district of Rajasthan

This is the second report in our series which revisits places from Narendra Modi’s 2014 campaign.

In April 2014, as part of his election campaign, Narendra Modi travelled to Barmer district in the south of Rajasthan, on the border with Pakistan. In this bone-dry district that has large reserves of oil, he promised to bring Narmada water to more villages and set up a petroleum university that would train young people for jobs in the oil industry. Four years later, what has his government delivered? Scroll.in travelled to Barmer in the first week of July to find out.

“Pradhan mantri aa rahe hai.” The prime minister is coming.

The prime minister was coming to Jaipur, 540 km away. But in the first week of July, every government office in Barmer was anxiously preparing for Narendra Modi’s visit. Block development officers had carefully shortlisted 5,000 beneficiaries of government schemes from the district who could be relied upon to not shout slogans in Modi’s presence or wave black flags, which is what had happened at his last rally in Rajasthan in March. It had led to the arrest of eight people.

Of the 5,000 people travelling to Jaipur, a handful had qualified for a seat in the special enclosure that the prime minister was expected to stroll through. “A team from the chief minister’s office had come to record videos,” said a district official, “to identify who could speak well and to train them to give the right answers.”

The Barmer administration had arranged buses to take the beneficiaries to the Jaipur rally, which would be attended by two lakh participants from across Rajasthan. The cost: Rs 24 lakh for Barmer, Rs 7.23 crore for the state. This was just transport. The full cost of the rally to the public exchequer is not known.

The police was asked to track the buses at every toll gate on the highway – “high-level naka bandi”, Rameshwar Lal, the additional superintendent of police, Barmer district, called it. “Make sure you count the number of people inside every bus at every naka,” he briefed his men. “This is top most priority.”

In honour of the prime minister’s visit, the district president of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Barmer, Jalam Singh Rawlot, had suspended the protest he was leading to draw attention to “the growth of Muslim population on the border with Pakistan”.

The trigger for the protest was the rape and murder of a child. On June 22, a 7-year-old girl belonging to the Dalit Meghwal community was raped and strangled, allegedly by a Muslim neighbour, who dumped her body in an underground water tank. Within hours, the police had arrested him, with the help of the residents of Unrod village, most of whom are Muslims. The chargesheet was filed on June 30. The first court hearing was held on July 5. In the village, the child’s family said they were satisfied with the investigation. Their Muslim neighbours held a small protest and submitted a petition to the administration, asking for the accused to be sentenced to death.

Despite the complete absence of any communal strife in the village, Rawlot wrote a letter to the chief minister, alleging that Muslims were committing atrocities on Dalits in border villages. The crimes were going unnoticed, which was stirring Dalit anger against the government.

Dalit leaders in Barmer were quick to rubbish Rawlot’s arguments. Rajputs, not Muslims, were oppressing Dalits, they said.

At this, Rawlot frothed in anger. He said leaders of the Bahujan Samaj Party and Bamcef, an organisation of employees belonging to Dalit and backward communities, should be beaten in public. “If they had their way, this area will become Pakistan,” he said. “Inki sare aam pitayi honi chahiye. I call upon people to beat them.”

But didn’t this amount to taking the law in his hands?

Sirf ahwaan kiya hai. I have only made a call,” he said, with a smile. “Peeta to nahi hai. I haven’t beaten them up.”

A long-time worker of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological parent, Rawlot, 53, is a product of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. In 1999, he rose to become the general secretary of the Seema Jan Kalyan Samiti, an RSS organisation active in the four border districts of Rajasthan, which aims to create “a civil line of secondary defence along the international border”. Rawlot’s successor, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, is now a minister in the Modi government.

The ascendance of Modi in Delhi, one year after the victory of the BJP in the state elections, had strengthened the RSS’s grip on Rajasthan. Four years later, the repercussions can be felt even in a remote district like Barmer.

Rawlot criticised the local MP and MLA – both from the BJP – for not visiting Unrod. “They want the votes of Muslims.”

The local MLA, Manvendra Singh, said the child’s rape and murder was “akin to cow slaughter”. “In the local context, cows are important to people’s livelihoods, and cow slaughter is seen as the worst crime.”

Jallam Singh Rawlot holds forth in room number one of the government guest house run by the state public works department. Despite not being an elected representative, he occupies the room permanently.
Jallam Singh Rawlot holds forth in room number one of the government guest house run by the state public works department. Despite not being an elected representative, he occupies the room permanently.

In Jaipur, addressing the gathering on July 7, Modi made jabs at the Congress. With another state election coming up, he was in full campaign mode. He bragged about 13 infrastructure projects that BJP governments in the state and the Centre had started – one of them, an oil refinery to be built in Pachpadra, Barmer.

