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Working for change in UP: A lot can be done

At a checkpoint in Uttar Pradesh which hold seven-phased assembly polls.
11 Feb. 2012 11:33 PM IST

This isn’t a work of fiction, nor is it constructed to bash politicians or start a revolution, especially at a time when this sprawling state is going to the polls. It’s an account of ordinary people, generations of them. Their demand? That something be done for them to have a better quality of life, eventually. Holding on to that hope, Uttar Pradesh resident Birju turns a leaf, he has just turned 78. He’s still awaiting the fulfilment of promises made to him when he was a newly wed. Today his grandchildren are married.
As he says, “Parties come and go. Politicians come and go. We remain. And this is what we have.” He points to the local school with half-finished walls and deteriorating toilets. The roads were ruined over the monsoon. Every other year, roadworks take place but the material used isn’t good enough, protests an elderly farmer. As more villagers join in, the age-old discussion on what needs to be done gets more and more heated.
It has been six months since I have moved back to India. Giving up the old boroughs of London, where my last conversations in the city were based around the lack of job opportunities in a modern society, depressive state of established and emerging financial markets, of neighbouring countries that required bailouts. Yes, the banking sector kept me occupied for the better part of four years. The City of London seemed like a bubble though. India, its state-wide elections, politics and everything associated, felt part of a different planet. I decided to move back to India to work in the rural sector. I was fortunate enough to be given an opportunity with an organisation already established in the sector, pioneering development and movement among people. To work within a structured framework that allows one to interact with farmers and villagers. To try and provide them an educative insight on the right to price information with respect to the crops they produce, to work with them on issues important to their existence, directly approach them and tell them about healthcare and sanitation, provide them facts and figures on what goes into financial planning.
This is the company that gave rural India the power of electronic communication, E-Chaupal, as some might have heard. And work brought me to Uttar Pradesh, right in the middle of a political storm - the state is holding assembly elections. As I go from village to village, account to account, it becomes evident that the simple needs, those that were and are promised, are the ones often forgotten. As we move in the area of Bahraich, we’re stopped again. “Excuse me - out of car.” An armed officer accompanied by two uniformed men with video cameras record the process of checking. As we find ourselves held up at yet another checkpoint, I am reminded by the officer on duty that they’re authorised to check every vehicle that crosses their path. They anticipate a heavy movement of cash and physical gold. We’re more than pleased to see their diligent approach. As we wait, I am approached by a group of children, who request for a photograph. We agree, and it opens a dialogue. “Will you vote, when you’re eligible?” I ask. All of them, without the slightest hesitation, nod their heads. Is it because it’s your right? No, they say. It’s because there is the possibility to get ‘something’ out of it. It’s like gospel - they can get incentives if they vote. It could be anything, from blankets to cash prize, mobile phones or part payment of a wedding. So, this is what tomorrow might turn out like? Like, today. This is the system. It only moves in circles, from parent to child. And you can’t help but feel disappointed. But, then again, they have their reasons - it’s like a festival, one of them said, where gifts are handed out. They’ve grown up observing it and will soon be taking part in it.
As songs break out on the radio, cattle feed on brown grass and children play cricket with wooden planks as makeshift bats...I hear the officers speaking to each other about a raid, minutes ago. Of cash being hauled in a nearby district. “Cash for votes, sir”, as I overhear these men in uniform, I sense a feeling of pride among them. Policemen, more often than not, are termed ‘corrupt’. But on that day of all days, I felt a sense of duty on their part. They high-fived each other and laughed. And with a spring in their step walked over to me, “Sir, free to go.” As the four of them sat on their assigned plastic chairs in the sun, it felt like there was reason to believe in people, those who take oaths too.
Will we continue addressing issues such as education, sanitation, healthcare, infrastructure, electricity? I guess we will. But perhaps, rather than ridiculing the system, we could try to contribute to it. There is a lot that needs to be done, and now is a good time to start.
(The writer is involved with ITC’s E-Chaupal project.

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Arjun Puri