With every stir, she mumbles a curse. Sitting on her haunches in a small shed outside her home in Malaka village in Uttar Pradesh’s Fatehpur district, the 24-year-old has been roasting kilos of black chana on a chulha for hours. For Rs 5 a kg, Renu Gupta, who belongs to the ‘Bhunjwa’ OBC community, roasts the grain for the entire village, which is then ground into ‘sattu’ and sold.
But, it is never enough. Her husband, a daily wager, hasn’t had work in days and soon there might not be enough money for the fees of her son, or for even “roti-noon (salt)”, their usual meal.
Last week, an anganwadi worker went around distributing voter cards, including to Renu. But she is not sure she will vote. “What difference will it make?” she says. “Nothing has changed in this village for years. No big leader has ever come here. The men are unemployed, the women are tired from working, in the fields, at home… Yuva sirf tehelta rehta hai (the youth just loiter around).”
Last year, Fatehpur, situated in the Ganga-Yamuna doab — making it technically one of India’s most fertile regions — was one of the eight districts in Uttar Pradesh identified as ‘backward’ by the NITI Aayog. Its criteria included education, health, nutrition, basic infrastructure like road connectivity, electrification, access to potable water and toilets.
Renu’s problems are seemingly simpler to resolve: the hand pump outside her home that has run dry, the drain nearby that is clogged and overflowing, the flies “that are everywhere”. Elections are just something that come around every five years for this village of nearly 8,000, marked this time by not even a poster.
A few hours away lies Rae Bareli, one of the hottest political contests, in one of the keenest electoral fights seen in the state. On Thursday, the national media was there, chasing Congress stars Sonia Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.
Once, Fatehpur too had a star representative in Parliament, former prime minister V P Singh. That was a long, long time ago.
For a brief period there, Malaka thought education would be its way out. In its palpable poverty, its literacy rate stands out: at 68.47%, on a par with the state’s average of 67.68%. However, those passing out of its now mushrooming private schools and only government school, headed to colleges in Fatehpur town, Rae Bareli and even Lucknow and Kanpur, quickly found their roads ended there.
Abhay Mishra, 32, a member of the Malaka panchayat, says, “That is the root of the problem. We get our children educated but then there are no jobs. 70 per cent of the people in the village are unemployed. These youth either become addicts or leave to look for jobs in cities.”
Mishra’s own sons, twins aged five, go to a private school.
‘Pradhanpati’ Ram Chandra Vishwakarma (the husband of actual sarpanch Bela Devi), who is in his 40s, says frustration runs high among those of his generation who got educated but found themselves doing daily labour, earning less than Rs 200 a day, pushing them to alcohol. “There are some who have managed to break out and join the Army and police, but a very small percentage.”
In the past few years, Malaka has also been fighting a severe water problem. Adds Vishwakarma, “The village’s nine ponds have either dried up or are filled with filth. The wells are dry. The groundwater level has dropped to below 100 feet. There is barely any water in the handpumps.”
Panchayat member Mishra lists other problems: “Of the 1,600 households, only 400 have toilets. The village has been declared ODF (open defecation free), but more than 80% people still go to the fields. Only 250 homes have been built under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, the rest are kuchcha. There is one Public Health Centre but that is always shut. The children who go to the sole government school can’t read and write even after Class 5.”
An abandoned solid waste management plant near the village, now a big dumping ground for its plastic and other waste, is a standing symbol of Malaka’s snuffed hopes. Vishwakarma says it used to employ many people. As did a textile factory, that has been shut for two years.
Acknowledging the long haul in areas like Fatehpur, UP government spokesperson and Power Minister Shrikant Sharma blames it on “previous governments that did little in 17 years”. “The eight ‘backward’ districts shortlisted by the NITI Aayog and the Prime Minister are ‘aspirational’ districts. For the past one year, the UP government has been working towards their upliftment. In Fatehpur, for instance, 60,190 homes and 2,408 hamlets have got electricity… The BJP government in the state is giving the common man a package of electricity, gas cylinders, healthcare, toilets, and homes. The BJP will win in Fatehpur and across UP,” he says.
The dying of hope has been cruellest for people like Jagat Pal, 52, a juice-seller, belonging to among the lowest Dalit groups in the caste hierarchy, whose son Akshay is a BA final year student. Peeling a sugarcane stick, Pal says, “Shiksha and swaasth (education and health), that is all we can depend on. I can’t waste my time on self-pity.”
Akshay, 22, says most Dalit boys of his age focus on education, not politics. “My father has brought us till here. I don’t want to get into agriculture, I want to move a step ahead. I will take the Railways exam, or appear for the civil services.”
