ABOUT 160 km from Bhopal, Bina mushroomed on the industrial map with the Bharat Oman Refineries Ltd in 2011. A barbed-wire wall away, Guddi Bai Banjara (35) glances at the glass-and-steel facade from her hut in Agasode village, points to the reddish water in the local borewell. “They took away our land, our source of income, and left us here to die,” she fumes.
Seven kilometres away, Bhakrai village awaits a water tanker every afternoon. The local well water has turned oily.
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Central government data shows the refinery acquired land from 12 villages in Bina. Residents there say prices have escalated since then. In 2016, the ‘International Journal of Environmental Sciences’ published the results of a geochemical study in Agasode, which found that chemicals linked to crude oil were contaminating the soil and water.
And yet, all of this has never been a poll issue in Bina — not in 2014, not now. In Elections 2019, the talk here is all about “Hindutva” and nationalism.
‘Only BJP can secure this nation’
Bina is part of the Sagar Lok Sabha constituency, the strongest Bundelkhand seat for the BJP that managed to sweep seven of eight assembly segments despite a Congress win during the state elections late last year.
In town, Chandan Ahirwar’s paan stall bears no BJP flags. But from 8 am till 10.30 pm, the RSS worker tells customers about the Balakot attack, the return of IAF pilot Abhinandan Varthaman, and the surgical strike of 2016. “I joined the RSS for yoga, but I started believing in their ideology,” he says. There are several RSS workers who campaign in Bina as they go about their daily jobs, says Ahirwar.
On May 12, polling will decide what has largely been a two-cornered contest between Congress’ senior minister Prabhu Singh Thakur and BJP’s municipal corporator Raj Bahadur. It’s a close fight with Bahadur facing rebels within party ranks over his candidature and Thakur banking on the recent assembly win. In 2014, BJP won by over 1.2 lakh votes.
“The Congress is trying hard to make inroads. Hostility against us has reduced,” says Congress youth worker Narendra Yadav. Every shop in Bina that has a BJP flag, now has another shop where Congress is able to prop its own.
But even as Congress workers discuss local development, the Nyay scheme for the poor, and how their UPA government brought a thermal plant and oil refinery to the town, the voters are more keen to discuss national security and Hindutva.
When India struck in Pakistan’s Balakot in February, about 1,500 km away in Dehri village, farmer Santosh Thakur says he was glued to television for two days. “Has any other Indian Prime Minister had such guts. What did India do to Pakistan after the 2008 Mumbai attacks?” he asks.
Thakur is part of a group sitting outside a temple nearby. “Only BJP can secure this nation, build a Ram mandir,” he says. “Bina never saw progress, nor will it see. But it is time we vote for national security,” says Raghuraj Singh, Thakur’s neighbour.
As more residents gather, the two talk of Pragya Singh Thakur, BJP candidate from Bhopal and an accused in the Malegaon blast case. “The BJP would have never given her a ticket if she did not get a clean chit,” Singh says. “A woman cannot be part of terrorism.”
Given the mood on the ground, the Congress attempts to find relevance by questioning why the BJP did not build the Ram temple during its term. The BJP hits back by questioning the 10-day promise of farm loan waivers in Madhya Pradesh.
A short walk away, at the town square, is the tea stall of Santosh Verma. “I voted for the Congress in the assembly election. But in the Centre, there is no alternative to Modi,” he says. “People at the stall discuss the Kashmir issue, and how Modi is the only man who can resolve it. I want Modi in the Centre, even if I have to vote for Bahadur I’ll do that,” he says.
Bina has been demanding a separate district, but residents claim both BJP and Congress failed to deliver. In nearby Muroriya village, road construction work has been underway since a year. Farmer Ram Kumar, who commutes every day, is angry over the delay. But he says BJP, which held three terms in MP, cannot be blamed. “I need to think beyond myself. We need BJP. If Congress comes to power, our nation will be left unprotected,” he says.
Refinery a ‘local problem’
As for the refinery, campaigners admit it remains “a local problem”. “It hasn’t reduced unemployment, but that is not a poll issue,” says Vasu Yadav, Congress youth president.
In the 22 villages on the refinery’s periphery, many residents say they moved out to pursue higher education believing they would get hired there. “When the refinery acquired our two-acre land, the government promised us jobs,” says Sachin Thakur, showing documents of his farm land in Bhakrai.
Thakur says he pursued mechanical engineering, then MBA. “I studied to work in the refinery. Since six months, I am waiting to be hired,” he says.
East of the refinery, in Dehri village, farmer Raghuraj Singh makes another point. “A shave earlier cost Rs 5, now it is Rs 20.” The influx of white-collar jobs in Bina lifted the prices of daily utilities, rent and land, he says. Singh also fumes over a 2009 Collector’s order that declared a “no development zone” within 5 km of the refinery. “Many villages are unable to avail the PM Awas Yojana to construct pucca houses because of this,” he says.
Congress candidate Thakur, meanwhile, promises more jobs, but does not elaborate on how he will ensure that. BJP’s Bahadur has only one poll pitch: “Vote for Modi”.