Allahabad / Lucknow / Phulpur: Phulpur, a small town about 45km from Allahabad, stands at the edge of what Uttar Pradesh (UP) was, and what it could one day become. It is 5km from a new highway being built to connect Kolkata and New Delhi, and a fertilizer plant has created some good jobs. But the road to Phulpur has been under construction for several years and is little more than a bed of loose rocks.

The small town gets electricity for just eight hours a day and on a hot September day, as the senior superintendent of police for the region, Dipesh Juneja, made his way to the district office, he found his road blocked by an elephant. A small sign by the side of the incomplete road reads “Kasht Ke Liye Hame Khed Hai" (we apologize for the inconvenience).

“Phulpur is really unfortunate," said Rajiv Aggrawal, who runs a small sweet shop on the side of the dusty road. “We’ve never mattered to the politicians—they’ve never cared for us."

On the spot: A ‘tehsil diwas’ in progress at the district magistrate’s office in Surajpur near Greater Noida.

“It was no good anyways— what do you do with a refrigerator when you don’t have electricity," he said.

Phulpur is certainly not the unluckiest of all of UP’s small towns. Nor is infrastructure the most pressing of the state’s problems—although it does have a bearing on the state’s development indicators, which are pretty dismal. UP ranks among the bottom five states in literacy, and its impoverished residents have a life expectancy worse than that in sub-Saharan Africa.

The state’s real problem, however, is crime. The state is India’s most violent, and accounts for around 24% of all violent crimes reported according to the National Crime Records Bureau, a department of the Union home ministry (the state accounts for 16% of India’s population). As the rest of the country moved ahead, UP languished, unable to generate any significant economic growth.

In state elections, which ended in May, the new chief minister, Mayawati, campaigned mostly on a platform of restoring law and order in the hope of attracting the kind of foreign investment and local economic growth that has largely eluded the state. But in the months since her victory—resulting in the first outright majority for a political party in the state’s legislature in more than a decade—it remains unclear if the situation has improved much.

Jawaharlal Nehru, the founder of India’s longest-ruling political dynasty and the country’s first prime minister, was elected to Parliament from the constituency that surrounds Phulpur. Now, though, Phulpur has elected Ateeq Ahmed, a man accused by the police of leading a gang wanted in at least 136 violent crimes, to the Lok Sabha.

On a Tuesday afternoon in September, Phulpur played host to a tehsil diwas, a new initiative launched by the government. Chief minister, Mayawati has ordered that every Tuesday, senior officials must make themselves available in the most remote of the regions under their charge, so that residents can have their complaints heard.

“This (the tehsil diwas) is a good idea," said Juneja. “When people see a senior officer listen to their complaints, it increases their confidence."

Juneja is a serious man, with an efficient air about him. He makes short calls on his cellphone, directing the complaints to the right department as quickly as he can. In three hours, he and his officers deal with about 1,200 people who have crowded into a dilapidated district office. At least 15 of the 75 criminal complaints made in the first two hours are related to violent crime—the rest, says one of his officers, are related to complaints about land rights or taxes.

But Juneja bristles at the suggestion that the police could have done and should do more. To protect a population of four million, he has a staff of 2,000 policemen; 800 of them are regularly assigned to provide security to government offices, and senior government officials, including judges. To police a region of about 5,000 sq. km, he has about 100 vehicles, with a ration of 150 litres of diesel per vehicle per month. He has been transferred so many times in the last five years that he has stopped counting, spending an average of four months in each posting. In an unguarded moment, he let slip what he loves the most about tehsil diwas. “If not for this, I would be spending most of my time dealing with criminals and politicians," he said, with a wry smile.

A push for change

In the three months since the Mayawati-led government has come to power, lowering crime has been a priority, said senior officials who are not allowed to speak to the media. The government is likely to be stable, and has long-term plans for beefing up the ranks of the police, already the largest police force in the world under a single command, said one official, adding that he had seen plans for an increase in spending, which is yet to be approved. Mayawati, through her information secretary, declined a request for an interview. The director general of police for UP, Vikram Singh, did not respond to phone calls. But in a short conversation, Shashank Shekhar Singh, the cabinet secretary and easily the second most powerful person in the UP government, said the situation in the state has improved dramatically. “Ask the man on the street, and he will tell you—with this government, crime is going down," he said. Singh did not cite any figures, and there are no official figures to indicate any recent trends in crime in UP, but among those interviewed for this story, there was a general sense that if the momentum generated by the new government can be maintained, things could get better.

“With Mayawati as the chief minister, it doesn’t change everything, unless you can change the entire system," said Ram Kumar, the top official with Dynamic Action Group, a Lucknow-based organization that tracks violence in UP, especially against Dalits. Kumar’s group tracks violent crimes by following media reports, and from friendly police officials who grant them early access to unpublished data. The trend, according to him, has been intriguing.

“The mafia and the local criminals have adopted a practice of wait-and-watch," he said. “They are unsure of how things will go, and that is good. This has to continue for a long time before their entire networks can be destroyed."

Prakash Singh, a former director general of police for UP, said he felt the situation needed to continue improving before the state could attract big investments. “Unless there is good law and order, nobody is going to invest their billions or millions in the state," said Singh, who was DGP between 1991 and 1993, a period of relative peace in UP. “When nobody is sure if a big CEO can be kidnapped or their son can be kidnapped—all these things have a deterrent effect on investors."

After her election, Mayawati appointed a new additional director general of law and order and crime, Brij Lal, to implement her policies.

Lal’s job is politically volatile—he recently fired about 6,500 police officers who he claimed had gotten their jobs by paying bribes. His critics say he was purging the police force of officers loyal to the defeated opposition party, the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party.

In September, he cancelled any time off for the police force for the next two months, saying he needed them to maintain law and order during the coming holidays, which include major Hindu and Muslim festivals.

In an interview, Lal was defensive, declining to say what kind of extra resources he had made available for UP’s police force to help lower crime. He declined to talk about what he felt his department’s past challenges had been or what his goals would be for the next few months.

When asked if an improvement in the law and order situation would encourage economic growth, he said “Those things are not necessarily related, and I am not in a position to answer that."

To a visiting television crew, he offered the following statistic, and refused to give this reporter a copy of the document: Of the 118,636 wanted criminals in UP, he said, 115,232 had been arrested in the past few months. It is unclear where those criminals are being held—the National Crime Records Bureau says that the entire country can house only about 234,000 inmates in all the jails across India.

UP’s jails housed 53,000 inmates in 2003 and its jails were already overcrowded. “There has been improvement, a lot of improvement," said Lal.