The foundation stone for the project had been laid by the previous Congress government in 2013. But the project had been put on hold after the BJP came to power. It was revived in 2017, and in January 2018, Modi travelled to Barmer for a “work commencement ceremony”.

Six months later, he boasted in Jaipur: “Today, work on the refinery is going on at an accelerated pace. This is how the present government works. Na cheezein atakti hai, na latakti hai, na bhatakti hai. Neither do projects get stuck, nor are they stalled.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the public meeting in Jaipur on July 7. Photo: HT
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the public meeting in Jaipur on July 7. Photo: HT

For all of Modi’s bluster, the only visible sign of the refinery project in Pachpadra were stumps of a ten-feet high wall, and trucks lumbering through the ripples of sand.

The refinery was first proposed in 2004 by the government-owned company, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation of India, after large reserves of crude oil were discovered in the district. But the ONGC scrapped the proposal in 2007 – its chairman said the project was not viable. Rajasthan’s then chief minister, Ashok Gehlot of the Congress, however, persisted. In March 2013, another government-owned company, the Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited, signed an agreement with the state to set up a refinery with the capacity to process 9 million metric tonnes of crude oil per annum into petroleum products.

Eight months later, Gehlot lost the state elections. The next government led by Vasundhara Raje hired a financial consultant to re-evaluate the project. In July 2017, the state signed a fresh agreement with HPCL. The Raje government claimed the revised terms had led to savings of Rs 40,000 crore for the state. The viability gap funding, or the state’s grant to make the project viable, had dropped from Rs 56,040 crore to Rs 16,845 crore.

In his speech in January, Modi cemented this perception. “I have come to inaugurate a project in which I stand to lose,” he said. “This is a losing proposition for the government of India.”

He added: “Not only does Vasundhara ji have the sanskaar of a royal family, by drinking the water of Rajasthan, she has acquired the instincts of Marwaris.”

He claimed she had extracted savings for the state by squeezing the government of India.

It was an empty boast.

“HPCL does not lose out,” a senior official of the Rajasthan government told Scroll.in. “Their component [of expenditure] remains the same. They do not need to invest more.”

The cost of the project had come down, he said, because of fortuitous circumstances. “Fuel prices in 2013 were $140 per barrel, now they are $40-$75 per barrel, but product prices are the same,” he said. “The present market scenario supports the project.”

What the state had not advertised was the change in the project’s fuel mix. According to the 2013 agreement, the refinery would process 4.5 million metric tonnes of crude drilled in Barmer, with an equal amount of Arab crude imported from the Gulf. In the 2017 agreement, this had changed to 1.5 million metric tonnes of Rajasthan crude mixed with 7.5 million metric tonnes of Arab crude for the first eight years of the project, followed by all nine million metric tonnes of imported crude for its remaining lifetime. The state official said this was because of doubts over how long the crude in Barmer’s existing oilfields would last. He denied the use of imported crude would lead to higher costs.

But an analyst who tracks the oil sector questioned the logic of building an inland refinery based on imported crude in a corner of Rajasthan. “You either set up a refinery on the coast, to cut down the cost of importing crude, or near the market where you sell the products,” he said. “Barmer has neither.”

Far removed from the debates over the economics of the project, the residents of Pachpadra have their own reasons for doubting Modi’s claims.

“If they [the BJP government] wanted to build the refinery, why did they wait for four years?” asked Ram Babu Arora, a shopkeeper in Pachpadra. “Why start the work in an election year?”

Yeh chunaavi refinery hai. This is an election refinery,” he said.

In the nearby town of Balotra, where textile mills working round the clock produce India’s largest volume of poplene, the fabric used to make women’s petticoats, industrial owners too were sceptical of the refinery’s prospects. In 2013, many of them had bought land near the proposed project site, anticipating a real estate boom. But after it was put on hold, the speculative bubble burst, many lost money. This time, not a single deal had been struck, said an industrialist. “Market thanda hai. The market is cold.”

Even the salt producers, who work on the government land allotted to the refinery, discerned a difference between the Congress and BJP governments.

“Ashok Gehlot put in every effort to bring the refinery to Pachpadra because he is from neighbouring Jodhpur,” said Parasmal Kharwal, the president of the salt producers’ committee. Added a retired government teacher, “Uski mansha lagane ki thi, inki dikhawe ki hai. His intent was to set up the refinery, theirs is to show off.”

Despite that, when Modi came visiting, the salt producers decided not to leave anything to chance. They had already legally challenged the cancellation of leases for 198 salt pans that they claimed their families had harvested for 500 years. To draw attention to their losses, and ask for alternative land to mine salt, they decided to unfurl black flags on their rooftops. But the administration asked them not to.

Black had been banished from Pachpadra. At the entry gates to the Modi rally, those wearing black coats were asked to remove them. “A pile of black clothes collected outside,” said Kharwal. “Nobody got them back.”

