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|September 25, 1999||
The Rediff Election Specials/ Savera R Someshwar
Star-studded show in Nainital fails to hide the warts within
Stunningly beautiful. Shockingly backward. This, in a nutshell, is Nainital, the Uttar Pradesh constituency that went to the polls on Saturday.
Nature has been generous here -- impressive hills, lush plains, waterfalls, lakes, trekking trails, peace, quiet… there is much to appeal to the tourist here. But man has been just as callous. As in many other parts of India, no thought has been devoted to the development of the region.
Though a prime tourist destination, there has been no effort made towards infrastructural development. The roads are bad, yet people are grateful wherever they exist; in many of the villages that dot this serene landscape, people have to trek for miles to reach the nearest road. The only outsider who manages to reach the village is the postman. Many villages still do not have electricity. There are very limited resources for employment, medicine or education.
Sanjay Shah, branch manager at the Kurumanchal Co-operative Bank in Nainital, says, "The land is not fertile here so we need other sources of employment. There are no industries here; Eureka Forbes and Usha Rectifiers have closed down and I don’t know how much longer HMT, which is running at a loss, will remain here. Anyway, they start industries here only because it helps them to get a license for a forward area."
A charge that Congress veteran Narain Dutt Tiwari, who has been chief minister of the state for 25 years, begs to refute. "During my tenure, I have contributed tremendously the development of Nainital. I started rice and sugar mills here, encouraged big industrial houses to invest in the area."
The other three candidates -- Balraj Pasi (Bharatiya Janata Party), Naina Ahmed (Bahujan Samaj Party) and Muzzaffar Ali (Samajwadi Party) -- are quick to point at the most of those industries have now shut down aggravating the problem of unemployment in the area. They say though Nainital has returned Tiwari to Parliament four times, he has not done much for the area.
"One thousand crores has been allotted for the development of the hilly areas of Nainital. But all that money has been spent in the plains," says Ali. "Why is it that he has not been able to generate employment with that kind of money?"
Tiwari claims the instability of the last decade -- which witnessed 10 governments -- wrecked whatever developmental work he had undertaken during his tenure.
In this flurry of accusations and counter-accusations, each candidate admits that unemployment is a serious problem that needs to be tackled, but will be considered only after they win the election. While Muzzaffar Ali promises to push for a film city, Ahmed promises to generate employment locally. Both the BJP and the Congress say they will definitely resolve every pressing issue after they win the election.
The only other industry is tourism. Pratap Singh Rawat, a receptionist at India House (established in 1947, it is one of the oldest hotels in Nainital), says, "There is no effort being made to develop the tourist industry. The only way to Nainital is by road. If we were connected by rail, there would be more tourists coming here. Nothing has been done to develop the off-season potential of the place either. Right now, some hotels have one or two customers; many have none. The sanctity of this place as a tourist destination should be maintained."
Much of the tourist industry has been developed by people who have come from outside the area. It first began when they bought the land from beleaguered locals, who ended up working as waiters and cleaners in the resorts that were set up. There is no culture of savings or investment; the money earned from the sale of the land is usually drowned in liquor.
"Two of the biggest exports of this region," says bank employee Sunil Shah, "are sand, which is used in the construction industry, and servants. Can you believe that? When someone comes to Kumaon, people ask them to get servants for them. This is the only way people who are uneducated earn their living." Many others move outside the Nainital constituency to look for employment as drivers, peons, etc.
The others, who have attained a certain level of education, enter the army. Their families survive on the money that their men manage to send home. Nainital is the perfect example of the money order economy. "If you go to the villages," says former journalist Zaidi, "you'll only see women, children and old men. The youth are all away, trying to earn a living."
There are very few facilities for specialised vocational training in the region. "Most of the youth go outside to do their MBA, engineering or medicine," says Sanjay. "Once they go out, they don't want to come back. Money is a big lure and many of them end up leaving the country. I have so many first cousins settled abroad whom I have never even seen. More and more of the youth are being compelled to lose touch with their roots. And, as a result, only the uneducated people are left here."
The rural areas that have schools are usually limited to the primary level or, at the most, to the eighth standard. For further education (which is normally limited to a degree), as for medical attention, they have to move to the nearest town.
And there is the simmering issue of Uttarakhand or, as the BJP would prefer it -- Uttaranchal. The people of the hills have been pushing the cause of a separate state. They believe the hilly areas have a different set of problems that can be resolved only if there is a separate, smaller state. Himachal Pradesh is often cited as a fond example.
