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September 8, 1999


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Campaign Trail/ J S Sai in Kuppam

Naidu turns his constituency into island of prosperity

100-bed hospital at kuppam Imagine you are blindfolded at the temple town of Tirupati, and driven to an unknown destination. It is monsoon, but the only source of moisture seems to be your perspiration in the stuffy vehicle… After hours and hours, you are bundled out of the vehicle… You are still sweating like a pig.

You yank off the blindfold… A cool breeze brings a whiff of relief. ''Where am I?'' you begin to wonder. ''Am I in Bangalore? But why doesn't the pollution suffocate me?''

You walk a little, and find a milestone. ''Kuppam. 10 kilometres,'' it announces.

Kuppam is like Bangalore. But without the pollution, without the concrete jungles. But with lots of hope as far as prosperity is considered. ''What hope!'' screams a local. ''It has made mindblowing progress in just four years.''

''In four years?'' you ask as the villagers flock you. Their focus is on your scepticism regarding their rapid strides. ''Four years ago, we did not have roads, drinking water.'' They list out Kuppam's achievements that was hitherto known only as the birthplace of the Kalki Bhagwan (he still has his ashram in Kuppam).

Israel project chief Abuhav Avraham (bearded) with his colleague at Kuppam You are 200-odd kilometres from Tirupati, at the remotest corner of Andhra Pradesh, where it meets Karnataka and Tamil Nadu (the Kolar gold fields is just 24 kilometres from Kuppam). The locals's fluency in Telugu, Tamil and Kannada and the omnipresence of AP, Karnataka and TN buses and multilingual sign boards adds to your confusion.

Till a decade ago, Kuppam had seen the chief minister on just a couple of occasions despite 40 years of Independence. Equally rare were the visits of state ministers who used to avoid the remote corner like the plague.

But Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu has turned it into an island of prosperity. Elected twice from Kuppam in 1989 and 1994, he has pumped in at least Rs 2.5 billion to turn the place into a 'model assembly constituency'.

''No other place in the state has seen so much development,'' says G Srinivas who is doing his chartered accountancy in Bangalore. ''If you had come here four years back, you would have run away without talking to any of us. There were virtually no roads then, and every time a vehicle passed by, there used to be a cloud of dust.''

Hailing from a farmer's family in Cheldiganipally, near Kuppam, Srinivas's praise for Naidu knows no full stops. But he is not an exception. Nearly 75 per cent of the residents mirror this mood.

''He is like a god,'' says Ismail, a chilly trader at Venkatagiri Kota, about 30 kilometres from Kuppam town. ''Earlier we had to go at least 3 kilometres to fetch a pail of water. Now there are taps in each and every colony, with overhead tanks and borewells supplying water round the clock. We have world-class roads... What is more we have been given loans to buy cows etc.''

Dravidian university Another trader overhears our conversation, summons me to his shop and launches a diatribe in a loud voice, as if he is facing a huge audience without a microphone. ''Please write saab,'' says Shanmugham, pointing towards my note book while giving me a coconut. ''NTR (the late Telugu Desam Party founder Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao) was a drama artist. But Naidu has brains. We will vote for him. He might have made millions. We don't care. Haven't Congressmen done that? Now, if he is re-relected, he will work wonders for us.''

An area which used to cry for drinking water some years ago, now has miles and miles of greenery with Naidu helping the local farmers tap groundwater in a big way. The 'once at the mercy of the rain god' land now offers a feast to the eyes with rich vineyards, sugarcane and paddy fields and mango groves lined with coconut trees.

To give a further boost to agriculture, Naidu has roped in Israeli firm BHC to bring international farming methods to Kuppam's doorstep. Equipped with sophisticated drip, sprinkling, sowing and tilling technology, the company's Israeli personnel have been training the locals.

The Rs 40 million project dates back to 1997, when an agreement was signed between the company and the AP government. Following this, local farmers pooled nearly 150-odd acres of land, and started co-operative farming using advanced Israeli methods.

Underground pipes were laid in the area to supply water to drip and sprinkling systems. ''These are also spraying systems which deliver the exact amount of pesticide,'' says Abuav Avraham who leads the six-member Israeli team in Kuppam. ''Such systems improve the yield by as much as 100 per cent in some cases.''

''Never before did I see bunches of tomatoes! I only saw bunches of tomatoes!'' says Vanaja who works in one such field, pointing at the bountiful crop. The agreement with the Israeli firm ends next year, and Naidu plans to extend the scheme to the entire state if it proves successful.

However, the project has a side-effect. ''As the project people pay better (Rs 60 a day even in the case of casual labour), the locals seem starved for farm labour,'' says Srinivas.

But raising wages indicate the good employment opportunities in the region, at least in the farming sector.