This has added to the unhappiness of the salt pan workers. “Under the rule of Modi, the praja is unhappy,” said Mahesh Kharwal, who claimed to be a BJP supporter. “Mazdoori nahi hai. There is no work.”

He attributed this to a slew of factors: demonetisation, the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax last year, a ban on gravel mining in Rajasthan. But the ban was imposed by the Supreme Court, I pointed out. So what? he replied. Modi and Raje had failed to challenge it, he said. Their party men were the only ones able to access the gravel illegally.

In Balotra, the textile industrialists were keen to show the mountain of paperwork they were tackling everyday under the new GST regime.

The latest headache, said Subhash Mehta, the chairman of the town’s industrial trust, were e-way bills, which need to be generated every time goods worth more than Rs 50,000 are moved from one place to another. Mehta gave the example of his own integrated textile business, which has a turnover of Rs 300 crore, and is spread over many small units in Balotra. “When we expanded, we ran out of space, and bought new sheds,” he said. “Now when we move goods from one shed to another, we need to prepare an e-way bill.”

Among the industrialists, most of whom were Jains and claimed to be traditional supporters of the BJP, the consensus was that the past four years had not been good for business. But opinion on the Modi government was divided. “Zero,” said an industrialist, when asked about the government’s work. “But,” interjected his son, “Modi is a good man.”

Balotra is where Modi delivered his campaign speech in April 2014. He compared Barmer to Kutch, the neighbouring district in Gujarat, which he claimed his government had transformed from a land where Border Security Force jawans had once thirsted for water that had to be brought to their camps on camel backs into a lush green land that exported mangoes to the world. All because of water from the Narmada river project. “If it can happen in the desert of Kutch, can this not happen in Barmer?” Modi asked. “Don’t you trust me? Don’t you believe I will make it happen? Brothers and sisters, I want to tell you I do not make false promises, I do not throw dust in people’s eyes. If you trust me, vote for me, otherwise don’t.”

A hundred and fifty km away from Balotra, on the border in Barmer, four years later, BSF jawans are still thirsting for water.

Narmada water had reached one end of Barmer in 2008. But the construction of canals needed to bring it forward has been slow. In Dhorimanna block’s Khari village, Gumna Ram said the canal had stopped 2 km short of his fields five years ago. “Since Modi came, it has not moved an inch.”

Drinking water has not been a priority of the Modi government. The Ministry of Water and Sanitation has seen drastic cuts in the budget for the National Rural Drinking Water Programme, even as spending on the Swachh Bharat Mission has risen. Most of it has been used to build toilets. Asked about their utilisation rate, an official in Barmer said, “It’s not bad. At least 50% [are being used].”

In 2016, a parliamentary committee grilled the secretary of the Ministry of Water and Sanitation on the lack of improvement in drinking water access. “How are we going to achieve coverage with half the money?” he said. “It is a very basic question, which we are also asking ourselves.”

Experiencing a sharp decline in central funds under the National Rural Drinking Water Programme, Rajasthan has tried to bridge the gap by raising loans from international agencies.

To illustrate the problem with central funds, Vinod Bharati, an executive engineer of the public health and engineering department in Barmer, showed the budget documents of a water supply project he has been implementing since January 2017. The project cost is Rs 595 crore. The centre has so far allocated just Rs 10 crore.

Not only are central funds meagre, they are released at the end of the financial year, Bharati said, by which time the department has already made payments using state funds.

In the villages, spending on water remains high. Gumna Ram’s family buys a tanker of water for Rs 800 every month, which is transferred to their underground tanks, locally called tanka. Built using Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee funds, these tankas – more than a lakh in the district – collect rainwater in the monsoon months.

In his first year in government, Modi had mocked the rural job scheme started by the previous Congress-led government as “a living monument” of its failures. But, in the villages of Barmer, the tankas built under MNREGA are the only support that people have in their monumental struggle for water.

Laxman Badera lives in a Dalit colony near the railway tracks in Barmer city. A retired government employee, he set up a union for construction workers in 2006, and is known widely as a “mazdoor neta” or workers’ leader.

In 2014, he attended Modi’s rally – “to know the thoughts of India’s future prime minister of India” – and came back impressed with his vision of a petroleum university. “Young people thought the university would come up, they would get trained, they will get jobs,” he said. “But it came to nothing.”

He said: “The only jobs the Modi government has created are in toilet construction.”

One idea of the government that Badera initially greeted enthusiastically was the provision of accident insurance cover for an annual premium of just Rs 12, and life insurance cover for just Rs 330, available to all those who opened Jan Dhan bank accounts. The prime minister frequently boasts that these bank accounts, which require zero deposits, have given India’s poor unprecedented access to banking. But Badera pointed out these accounts were useless. He spends much of time writing applications to banks on behalf of worker families who are unable to access their insurance payments amounting to Rs 2 lakh because their Jan Dhan accounts have an upper limit of Rs 50,000.