With jobs few, Vishwakarma, however, believes the government luring youngsters back to farming is the only answer. “There is drought every year, no money in farming, people are turning away from agriculture. But last year, some farmers began growing peppermint. Its oil fetches good money. Such steps will help retain people,” he says.
Renu, coughing into her sari from the smoke rising out of the chana kadhai, won’t hang around waiting. A mother of two, who pays a precious Rs 300 per month for her elder son’s kindergarten at a private school, says men either high on drugs or alcohol have become a menace. “I don’t want my children to grow up here.”
In another corner of the village, another Renu, 25, took matters into her own hands last year. Taking many in her family of eight as well as the village by surprise, she opened Malaka’s first beauty parlour. The ‘Lakshmi Beauty Parlour’ functions from a small dingy room, from where Renu also runs a tailoring unit. Clothes fill the room, but with its shelves holding a few creams, threads and cotton balls, and its walls plastered with posters of Bollywood actresses Katrina Kaif and Kareena Kapoor, she is selling another kind of dream.
One of six siblings, Renu says that after completing her BA from Rae Bareli, she appeared for the Railways and police exam, but couldn’t crack them. “I had nothing to do… I would cook, fill water, clean the drain outside my home.” So she learnt beauty parlour work in Rae Bareli.
While earlier she had few customers, Renu says, “Now girls have started getting their eyebrows done. Some brides too are coming for make-up. They look at the posters of the actresses and choose one.”
Her father lost his pulses crop to stray cattle last year, she says. But now she contributes at home. “I earn Rs 3,000 per month from the stitching work. At the parlour, I charge Rs 70 for a facial and mehndi and Rs 15 for threading,” she smiles.
There is one change from previous elections: the surge in mobile phones, bringing politics vibrating into everyone’s palms, almost unwillingly.
While Vishwakarma claims all homes in the village have electricity, the residents complain of long, frequent power cuts. Only a handful of homes have television sets, where the others gather to catch their favourite soaps and news.
“I have been watching Rahul Gandhi and PM Narendra Modi’s speeches on my phone, mostly clips from old rallies shared on WhatsApp,” says Umesh Kumar, a Class 9 dropout who works as a daily wager at construction sites. He bought his second-hand phone from a shop in Fatehpur for Rs 900, he says. Sitting outside the Panchayat Ghar, where he has been commissioned to do some panelling work, his headphones plugged on, he says they can’t afford to go to rallies as that would mean a day’s work lost. “My mother went to Priyanka Gandhi’s rally last week. She came back just complaining about the heat.”
The fourth of five siblings, whose father too is a daily wager, prefers using his phone more to listen to Bhojpuri songs or play the “gaadi-wala game”.
Last year, as several men in the village bought cellphones, Puneet Kumar, 18, who studied till Class 12, set up a mobile repair/recharge shop with his brother, in a small room. “But there has been no business. We get one repair work in 15-20 days. Recharge too is rare,” he says. Now the family sells aerated drinks and biscuits too from the space.
Also 18, Amrit Pal works at a cycle repair shop next door. A BA first year student, he says even if mobile phones keep him informed of a world outside, it hardly changes anything in theirs. “Last year, I got to know of the Dalit protests against changing of the SC/ST Act. But do we have the luxury to while away time like that? I am on my summer break now, but to pay my college fees, I work at this shop, earning Rs 100-300 per day. I am also saving up to enrol for English language coaching,” says the older of two siblings, whose father is a labourer.
Another image that flooded his WhatsApp was more recent. “I saw many videos of PM Modi washing the feet of Dalit sanitation workers in Prayagraj (Kumbh)… But it’s all dikhawat (for show)… most news on WhatsApp is,” says Amrit, who hopes to one day become a lawyer and “vote for a party that ensures Dalits don’t just remain a vote bank”.
Unlike other villages of UP, caste or even religion is not an overpowering presence in Malaka, with most neighbourhoods mixed settlements. While Hindus are in a majority — including Brahmins, Thakurs, OBCs and Dalits — Muslims too are in significant numbers.
Underlining this “diversity”, panchayat member Mishra says, “We don’t want promises on religious lines.”
The one settlement that stands out is of the Bhant Sharmas (who are Brahmins). They live in a slum spread over 15 bighas outside the village, in mud-and-thatch homes without toilets, and with muddy pathways and overflowing drains.
One of four siblings, Rahul Sharma is among the few Bhant men to have completed his graduation. But in May last year, a fire that burnt down 72 homes in the slum also destroyed his degree. “My three years feel wasted. I have appeared for the Railways exam, but I may not get the job once they ask me for my certificates,” says Sharma.
