When Independence came, 70 years ago, Wajid Ali’s parents were travelling the breadth of east Uttar Pradesh as traditional fakirs, a backward caste of religious mendicants called the Shahs. They settled down as farm labourers in Phulpur, roughly 40 km from Allahabad.
With other low-caste Pasi neighbours in the village of Lilahat, they worked in others’ fields for years to make ends meet. Even the next generation — Ali and his wife — could not educate themselves because they were “too poor to even think of education”.
Their village, one of the many settlements along the Barna, an ancient tributary of the Ganga, and the adjoining rice fields largely remain a blind spot for the state. Ali’s family recalls carrying an Uncle on foot for lack of transport. “He died on the cot he was lying on, on the way,” Moharram, Ali’s younger brother recalls.
A few public health centres came up but doctors stayed away. The family did not benefit from fertiliser subsidies because they had no land of their own. In off seasons, Ali, 40, ventured out to sell fruits or vegetables off pushcarts while Asma, 35, pored over tobacco and tendu leaves, rolling around 1,000 beedis a day, as part of the industry which employs millions of women and children across the country.
“I have been breaking my back and harming my eyes for as little as Rs 50 a day — from the age of 12. It helps pay my children’s school fees,” she says, pointing to her young sons and a daughter. What has the government done for them? “Mahine mein sirf ek litre mitti ka tel (Only a litre of kerosene oil every month),” Ali says.
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, chose rural Allahabad’s Phulpur as the Lok Sabha constituency to contest from in 1952 and won thrice. “Those were heady times,” says Arshad Sheikh, whose grandfather Mohammad Yasin, a freedom fighter and a local zamindar at the time, used to host Nehru and Indira Gandhi during their electoral campaigns in Phulpur. “People would say: what could be bigger for Phulpur than it giving the country its first PM?” says Sheikh, a Samajwadi Party member, seated in his ancestral two-storeyed house.
That pedigree has remained the sole gift to Phulpur. Sheikh’s brother Sohail recounts how Nehru reacted to his grandfather Yasin’s request for development and infrastructure in Phulpur. “‘I am not the Prime Minister of Phulpur, I am the Prime Minister of the whole country,’ he said. Isliye hum khamosh ho gaye,” Sohail says. The IIFCO fertiliser plant, set up by Indira Gandhi in 1980, employs around 2,000 trained workers.
Phulpur went on to elect Nehru thrice, followed by his sister Vijay Lakshmi Pandit and VP Singh, the seventh Prime Minister. In the last general elections, it got its first BJP legislator in UP’s deputy CM Keshav Prasad Maurya.
The disintegration of the Congress’s pan-Indian mandate by the 1980s led to the birth of identity politics, with people voting along caste and communal lines. Leaders promised to bring benefits only to their respective communities, and development became fractured and lopsided.
In the late 1990s, Wajid and his brothers, like millions of Purvanchali migrants, travelled to cities like Kolkata, Jodhpur and Mumbai to work in factories and construction sites. Asma could now breathe easy, with fewer beedis to make every day. She put her daughter Rizwana in a private school, the younger siblings following suit. Rizwana, thus, grew up a little freer than her mother and aunts. She went to school, her mother paying Rs 200 a month. Till she could no longer afford the fees.
“I love studying and I wanted to study further and take up home science. But I had to drop out in Class VII last year. Then I got married,” says Rizwana, a shy girl with smiling eyes. She scrubs utensils after lunch, while her parents, uncles and aunts and her husband sit on charpoys, chatting.
Freedom for the women of Phulpur comes in various shades of grey. Education freed Rizwana from child labour unlike her mother. But the lack of affordable education pushed her into marriage at the age of 16.
Her husband, Arif, a 24-year-old, works as an electrician in Riyadh. Sporting a gold-plated watch, a white vest and grey track pants, he looks garish against the brown of the mud houses and its simply-dressed occupants. He sends back good money, so Rizwana is barred from working outside the house. “She will take care of my family in Mumbai and do the household chores,” he says.
Utpala Shukla, the Allahabad district president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, says, over the years, everyone in Phulpur has been left to fend for themselves in the free market. “The constitutional promises of Nehruvian socialism, like basic education and employment, have weakened,” she says. The MNREGA has been implemented so poorly that people are now not even getting 30 days of work, she says. Wajid Ali and his relatives agree. Yadav says that workers like Ali are greedy for more, which is why they have switched to private wage labour in the cities.
But the absence of the state in all aspects of life is glaring in Lilahat, a village of 3,300. While Yadav claims the number of BPL ration card holders with access to wheat and rice for as little as Rs 2 in the village has gone up to 484 from a mere 82 after Modi came to power, Ali’s family claims otherwise. Those who have 20 bighas of land are the ones holding BPL cards, the family says. At the primary school, one out of four teachers turn up to teach. “We still do not have a toilet. We go to the fields,” Asma says, with a grimace.
While Ali’s family has found new freedom in greater mobility, it chafes at the inertia of the state. Moharram says of politicians, “Andhe ke gaon mein chashme bechte hain. Yahi kaam hai inka. Chahe Congress ho ya Modi-Yogi ho.”