By Amarpal Singh Verma
Hanumangarh (Rajasthan), May 16 (IANS/ 101Reporters) The Andhra Pradesh government recently created 13 new districts in the state. Over a dozen new districts is a stark contrast to the state of affairs in Rajasthan, where no new district has been formed in the last 15 years.
Hanumangarh was declared the 31st district of Rajasthan in July 1994 after being stuck in the pipeline for nearly 16 years. Pratapgarh, the 32nd district, came about 14 years later, in January 2008. Despite even a number of borders having been remapped across India since then, the state hasn't seen a new district form since 2008.
However, for years now, there's been a steady rise in the demand for new districts, for which people have been protesting through memorandums and demonstrations. Even MLAs have joined the agitating voices and insisted in the legislative assembly that their respective constituencies be recategorised into districts.
The letter written by Union Minister of State for Agriculture and Farmers Welfare Kailash Chaudhary to Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, demanding that Balotra be made a district.
Dreams of development fuel demand
It's widely believed that the floodgates of progress will open, the distance between the administration and people will lessen, and local problems will be resolved expeditiously if a certain area is demarcated as a district. Advocate Suresh Bishnoi, president of the Anupgarh District Nirman Sangharsh Samiti, lamented the lack of even basic necessities in the region.
"Anupgarh on the India-Pakistan border has received nothing till date. The Sriganganagar district headquarters is 125 km away. Areas like Rojdi Mandi, 365 Head, Rawla and Gharsana are even further away, 200-225 km, from the district headquarters," he pointed out.
"If a poor man travels to the district headquarters for his work, he can't return home the same day. By making Anupgarh a district, the people of three assembly constituencies, Raisinghnagar, Anupgarh and Khajuwala, will benefit. Anupgarh is also worthy of being made into a district from a geographical, strategic, administrative and social point of view. The demonstrations will continue until Anupgarh is made a district."
Nohar MLA Amit Chachan told 101Reporters: "The need for development drives the demand to turn Nohar into a district. I've conveyed the sentiments of the people to the chief minister and also received a positive assurance from him."
Karnidan Singh Rajput, a 76-year-old writer and journalist from Suratgarh, added his views to the mix: "For 50 years, we've been demanding that Suratgarh be made a district because it's the only hope for development we have, for not only Suratgarh, but also the remote desert areas of the region. Governments keep making empty promises, but when the opportunity arose in 1994, Hanumangarh was made a district, and Suratgarh was ignored for political reasons."
So far, there's a demand for over 50 constituencies to be declared new districts in Rajasthan, Nokha in Bikaner, Sambhar Lake in Jaipur, Bhiwadi in Alwar, Balotra in Barmer and more
Agitations gather steam
Every demand for a district in the state has had the support of people's organisations, political parties, social organisations, workers, doctors, traders, farmers, lawyers, students and shopkeepers.
For instance, the agitation in Anupgarh, barring the two years of the pandemic, began on February 7, 2012. The agitation has completed its 3000 days recently and continues indefinitely. Last year, BJP MLA Santosh Bawri took her constituency's demand for an Anupgarh district to be formed to the assembly. People even walked from Anupgarh to Jaipur, met the chief minister and handed him their memorandum. They went on a fast in protest for several days, as well. Nearly three dozen people of Anupgarh also wrote to the president, demanding that either the district be formed, or they be given permission for euthanasia, tired of the indefinite postponement of their petition. And starting June 1, there will be an indefinite shutdown in Anupgarh.
Moreover, the demand for Phalodi in Jodhpur be recategorised into a district is 30 years old now. The protest has been renewed in the past few months, with people staging a sit-in dharna for 60 days. And in Didwana of Nagaur district, citizens kept the market closed last month to mark their two-decade-old protest for a district.
In Bharatpur's Bayana, people have performed a virtuous 'yagya'. In fact, BJP MLA from Beawar, Ajmer, Shankar Singh Rawat once arrived at the assembly with the demand to make Beawar a district emblazoned on his clothes. Madan Prajapat, Congress MLA from Pachpadra in Barmer district, has given up wearing footwear. It's been several months since he vowed to remain barefoot until the demand to make Balotra a district is fulfilled.
Committees to consider the demand
The BJP-led Vasundhara Raje government had constituted the Parmesh Chand Committee in January 2014, under the chairmanship of retired IAS officer Parmesh Chand to provide suggestions on the formation of new districts. The committee submitted its report to the state in 2018, though it's been embroiled in red tape ever since.
Now, three years later, with the demand for new districts gaining traction again, the impact of the report spurred the current Congress government to constitute a high-power committee which has been asked to ascertain the need for new districts and submit a report within six months.
Economic volatility threatens agenda
Given the current financial condition of Rajasthan, the idea of creating new districts is fraught with pitfalls. Before a new district is created, a considerable amount has to be spent mobilising the necessary resources.
Speaking with 101Reporters, retired IAS officer Parmesh Chand said: "At present, the state of Rajasthan's finances is questionable. We have a comparatively low budget. Still, I believe we should have 40 districts instead of 32 in the state.
"We received letters from the state's people for 39 districts and had proposed creating four to five new districts in our report. If the government wants more, then an additional district can be added. We also recommended that the places not accepted today be considered 10 years later if the circumstances change. The people's demand should be heard."
Retired IAS officer Dr S.P. Singh, who also advocates for the creation of new districts, explained that Rs 1,000 to 1,200 crore is required for essential administrative spending, building district-level offices, etc.
"The government should create more districts for smooth delivery of services to the public," he added. "It's not necessary that we create many at once, like in Andhra Pradesh. Bearing in mind our financial position, we can do it in phases."
Impending elections fast-track proposal
In light of the upcoming Rajasthan Assembly Elections, slated for December 2023, this issue is at the forefront of political conversations. A factionalism-plagued ruling Congress -- facing electoral defeat in the last round of assembly elections, especially in Punjab, is in great need to buttress its support against the tide of BJP and an emerging AAP. Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has announced a number of measures, like earmarking a separate agriculture budget, promising more jobs and relaxing electricity rates, and could choose to play the new district card after assessing its pros and cons.
The BJP, too, is preparing to pitch the new district issue. Union Minister of State for Agriculture and Farmers Welfare Kailash Chaudhary has written to Gehlot, petitioning for a new Balotra district. Similarly, Union Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat favours making Phalodi a district.
The stage is set, with both parties preparing to add the formation of new districts into their respective manifestos and hoping to sway the elections in their favour.
(The author is a Hanumangarh-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)