The roads are wide, the grass green, and the flow of traffic, smooth. This is Noida, just 7.5km and a few minutes away from New Delhi through the DND Flyover. Further down the new expressway, 25km from Noida, is Greater Noida, still not as fashionable as its older sibling, with which it shares part of its name. Both are real-estate hot spots; only this February, the Noida Development Authority raked in more than Rs2,500 crore from the sale of 300 acres of land, where residential property could be built.
Noida’s malls and multiplexes can put Delhi’s to shame, and the satellite township boasts an all-night nightclub, Elevate, where Delhi’s smart set parties on weekends. Delhi’s own pubs, bars and nightclubs close early because of the city’s laws.
Noida is part of the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), where elections to the assembly are on, although the district doesn’t show much sign of that. India’s election commission has decided that the elections will happen in seven stages; four of these are over; the last stage is scheduled for 8 May; and the results are scheduled to be announced on 11 May. Exit polls, conducted in areas where the voting is over, suggest that the incumbent Samajwadi Party government will not return to power.
Given the visible signs of progress in Noida and Greater Noida, it is difficult to understand why. But the two are just a small part of a state that hasn’t, in recent times, fared well on several indicators, both economic and social.
According to the 2001 Census, UP has 898 women for every 1,000 men; Bihar’s sex ratio is better at 921 women for every 1,000 men, even though both states are off the national average of 933.
The number of infant deaths per 1,000 live births in the past five years, according to the National Family Health Survey (2005-06), is lower for Bihar, at 62; UP’s is 73.
And according to the National Crime Records Bureau, the ratio of murders to total crime in UP was 4.71% in 2004, higher than 3.65% in Bihar, though, once again, both states were well off the national figure of 1.83%.
“Earlier, we used to derive some solace that UP was better off than Bihar at least” says Prakash Singh, a former director general of police in the state. “Now, we can’t take that dubious credit either.”
Even as UP’s performance on these parameters has declined, Bihar’s new Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who came to power in 2005, has made all the right moves, including a visit to India’s best-known management school, the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, where he delivered a lecture.
There isn’t much data available on Bihar’s performance since Nitish Kumar took over in the state, but Satish Chandra Jha, a former chief economist of the Asian Development Bank and chairman of the Prime Minister’s task force on Bihar, maintains that there has been considerable improvement in fields like education, health care, power and roads.
Uttar Pradesh’s unfavourable comparison with Bihar is the result of an “urban and upper-caste bias”, said Shahid Siddiqui, a member of the Samajwadi Party, who is a member of parliament in India’s upper house (Rajya Sabha). “How come the moment a Yadav got voted out of Bihar, and a government supported by an upper-caste party took over, everybody started saying the problems (with Bihar) had vanished?” he asked. Nitish Kumar heads a National Democratic Alliance government in Bihar, which includes the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The four phases of voting that have already been completed in Uttar Pradesh have seen an average turnout of around 47.5%, lower than the 52% recorded five years ago during the last elections. One reason for this, according to Singh, is the profile of the chief ministerial candidates.
India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is investigating Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav for allegedly possessing assets disproportionate to his official sources of income. Yadav’s main rival and a leading contender for the chief minister’s job, Bahujan Samaj Party’s (BSP) Mayawati, is mired in the Rs175 crore-Taj Heritage Corridor project scam. As chief minister in 2003, she presided over the decision to grant contracts for a shopping mall and a tourist complex behind the Taj Mahal in violation of a Supreme Court order. And BJP’s chief ministerial candidate, Kalyan Singh, continues to be under the scanner for his alleged facilitation of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992, when he was chief minister. IIT Kanpur professor-turned-Ramon Magsaysay Award-winning social activist Sandeep Pandey, who runs Asha For Education, a voluntary organization, said the main problem was the “systematic loot of public money meant for development to fund politics”.
“The government is to blame”
The ruling Samajwadi Party refused to acknowledge any dissatisfaction among its electorate, while the opposition parties hold the government responsible for all that is wrong with Uttar Pradesh.
“In terms of development and law and order, UP ranks the worst in the country, not just worse than Bihar. But, yes, it’s true that Bihar had become a symbol of sorts for underdevelopment. And in that sense, UP is now in that situation,” said BSP’s national spokesperson, Sudhir Goyal.
