New Delhi: Call it another Niyamgiri moment for Rahul Gandhi.
On Saturday, the Congress president will be in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar district to return to tribals land that had been acquired for a Rs 19,500-crore Tata Steel project. The company had withdrawn from the project in 2016 following continuing roadblocks and protests over land acquisition, over a decade after it had signed a memorandum of understanding with the BJP government in the state.
Gandhi’s visit to Bastar comes almost nine years after he went to the Niyamgiri Hills in 2010 to support tribals who were protesting against Vedanta’s bauxite mining project in Odisha.
His campaign against the ambitious project in the state was meant to project him as a pro-poor leader. He managed to scupper the Vedanta project, drawing allegations of being anti-development. The party drew a blank in Odisha in 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Ahead of the Lok Sabha elections due in April-May, Gandhi is seeking to burnish his anti-rich and pro-poor credentials. On Saturday, he will hand over land certificates to tribal villagers whose land had been acquired by the previous BJP government in Chhattisgarh.
The move will send out a message to farmers across the country about how sensitive the party is to their interests, two Congress leaders told ThePrint.
The Congress president’s Bastar rally has been termed as ‘Kisan Bhu Adhikar Sammelan’ or the convention for the farmers’ land rights.
The Tata Steel’s MoU with the Chhattisgarh government in 2005 provided for the acquisition of about 2,000 hectares of land from 10 villages but it could not be completed due to protests.
The Congress in its manifesto for the Chhattisgarh assembly election had promised to return the land to farmers if it was voted to power.
The new Congress government in the state decided to return the land, citing provisions of the Land Acquisition Act, which provided for the return of land to original owners in case an industry is not set up within a stipulated period.
Pointing out the party’s poll promise of minimum income guarantee to the poor, members of the Congress manifesto committee have said that the poor will be at the centre of their exercise.
The Congress president has made joblessness during the Narendra Modi regime one of his main poll planks and continues to project himself as a leader who would weigh in against land acquisition to please a section of farmers and NGOs even at the cost of development projects.
“If a factory is not set up in five years on land acquired from farmers, then the land will be returned,” Gandhi had said last week while addressing a rally in Odisha’s Rourkela. “Tatas did not set up a factory on their land in Chhattisgarh for years… The Congress has returned the land to farmers. This will also happen in Odisha.
“Water, land and jungle are the wealth of Adivasis. These do not belong to Naveen Patnaik or Narendra Modi,” he added, hinting at his poll pitch in the coming weeks and months.