Divide and rule
The eight participants began by examining if the winter session held here annually has been useful for the common man. Farmers' activist Kishore Tiwari, who saw the funny side in most things, started by describing the proceedings at the session as a farce perpetrated on the people of Vidarbha and one with no real utility. "All parties come together to adjourn or boycott the session for some reason or the other. I can tell you all with conviction that the resorts that have already been booked by politicians for sojourns in the nearby jungles during the session. Our elected representatives still are focusing on Western Maharashtra. What we need instead of this session is a proper mechanism to take decisions on problems and appeals related to revenue, government servants, PDS, citizens charter etc in Nagpur itself. We should not be forced to go to Mumbai or wait for the winter session to resolve such matters. Maybe, the staff could be stationed at Nagpur and ministers could visit once a month to take any policy decisions related to the work here," he said.
However, social worker Rupa Kulkarni, who works with domestic workers, said the session does serve some purpose. "The session here allows the disadvantaged sections of out society a chance to meet the powers that be. If politicians sit only in Mumbai, the common man would never be able to take problems and representations to them. I agree such demonstrations or morchas don't always get work done fast, but they are a means available to us. It took years for us to sensitize and pressurise the government to pass a law providing social security net for domestic workers. It is taking even longer to implement it, but this shows it can be done," she said.
Kulkarni also suggested, however, that agencies like the Vidarbha Statutory Development Board should be revived and utilized to benefit the region when the session is not meeting here.
Anand Parchure, a high court lawyer of repute, had a different take on the winter session. "Let the session continue to be ineffective, but at least ensure the citizens are not inconvenienced due to this show in town. Streamline it, so that the sham preparations and proceedings do not affect the common man."
Kavita Loya, a chartered accountant, said she disagreed with Parchure's views. She interjected to say, "Parchure's view is pretty superficial. We should not forego the advantage that the winter session gives us. It is our politicians who are to blame for not using this opportunity properly. We could get a lot done for our region even in the 15-day session if our politicians are up to it. But ending the session in Nagpur will be doing away a big opportunity."
Entrepreneur Rita Buddhe said the session had not given anything to the city or region. "The situation in Vidarbha has only deteriorated over the last 20 years. We have more and more sick units, with glitzy showrooms replacing manufacturing units. We are still dependent on agriculture while tiny towns like Nashik, Pune and Aurangabad have grown into big industrial centres."
BJP city unit chief Anil Sole took the middle path by saying that the agenda has to be set properly for the winter session to be really useful for the people. He admitted a failure of politicians that the same issues are discussed since decades without taking them forward. "But I would blame the people too. They are ready to suffer the same problems," he said.
Industrialist Praveen Tapadia added here that there is no alternative to the winter session and closing it down will not help at all. "The winter session does bring in some money into the local economy. Also, this is the time we can catch ministers and bureaucrats in town to highlight out problems. This is our only platform. We should force them to come and hear our problems."
Even as Loya was in complete agreement with this argument, Tapadia continued, "Actually, Hingna industrial area is doing pretty well. Why blame politicians for some failed units. We lack entrepreneurship. We lack the unity to get our work done in the legislature or bureaucracy. They are the ones who take the decisions, so how can you ignore them?"
Loya, Parchure and most others however dismissed the idea that Nagpur is sore at losing its capital status or the winter session should be continued just for the sake of custom or to retain Nagpur's status of second capital.
Tiwari pointed out that more than the session, its duration is what matters. "It used to be held for longer duration earlier. Today, politicians are not responsive to the situation and do not take it seriously now."
Kulkarni added, "Policy decisions are required here to change things," drawing approval from Parchure. "Basic functions of government need to be taken care of, like sanitation, water supply, health care etc. But not one politician or bureaucrat does the homework. It is all taken very lightly," said Kulkarni.
Loya said that this can also be blamed on the apathetic attitude of the politicians and the people themselves, who have let the powers-that-be get away with such an attitude for such a long time.
