During my recent visit to Chhindwara, after a gap of almost two decades, I was happily surprised to find the dusty, backward town in backyard of god’s own forgotten country transformed into a glittering, prosperous urban growth centre. When I visited town in the early 80s, it was difficult to find a lodge that would supply a bucket of hot water for bath. Now it boasts of a number of decent hotels and resorts. I remember going around frantically for a typewriter ribbon. Now there are swanky shopping malls.
Not long ago, I had to send a car all the way from Bhopal to Chhindwara for my visiting editor because AC cabs were not available there. Today the town has huge showrooms of all major auto brands. The friendly neighbourhood goldsmith shops have given way to dazzling outlets of jewellers, reeking of prosperity. You need money floating around the town to sustain this kind of private enterprise.
I had heard of Chhindwara Model a few weeks before that trip. I dismissed it as election-eve hype by a street-smart politician jockeying for power and trying to create a larger than life image for himself and his purported achievements in an obscure corner of the state. But the transformation of the town made me explore Chhindwara model. What is it? How did Kamal Nath, who has represented the area in the parliament for almost four decade, bring economic growth to a backward region that sustained largely on agrarian economy and depleting resources of coalmines.
Most politicians, when they think about development, go for roads, irrigation, power, drinking water, health and education, the basic responsibilities of a welfare state. Nath also went for these things with a single minded pursuit. At ease in the labyrinth of Lutyens’ politics, he would work his political connections and corner most of the new development schemes for his constituency. As a reporter covering politics and administration in New Delhi in the 90s, I discovered that Chhindwara would invariably figure on the map of any new pilot project being undertaken by the Government of India or the MP Government.
When it comes to industrialisation, most influential politicians normally bring in public sector units, the easier option. But from the beginning Nath, using his corporate connections, tried to rope in private sector, particularly major players like Hindustan Lever, Raymond and Britannia, known to be more sustainable. Two hundred new industrial plants, including a string of food processing units, brought a little prosperity to the area. But they failed to create more jobs for local population as skilled workforce was not available locally. So Nath moved in to the next phase of development in 2006 that became essentially the core of the Chhindwara Model.
Long before Narendra Modi would launch his Skill India project in 2015, Chhindwara became a hub of skill training centres. “Today it has the largest concentration of training centres anywhere in the world,” Nath proclaims proudly. It is a model that ultimately leads to job creation, bringing in overall prosperity to the region. Among the top names who impart skill training to local youth are CII, L&T, Ambuja Cement, Ashok Leyland, IL&FS, NIIT, Mahindra group, Taj Hotels, Toyota Kirloskar and JCB India. This was made possible by Nath’s pro-active attitude and corporate style of working. NR Narayana Murthy approached him for help with H1B visa for Infosys employees. Recalls Nath, “I asked him, what can you do for me?”
The skill training and availability of trained workforce has helped companies like Tata and Aegis open call centres in the interior of the district! Nath is clear in his mind what he wanted: “My criterion is jobs. I don’t want to know how many people have been trained. I want to know how many got jobs.”
It is easy to run down Chhindwara model as an oasis of prosperity. But suppose Shivraj Singh Chouhan had adopted a similar attitude for his backward Budhni, or Sushma Swaraj for Vidisha? Suppose, three generations of Scindias had created a similar oasis in Guna that they have represented almost for 50 years. Or Digvijaya Singh had worked with such devotion for Raghogarh. Churhat remains almost as backward as it was in the 50s when Ajay Singh’s grandfather was a minister. Such small oasis of prosperity can have rippling effect, as Chhindwara has shown.
(The writer is a senior journalist)