The area boasts very little industrial activity, with just three units -- all making granite, which Kuppam is well known for -- employing about 3,500 people. ''But most of this skilled labour is from Tamil Nadu,'' says senior Kuppam TDP leader L L Uday Kumar.

As a result, several people from Kuppam work in Bangalore. ''But even they are so happy with Naidu's work that at least 2,000 of them arrived in Kuppam especially to vote for the CM,'' says Kumar. ''They feel they should not let down Naidu.''

With a majority of locals expressing similar sentiments, Naidu may be elected with a record majority -- he stood third in the state, with a majority of 60,000 votes, from Kuppam in the 1994 assembly election. Pulivendla's Y S Vivekananda Reddy coming first, with Hindupur's NTR being second.

The constituency registered the highest polling of 80 per cent in the Chittoor district on Sunday.

''People, especially women, came out in huge numbers to vote,'' says Mehboob Pasha, a teacher who was on poll duty. The high voting percentage triggered allegations of rigging by the Congress. However, police inspector Kuppaiah of Abbakaldoddi, says, ''This is the first time that polling has been so smooth.''

So sure was Naidu of victory this time that he did not visit the constituency after the election was announced. He did not visit Kuppam to file his nomination papers. In fact, his deposit (Rs 5,000) was paid by his mother Gangamma after collecting donations from her self-employed women's group (the scheme has been aided by the government).

If Naidu's reign continues in the state, perhaps Kuppam will have more industries. ''He said he will open two factories providing about 20,000 jobs,'' says Mohammad Mukhtar, a shop-keeper near the Kuppam bus stand.

Among the other projects implemented so far in the constituency are the Dravidian University, being funded by the AP, Karnataka and TN governments, and a 100-bed hospital which is as impressive as a five-star hotel. Built on a nine-acre plot, the Rs 68 million hospital will soon have sophisticated equipment worth Rs 38 million.

The hospital was inaugurated three months ago, and the brand new mattresses in the intensive care unit still sport plastic covers. ''To date I have not seen such a neat government hospital,'' says Ramanamma, a teacher.

''The number of schools in the constituency has also increased from three or four to at least 20 after Naidu became chief minister in 1995,'' says N Chandrasekhar, a leading advocate in Kuppam town. ''He has also sanctioned a polytechnic college.''

A Congress leaders says the college has run into a controversy with Naidu being accused of pumping funds after the Model Code of Conduct came into effect. Also, there is some resentment against Naidu in the area where the college has come up. ''Our land has been taken away, and, in return, we got nothing,'' says B Srinath, a shop-keeper. ''I am voting for the Congress.''

There are also allegations that some local TDP leaders have created a dent in Naidu's huge vote share with their greedy ways. ''Nearly 20 per cent of the voters might have voted for the Congress because of them,'' says farmer D Ravi Reddy of Bhagilnattam village, near Ram Kuppam. ''But for these leaders, he would have got all the voters.''

B R Mohan Rao, a TDP supporter and film producer, agrees. ''Whenever funds arrive, these leaders distribute it among their people, causing heartburn among the people. So much so that some people have told me, 'We would have stoned these guys but for Naidu. We vote for Naidu, not these bandicoots.' ''

Maybe this is the reason K V Prasad of Rama Kuppam says, ''I have voted for Naidu in the assembly poll. But for the the Chittoor Lok Sabha seat (of which Kuppam is a segment), the Congress has got my vote.''

Kumar agrees that some TDP leaders' greed has resulted in some cross-voting. ''Their greed and recklessness stems from their confidence that Naidu would win anyway.''

Asked if the Congress' promise of free power for the farming sector would not dent Naidu's majority, Kumar says, ''No farmer believes the promise as so far no Congressman has done anything for them.''

As for the allegation that Kuppam is prospering at the expense of other areas in the state, he says, ''The allegation is unfair. The area has seen 35 per cent more growth than the other areas, but we have been backward all along with no one caring for us. Today, if we get a little more, what is the harm? We are only making up for the past.''

''How can you love the neighbour's son as much as your own?'' asks Mehboob Pasha, a teacher. ''Politicians cultivate their constituencies with an eye on the future.''

The rest of the state may complain, but the effect of Naidu's good work is so startling that today Kuppam is sending out a powerful message to politicians at every level. 'Work for us, and well take care of you. We love your good work, and care two hoots for issues like religion, mandir-masjid.'

Kuppam's Muslims are steadfastly behind Naidu, despite his tie-up with their bete noire, the Bharatiya Janata Party.

''Initially we were unhappy because of the alliance with the saffron party,'' says Mohammad Mansur, a shop-keeper at Kuppam. ''Look, even he is taking us for a ride, we had thought. Now we realise it is more important to continue the development work. Muslims have voted for him despite the BJP alliance.''

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