Sanju Devi, who lives in a slum in Barmer, lost her husband in 2016. To access Rs 2 lakh of government money, she had to open a new bank account, for which she needed to get a permanent account number, which was possible only through Badera’s persistent follow-ups.

In Rajasthan, the Jan Dhan accounts have also proved inadequate for another of Modi government’s flagship schemes: the Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana, which gives housing grants of Rs 1.48 lakh to rural families to build pucca houses. While the first installment of Rs 30,000 arrived without a hitch, beneficiaries in Rajasthan could not get the second installment of Rs 60,000, because it breached the upper limit of the Jan Dhan accounts.

The state has now reduced the second installment to Rs 48,000. But this hasn’t entirely solved the problem, said an official. “Sometimes people have Rs 3,000 in the account from other schemes. Till that is withdrawn, Rs 48,000 cannot be deposited.”

Of all the promises he made in Barmer in 2014, the one that Modi seems to have taken most seriously is citizenship for Hindu refugees from Pakistan.

In 2014, he had said: “When a Bangladeshi infiltrates, the contractors of votebank politics lay out the red carpet for him, dance with him riding on their shoulders, break every law for him. But nobody cares for my people who have fled Pakistan only for saying Bharat Mata ki Jai. Shouldn’t the government care for them?”

His government has introduced a controversial amendment to the Citizenship Act that would facilitate citizenship for all illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan, barring Muslims. The amendment is yet to be passed.

But, through executive fiat in September 2015, the government had already made asylum in India contingent on religion. Unless the asylum seekers happened to be Muslim, they would effectively be allowed shelter in India even if they had entered the country illegally.

In Barmer, nearly one hundred Hindu families who migrated from Pakistan are still waiting for citizenship. Devi Daan Charan, a 77-year-old who crossed the border in 2007, grumbled about the bureaucratic red-tape that his family has had to navigate to get clearances, and said it had not eased under the Modi government. But he added: “Modi Sahab is 1000% better than the others.”

In the middle of making arrangements for the Modi rally, Rameshwar Lal, the additional superintendent of police in Barmer district, spoke with pride of the record time in which the investigation of the Unrod child rape case was completed.

He was equally proud of the police’s success in arresting top Dalit leaders for the mob violence that took place on April 2. That day, across several states in north and central India, Dalits and Adivasis had called for a shutdown to protest the dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes Atrocities Act. In Barmer, at a major traffic intersection, Dalit protestors got into an altercation with a shop vendor, which triggered clashes with upper caste groups.

Lal said the police brought the situation under control swiftly. “I personally went with the Dalit leaders to the collector’s office, where they presented a petition,” he said. “But in the meantime some Dalit youth went to the Kotwali police station and started pelting stones.”

Heavy police action followed. Subsequently, the police arrested more than 40 people, including the Dalit leaders who were seated inside the collector’s office when the stone pelting was taking place. “They were arrested for a reason,” Lal said, defending the arrests. “They had made speeches, which provoked the youth.”

But this was not the only case of mob violence that had taken place in Barmer in recent months.

In June 2017, officials of Tamil Nadu government’s animal husbandry department had travelled to Jaisalmer, the neighbouring district of Barmer, to buy cows of Rajasthan’s famed Tharparkar breed. The trucks, in which the cows were being transported, stopped at a dhaba on the edge of Barmer city. Word spread among Hindutva groups that the cows were being taken for slaughter. Even though it was nearly 10 in the night, a mob of 150 people gathered on the spot.

They beat up the drivers and nearly set one truck on fire. Lal, who rushed there, tried to intervene, announcing to the mob that the trucks had all the official papers in order. But the mob did not quieten down. “Stones came pelting at us from the streets,” he recalled. “Thankfully, we had helmets on.”

Asked who had spread the rumours, he gave a vague answer: “All those who believe in gau raksha.”

The police eventually made 16 arrests in the case, prompting members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal to barge into a meeting of BJP leaders, including Barmer’s district president Jalam Singh Rawlot. “A government that cannot support cow vigilantes has to be changed,” they reportedly said. “It is a worthless government.”

One year later, what is the status of the investigation? “I don’t know,” said Lal, evasively. “The case diary has been transferred to Sanchore district.”

He did not want to comment on the reasons for the transfer, or talk about why cases of cow-related violence were on the rise in the state. But a visitor in his office, overhearing the conversation, quipped: “Isliye kyunki ab filein jaldi change ho jaati hai.” Because now case files get transferred swiftly.

On a bus from Balotra to Barmer, a man raised donations for a cow shelter.
On a bus from Balotra to Barmer, a man raised donations for a cow shelter.

Read the first report in this series: Looking for Modi: Incomplete houses, broken toilets, Adivasi anger in one district of Madhya Pradesh

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