“Mulayam Singh Yadav’s government is to blame for this. BJP’s Rajnath Singh (October-March 2002) also paid scant regard to development when he was chief minister,” added Goyal. “Mayawati, in all her three terms as chief minister (May 2002–August 2003 was her third term), paid ample attention to development.”
“There can be no denial that UP, under Mulayam Singh, has deteriorated to the same level as Bihar under Lalu Prasad’s reign. There are two basic manifestations which point to this similarity: the state of law and order and development. That is why, these issues have become the main issues in the ongoing elections,” said BJP’s spokesperson Rajiv Pratap Rudy.
Rudy, however, said the situation had deteriorated only over the past five years, thereby absolving his party president, Rajnath Singh, who was the chief minister of UP until March 2002.
“The growth in UP may have been slower than in some states because of its size and the fact that all socio-religious and socio-political battles, including Mandal and the Ramjanmabhoomi agitation, took place here,” said the Samajwadi Party’s Siddiqui. “The real culprit is the Congress which ruled UP for decades and treated it as its fiefdom, without doing anything for its development. The Congress always treated the state merely as its vote bank and was only interested in the 80 MPs that the state could deliver.”
And the Congress claimed that the state was the fifth most developed in the country in 1989, the last year when it ruled Uttar Pradesh. Satyavrat Chaturvedi, a spokesperson for the Congress party, blamed the Samajwadi Party, BJP and BSP for UP’s sorry state. “Development has never been on the agenda for these parties which have sought votes by dividing the electorate along religious or caste lines,” he added.
Corruption is a problem in UP, but as a former government employee said, it is a problem in every state in the country and even in the Central government. T.S.R. Subramanian, who served as UP’s chief secretary in 1992-94, says politicians are much the same across the country. The difference, he said, is merely of degree. “Politicians are the culprits, of course, for institutionalizing unbridled corruption,” said Subramanian, “but equally, or perhaps even more, responsible is the bureaucracy which has completely lost its spine.”
The state’s other problems, according to political and social activists, have to do with caste and crime. Politician and social activist Subhashini Ali, president of the CPI(M)-backed All India Democratic Women’s Association said UP was suffering from the worst combination of “neo-liberal policies”, which encourage the state to move out of the social sector, and communal and caste mobilization for electoral gains.
Former DGP Singh alleges that at least 10 districts, including Gorakhpur, Ghazipur, Allahabad and Azamgarh, are in the firm grip of the mafia. “Fear is the chief emotion in UP today. In some districts, the mafia lords over key appointments as well, including that of the bureaucrats and police officers,” he added.
None of this would matter too much—it isn’t very different from what happens in other states as Subramaniam explained—to voters in Uttar Pradesh, had there been some progress on other fronts. Residents, however, claimed that this hasn’t happened.
Agra-based exporter Wahab Uddin Ahmed said that while the Mulayam Singh government may have turned the state’s finances around, to post a surplus in the budget for 2005-06 for the first time in nearly two decades, there has been no improvement in the state of roads, power or water. “Not that earlier governments were any better,” said Ahmed, “The only difference is that of late, power goes off at night as well. And when the power situation is erratic, water supply naturally gets affected.”
Uttar Pradesh’s performance on development programmes such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) have trailed those of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. The scheme promises 100 days of employment per year to one member of every family living below the poverty line. Both Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan have provided employment for around 60-70 days. UP has been able to manage only 30-35 days. And even this achievement, claims Pandey, is suspect because labour contractors and local government officials misuse the scheme. UP also became the first state in the country to offer an unemployment dole, of Rs500 a month. The political message, said Pandey, was that you had to work to get a grant from the Centre (the NREGS is a Central scheme), but the state government didn’t even ask you to do that.
The state still has Noida’s roads and Agra’s malls (where, according to Ahmed, shoppers can buy a Marks and Spencer’s tie), but these aren’t too far away from the debt-ridden Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh where, using the Right to Information Act that mandates that governments and government departments share information with the public, Pandey discovered that a person kills himself every day. With a turnout of 47%, Noida’s voters may be indifferent to the elections, but Bundelkhand’s, who will go to polls later this week, care deeply about it.