People’s Loss, CM’s Gain

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Slippery slope Ashok Gehlot is facing a rebellion following his decision to shift the refinery site,  Photo: Vinita Saini
Slippery slope Ashok Gehlot is facing a rebellion following his decision to shift the refinery site, Photo: Vinita Saini

Less than five months before he faces Assembly polls, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot stands accused of moving the site of a much-anticipated oil refinery, allegedly to assure his son a safe passage into politics. Although Congress leaders did not rule out Vaibhav Gehlot’s candidature from around the family’s stronghold in Jodhpur — most likely Pachpadra, where the refinery is now going to come up — the government’s stance is that the new location was identified after weighing in over a dozen parameters such as proximity to the border, water supply, land availability, etc.

Chief Secretary (Mines and Petroleum) Sudhanshu Pant said the decision was taken on 24 June on the basis of a report prepared by a team, which included Hindustan Petroleum Corp Ltd (HPCL) officials, headed by him.

“You know how cumbersome it is to acquire land from farmers, and the exorbitant compensation that is sought. The government owned 11,000 bighas in Pachpadra, so we thought why not move it there,” said Pant.

Apparently, reports surfaced that farmers in Leelala — the original site for the refinery — were asking for Rs 1 crore per bigha as compensation.

However, Col Sonaram Chaudhary, the Congress MLA from the region, has rubbished this claim. At a press conference in Jaipur, he demanded that the chief minister disclose the names of those farmers who had asked for such a figure, if they had at all.

“I was never consulted about the change of location even though I am the MLA here. This is a conspiracy by Ashok Gehlot to take development to Jodhpur,” said Chaudhary.

He warned that the people of Barmer were bitterly resenting the move, as the refinery and its associated development would have created 2 lakh jobs in the region. “They have orchestrated this scenario that farmers are asking for too much money. I can assure you no one here was asking anything more than the market price, which is Rs 5-20 lakh per bigha,” he said.

Political analysts claim that this move will have an adverse effect on the Jat voters, who comprise 8-10 percent of the population in Rajasthan. As a popular leader of the Jats, Chaudhary is second only to Mahipal Maderna, and it is being increasingly felt that the Gehlot government is sidelining Jat leaders. Apparently, they are still peeved at the way the government made a scapegoat out of Maderna in the Bhanwari Devi case.

“I have been critical of Gehlot’s anti-people policies in the past,” said Chaudhary. “If my people spill out on the streets, I will be forced to agitate against my own chief minister.”

He also posed some questions for the government. “When the oil fields are in Leelala, why is the refinery being set up at Pachpadra, 60 km away?” he asked. He also asked the government to make public the compensation amount it was ready to pay the farmers. He added that Pachpadra, owing to its low-lying geography and salt pans, would pose a threat to the refinery due to flooding during the rains.

Interestingly, the Kharwal community in Jaisalmer has also threatened to stage a dharna against setting up of the refinery as it would hugely affect their salt mining business in Pachpadra. They claim the refinery would ruin 250 mines, rendering thousands jobless.

Those keenly observing the political developments claim this decision could directly affect the Congress’ stakes in four seats in Barmer, and influence voter sentiments in other Jat-dominated districts, in as many as 12 seats.

However, party leader and Redressal of Public Grievances Chairman Mumtaz Masih downplayed the concerns. “Development is going from one Jat-dominated area to the other. So the (adverse) effects will hopefully cancel out,” he says.

But what’s conspicuous is the silence maintained by senior Congress leaders. “In the first week of June, when Ashok Gehlot visited Jaisalmer, Barmer and Jalor, he didn’t utter a word about land acquisition for the refinery. It seemed alternative plans were already afoot,” says Dinesh Bohra, a journalist based in Barmer.

Oddly enough, when prodded, both HPCL and the government imputed to each other the decision to move the proposed site. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

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