The BJP points out they have already introduced the bill for the formation of the state in Parliament. The Congress says there will be no delay in the formation of the state if they are elected. But the Samajwadi Party is riding on the plank of Uddham Singh Nagar, which does not want to be included in the new state. The people of the plains, they say, would like to remain part of Uttar Pradesh.
"This," says Balraj Pasi, "is false terror spread by some people who want to make their name in politics. They are spreading the rumour that a land ceiling act will be implemented and that the excess land after that will be given to the people of the hills instead of the people of the plains."
The people of the hills, on the other hand, are unhappy because much of the Rs 1,000 crore allotted to the development of the mountainous areas have been used to develop the plains. All of which has only served to add to the mutual distrust that exists between the pahadis and the people of the Terai.
Another fact that adds to the complexity of the region is the only indigenous population of the area are the Tharus and the Bukhsas, both of whom have lost their land and means of income to the people who were "imported" into this area by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Specifically the Sikhs, who came here after Partition, and the Bengalis who were displaced after the formation of Bangladesh. While the former have done well in business and are a prosperous lot today, the latter are still clamouring for SC status which has been granted to them only in West Bengal as yet.
But, like almost every other constituency in the region, these pressing issues have been brushed aside in favour of a war of personalities. Pasi has termed his three opponents as outsiders, saying that none of them have even a local telephone number.
Ahmed: "That's ridiculous. I have two houses in this constituency and a resort which I have been running for the last eight years, all of which are listed in the phone book. And if they want to include mobile phones, I have two of those as well."
Ali: "I have studied here, I have a house here. But that does not matter. The problems of the people are resolved only in Lucknow and no one has more influence there than I do."
Tiwari does not bother to answer, but supporters point out that he is born here, has been brought up and there is no other leader from the region today who is as well known or respected as he is.
The speeches of all four candidates are devoted to ridiculing each other. With trivialities like these raising dust on election platform, the more vital issues are obviously getting ignored.
"The thing is," says Sanjay Shah, "the people are in a quandary. There is a sense of loyalty towards Tiwari because he is the local man. At the same time, they would like Vajpayee to become the prime minister. There is a tremendous amount of respect for him." Privately, the BJP admit that Tiwari is a formidable opponent because he enjoys the reputation of being a good man who has done a lot for the region. But the fact that he is represents the Congress could work against him.
While both Tiwari and Pasi are strong contenders, Ahmed too is drawing large crowds. If these crowds translate into votes, Ahmed could prove the surprise package in the area.
In the backrooms of each candidate, party workers work feverishly on the caste factor. Nainital has a total voter population of 13,69, 600; of which there are 350,000 Punjabis and Sikhs, 450,000 pahadis (hill voters of all castes are clubbed into this category), 150,000 Dalits, 90,000 Tharus and Bukhsas, 100,000 Bengalis and 3,400 postal votes.
It is expected that the Muslim vote, which number around 302,000 votes, will be divided between the BSP, the Congress and the SP. The BJP, Congress and SP expect to divide the Punjabi, Sikh votes between them. The Congress is expect to engulf the Khatri votes as well as a larger share of the votes from the hills, with the remaining being distributed among the other three contestants.
While the Dalit and Tharu-Bukhsa votes are expected to go to the Congress and the BSP, the BJP is expected to walk away with most of the Vaish votes. The Bengali votes are expected to be shared between the BJP and the Congress.
Pasi, who is from the Terai, is expected to garner a fair amount of votes there. But he will have to counter the influence of Naina's husband Akbar 'Dumpy' Ahmed, who has represented the two assembly seats in the Nainital constituency and that of N D Tiwari who is a powerful leader in the region. Yet, Pasi can expect to benefit from the fact that Atal Bihari Vajpayee is very popular in the region, votes might be cast for him. Though 22 soldiers from the area died at Kargil, the people feel Vajpayee handled the situation in a correct manner.
On the other hand, Tiwari is playing hard on the sympathy card by claiming (for the third time after 1996 and 1998) that he is fighting the election for the last time. There is no doubt he is the best known of the four candidates and that he has put in some effort towards the development of the region.
Of the five Vidhan Sabha seats, Bahedi, Haldwani, Khadima and Nainital are with the BJP, while Kashipur is with the Congress.
But we will leave it to an election-weary voter to pithily sum up the situation, "Everyone can say what they want. But here, it is a contest between the Congress and the BJP. No one else counts."
Photographs: Jewella C Miranda
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