Monday, November 21, 2005

2004 Election Reporting: Kanpur

In UP's Biggest City, India is Stinking

March 9: The garbage has been piling up for so long that it has narrowed down the road by half. Stray dogs and pigs feed on it, and it is usual to see them fight over a piece of refuse. Some pedestrians, when they pass this stretch of the road, cover their noses and look away. But most locals don't care: they are used to the sight and stench of the rubbish.

India Shining? It's India Stinking in Kanpur, because the road in question is not an ordinary one tucked away inside a crowded settlement. It is the prestigious Mall Road, and the garbage lies right at the door of the Ursula Horseman Memorial Hospital -- one of Kanpur's oldest -- and right opposite is the city's biggest hotel, Landmark, and the biggest shopping mall, Som Datt Plaza.

"Sometime I feel like leaving this city," says R K Agarwal, one of Kanpur's Midnight Children. "The politicians have ruined it," says the businessman from Birhana Road, where the city's busines community lives.

The planned destruction of Kanpur at the hands of politicians in symbolised by Phool Bagh -- the city's equivalent of Chennai's Marina Beach or Bangalore's Palace Grounds. For long, Phool Bagh -- Garden of Flowers -- has been a paradise for morning walkers and the venue for cultural shows and political rallies. But today there's hardly any place for walkers, leave alone for crowds who come to listen to politicians. Reason? Those very politicians have decided to leave their mark, literally, on the garden. A statue of Ram Manohar Lohia has sprung up in recent times, so has a plaque bearing the vasiyatnaama, or the Will, or Jawaharlal Nehru. And now, thanks to the present Congress mayor, the mother of all statues, with canopy and all, is waiting to be unveiled -- that of Mahatma Gandhi.

And just outside Phool Bagh, in the middle of another stretch of Mall Road, stands the statue of Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, the ideological guru of the BJP's present leadership. There are rumours that Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, like the Mahatma, will also be protected from the blazing Kanpur sun with a canopy.

"Bus, yehi sab dikhawa hota raha hai (only this showing off business has been going on). Nobody has done anything for us. Yes, they did introduce a new direct train from Kanpur to Delhi, but that's all. Even there they are fighting to take the credit," says Onkar Gupta, 21, who runs a newspaper stall on a pavement at Phool Bagh.

So does he think India is shining? "Shining?" he laughs, pointing to the open drain that runs right below the wooden plank on which he displays magazines and newspapers. "I've been sitting here for 10 years now, and the drain has always been like this. Yes, India might be shining elsewhere, I've read that in papers," says Gupta. As one talks to Gupta and browses his magazines, it is not difficult to get used to the stench that the drain gives out, but it's difficult to ward off the mosquitoes that breed on it and are resolved to bite you.

India Stinking. Given the kind of rot that has set into Kanpur, the largest city of Uttar Pradesh -- the state that will eventually decide the composition of the Lok Sabha, any party using it as an election slogan has high chances of winning in the city. But it's obvious why no one is adopting it. The Samajwadi Party today runs the state, and till last year, it was run by Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party. Most MLAs belong to the BJP, but the MP and the mayor belong to the Congress. Since they are all joint architects of the mess that Kanpur is in today, nobody has the courage to promise to restore the city to its olden days, when it was the industrial capital of the state and was also known as the Manchester of the East.

Little wonder that the voters are undecided. "Sahab, is baar hawa nahi chal rahi hai. Samajh mein nahi aata kaun jitega (Sir, there is no wave this time. It's difficult to say who will win)," says Banke Lal, a rickshaw puller.

But the wave-makers are coming. L K Advani's India Shining Rath Yatra will touch Kanpur on April 4. Advani was the man who, thanks to his fist rath yatra in 1990, changed the colour of the city, a communist bastion, from red to saffron. Top Congress leaders, including Sonia Gandhi, are expected to come too. Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati and leaders of the Left parties will address a series of meetings too.

But all that only after the parties declare the list of their candidates -- an exercise that is expected to be completed by the middle of this month. While the Congress is likely to give the ticket to its sitting MP, Sriprakash Jaiswal, the BJP is not showing its cards at the moment. Speculation is that Arif Mohammed Khan, the newest and the most credible Muslim face in the BJP who had won the seat in 1980, might be fielded; though there are other contenders too, like three-time MP Jagatvir Singh 'Dron' and the youthful Satish Mahana, a long-serving minister in the governments of Kalyan Singh and Mayawati.

Once the candidates are announced, the campaign is bound to pick up and stars -- political and from Bollywood -- are going to come in and voters are likely to forget the stink and look at larger issues -- it could be how India is shining in other states, it could be the Ram temple, it could be their own caste or religion.

P.S. The Mall Road might be strewn with garbage in certain places, but in some of its junctions, the municipal corporation has put up halogen lights. Maybe when Advani comes to town next month in his motorised chariot, he will have something to show that India is shining.


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