2017.02.10 (Joydeep Gupta) Electricity, roads and water have been the holy trinity of Indian poll promises for decades, but water comes such a distant third that it is not even an important issue as Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state, gets ready to vote.
“Yes, Ganga and Yamuna have turned into drains. But no candidate is talking about this, nor is any voter asking,” says Abhishek Srivastava, as he buys a wallet in Agra’s Sadar Bazar. “Why not?” “I don’t know. Voters only echo the points raised by candidates during the campaign.”
Over 140 million people are eligible to vote as Uttar Pradesh — the land of the Ganga and the Yamuna — gets set to elect a new state government. The ongoing campaign is characterised by bitterness, sarcasm and extravagant promises of laptops to each student. Opinion polls show a tight race between the Bharatiya Janata Party that rules India, the state’s ruling Samajwadi Party which is in alliance with the Congress, and the Bahujan Samaj Party, with around 40% of voters still saying they are undecided. Polling will be in five phases in February and March.
Agra will go to the polls in the first phase on February 11. Looking outside the shop where he is choosing his wallet, Srivastava points to a stagnant open drain with its stink and cloud of mosquitoes, and says, “No one raised the issue of such drains even in the municipality polls. Do you think they will do it in the state assembly polls? No way.”
Sadar Bazar is less than a kilometre from the Taj Mahal, and behind that the Yamuna, which is literally a drain downstream of Delhi — around 200 kilometres to the north — till the Chambal joins the river 200 km further downstream of Agra.
Everybody agrees that the poison affects drinking water and irrigation. Still, the apathy is mirrored in town after town of western Uttar Pradesh, all in that fertile belt between the Ganga and the Yamuna.
Gokul Ram, who plies a cycle rickshaw in Hathras, says, “It’s the same everywhere. My village is in eastern Uttar Pradesh, near Sonebhadra. There the ash flying from a power station has made the soil infertile. Here you can’t get any clean water to drink unless you buy a bottle, and we don’t have the money for that. The water in the wells is yellow, and it stinks.”
Has he heard anybody talking about it during the campaign? “No.” Why not? “I don’t know.”
There’s a heartening example of philanthropy in the Khurja town centre. Coordinated by the district administration, there is a place for donating and collecting warm clothes. But within 100 metres, on the road leading to the town’s poorer neighbourhood inhabited mostly by Dalits and Muslims, there’s the omnipresent open garbage dump with wallowing pigs.
Butcher Akhlaq Qureshi has his shop right in front of the dump. “I don’t have clean water even to wash the meat,” he says. “One of the candidates was holding a meeting in our neighbourhood. I asked him if he would provide at least one tap for us. He did promise. Let us see.”
The district hospital in Bulandshahr has the usual preponderance of patients suffering from water-borne diseases, two doctors confirm. Sadashiv Mishra has brought his five-year-old son for treatment of a case of mild poisoning. The thirsty child drank water flowing out of a sugarcane field. The high concentration of pesticides in the water has made him ill for over a week.
“Where will we get clean water?” Mishra asks. “My farm is near Garh Mukteshwar, on the banks of the Ganga. There is hardly any water in the Ganga, and whatever there is, is dirty. You get the same dirty water in the shallow wells. We don’t have the money to dig deep.”
Did he raise the issue when candidates came to his village seeking votes? “I asked two candidates, from different parties. There was no answer. Then I stopped. What’s the point?”
Data journalism website IndiaSpend sponsored an opinion poll in Uttar Pradesh in the last week of January to examine the issues voters considered most important. Of the 2,513 interviews conducted over telephone, 28% said power cuts was the most important issue, followed by 20% who identified jobs, economy and development, 10% who identified water shortages and clean water, 7% who identified roads and 4% who said food was the most important issue in these polls.
Clean water not an issue
Despite that, unless prompted, no voter who spoke to this reporter identified clean water as an issue in these polls. In Uttar Pradesh, only 20% of rural and 52% of urban households have piped water supply. Of the 75 districts in the state, 33 over-exploit groundwater. Just in Kanpur, over 40 million litres of untreated waste is released into the Ganga by 400 tanneries every day.
The voters appeared indifferent about air pollution as well, though in the IndiaSpend survey, 46% urban voters said the air they breathe is polluted, and 26% rural voters said the same. Uttar Pradesh has four of the ten worst polluted cities in India in terms of air quality — Lucknow, Kanpur, Allahabad and Firozabad.
It is not as if these issues do not appear in the manifestos of the contending political parties. They do, along with a host of promises to improve healthcare and government-funded educational institutions. But till these issues make a buzz, there is little reason to believe the manifesto promises will be kept.
A raft of NGOs has prepared a separate manifesto for sustainable development of Uttar Pradesh. Their suggestions include a strong focus on decentralised renewable energy; incentivising green building materials and house designs that integrate water supply, sanitation and energy facilities; a complete ban on releasing untreated sewage into rivers; proper waste management systems in all towns; revival of ponds, rivers and lakes; and rainwater harvesting.
But unless the candidates and the more importantly the voters talk about these issues, such ideas are likely to remain at the margins of the electoral debate.