Tiwari and Sole both pointed out examples of this, like politicians missing out on important debates or all bills being summarily passed at the fag end of the last day of the assembly, when most members have already left or are no longer interested in debating the finer points of the issues.
Parchure said here that just speaking about what the politicians and bureaucrats are "duty bound" to do is not going to help. Giving a radical suggestion, he said, "Make sure they stay here for four or six weeks and solve a few problems before leaving. Better still, make all the legislators and bureaucrats come here for the session in summer. That will ensure all the decisions are taken quickly, so that they can escape to the cooler climes faster."
This suggestion drew as much approval from all present as laughter, and led to suggestions for the budget session to be held here too.
The debate also turned to the part played by the opposition in the assembly, and whether it too was responsible for the session being reduced to a futile effort. Sole said, "Some issues definitely come up in the session and are discussed. But I have to admit that there may not be any decision on them all the time."
Loya and Tapadia said here that the blame for this also falls on the citizens for not pulling up their representatives over non-performance. Parchure added, "The only thing left for citizens to do now is to take the law into their hands and get arrested. The politicians might soon end up being thrashed by the common man."
Buddhe and Loya agreed with him that Vidarbha, and Maharashtra too, lacks good politicians and it is leading to problems. Tapadia however said that despite all this the winter session cannot be blamed as the cause of the problems, so stopping the session is not a solution at all.
In view of this, the suggestion taken up for discussion was whether the amount spent on the assembly session would be better off being spent on development projects for the region. Tapadia remarked that even that money would go down the drain, like all funds released for Vidarbha currently.
An idea that got the most support was for a separate and independent secretariat to be set up in Nagpur for Vidarbha region. Tiwari said, "Currently, people approach the high court here instead of approaching the bureaucrats in Mumbai. An administration structure here, capable of hearing appeals and complaints and taking decision here itself would definitely help. We could have similar set-ups in Aurangabad and Konkan too."
Joining in the debate at this point, city Congress chief Jaiprakash Gupta admitted that the legislature session here has not solved any problems of the region. "Even in these sessions, little time and importance is given to Nagpur and the region. The budget session should be held here to really solve some problems. I have to say that chief ministers from western Maharashtra have been apathetic about this region. A CM from Vidarbha never did that in his 16-year tenure."
Parchure and most others pointed out that this was actually the best argument for a separate state of Vidarbha. Sole too supported the idea saying that the BJP has already expressed its support for a smaller state that could me managed better. He reiterated though that till that happens it would not be prudent to stop the winter session, since the session does give Vidarbha an opportunity to be heard every year.
Tapadia and Parchure too then suggested that a separate secretariat for Vidarbha here is the best way to move forward. It should enable decisions to be taken here, they said.
As for the lack of political will within the region, Parchure as well as Loya said that it is the responsibility of the citizens to push the politicians to act. Interestingly, even the two politicians on the panel, Gupta and Sole agreed with this observation on a change in attitude.
Tapadia though opposed the having ministers for every portfolio in Vidarbha too, "It will only benefit the politicians. Nothing will trickle down to the citizens." Sole too said this cannot work, since politicians also need a vision to be able to get work done.
Gupta said here that all local politicians agree on the need for a separate state, including Congressmen. However, he pointed out that this decision could be taken at the national level only, on the national policy as well as party level too.
Tiwari added here that, in the meantime, there needs to be a frank portrayal of the ground reality here. "Why should a rosy picture be painted of Hingna industrial estate, as Tapadia has claimed. My daughter and lakhs of other youth like her are forced to find employment in Pune because there are no opportunities here," he said.
Tapadia rebutted his claim to say that this problem would require another debate altogether, but insisted that the industrial situation is not as bad as it is made out to be. He granted though, "Even well connected industrialists find it difficult to get things done. So, there is almost no hope for the common man in the present situation."
As the debate wound up, the participant came to the conclusion that something like an independent secretariat is required to help Vidarbha develop. The consensus though was that if even that does not work, then the only solution would be a separate state. It would move all decision making to Nagpur, and finally the politicians here to work for the welfare of the people, unable to pass the buck to powers that be in Mumbai.