Most of the 1,200 Bhants, who claim to be the “original inhabitants” of the village, rely on alms and helping people with “pooja-paath (prayers)” to make ends meet. Old BJP supporters, they have decided to carry black flags to the polling booth this time. “The 15 bighas on which we stay was declared forest land 15 years ago. We have been appealing to every party… Everyone here just wants us to leave,” says Mahendra Kumar Sharma, 42.
Nafiz Shah, 50, says, one of the reasons that “unites” Malaka is this: “People of all religions here are struggling for the same things — food, water, and jobs.”
It’s something sitting MP and Union minister of state Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti is aware of. Leaving the local BJP office for campaigning on April 29, she asserts that a lot of development has happened in the past five years. “We have built roads, a medical college is coming up… But we can’t ignore national issues like security and the campaign by the tukde-tukde gang. People in Fatehpur also want us to take a stand on that,” she says.
There is no attempt to draw in religion, like earlier. In early 2017, addressing a rally before the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections in Fatehpur, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said, “If you create kabristaan (graveyard) in a village, then a shamshaan (cremation ground) should be created. If electricity is given uninterrupted in Ramzan, then it should be given in Diwali without a break.”
Niranjan Jyoti is most known for a December 2014 speech, asking Delhi voters to choose “between Ramzadon and haramzadon” in the Capital’s Assembly elections.
While she has been holding nukkad sabhas across the constituency, the MP is yet to visit Malaka. Even the campaign for BSP leader Sukhdev Prasad Verma, fielded by the Mahagathbandhan, which is seen as giving a tough fight, has been restricted to a few party workers in the village.
But if religious schism or Ram Mandir is not an issue, neither is Pulwama or Balakot, which are “not a talking point”, say villagers.
“The public of Fatehpur has understood that the BJP has been making false promises, whether jobs or schemes for farmers. You can see the condition of Fatehpur… Despite holding a ministerial portfolio, Niranjan Jyoti did nothing for the constituency… There is a wave in favour of the Mahagathbandhan,” says Sukhdev Verma.
Once a Congress stronghold, Fatehpur has been voting for different parties since V P Singh won on a Janata Dal ticket in 1989, including the BSP, the Samajwadi Party, and the BJP. Apart from Niranjan Jyoti and Verma, former Fatehpur MP and SP-turned-Congress leader Rakesh Sachan is in the race.
Hovering over it all is Modi.
Nafiz Shah, a father of five who worked in Mumbai for over 20 years ago before returning home a few years ago, says they have no reason here to hold a grudge against the PM. “Modi can say what he wants, but here all my neighbours are Hindu. There has never been any violence against us. When I vote, I will ask the government why I still continue to be a daily wager. Why didn’t I get a cylinder under the Ujjwala scheme? Why didn’t I get money to build a toilet? I have worked hard to educate all my children. My daughter has a BSc degree. The government must ensure that they don’t lead the lives we have.”
Shah’s wife Haseena Begum, 45, asserts, “I just want the drain outside my house closed. I will vote for whoever does that.”
Sitting on a cot near Renu Gupta’s shed, Rampal, 72, a Patel Kurmi farmer, says while both the BSP and Congress candidates are from his community, he won’t vote for either. “In Malaka, caste doesn’t matter. Modi is working for the country, maybe he will work for us too,” he says.
Vishwakarma believes “at least 70 per cent” of the village will “vote for Modi again”.
But Rampal’s son Narendra Kumar, 45, who sells ice from a cart in Hyderabad and is visiting home for the elections, raises one issue over where there is simmering anger. Kumar says he had to migrate after his crop was destroyed by stray animals. “We Hindus are making a fuss over cow slaughter, now see….”
Some of the younger farmers complain about the meagre Rs 6,000 promised under the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi. “We haven’t even got the first installment of Rs 2,000,” says Suresh Chandra Pal, 32.
Gathered in the evening at the chaupal, older farmers reminisce about the days V P Singh would conduct door-to-door campaigns. “Our constituency’s MP was the prime minister. Now, no one remembers us,” says farmer Ram Manohar Pandit, 85.
Therefore Mishra, who sees in the musical chairs of parties in Fatehpur the seat’s unfulfilled desire for change, says the Mahagathbandhan could win. “Maybe they will bring real vikas.”
On April 30 evening, a buzz goes around Malaka. In the first stirrings of an election, people talk of a rally being held by BSP chief Mayawati the next day at a venue on the Lucknow-Fatehpur highway, 10 km away.
“Everyone from the Dalit samaj is going, some of us will go too. Mayawati is not alone this time, the SP is there too,” says Mishra.
May 1 morning, Lal Singh Paswan, 40, a panchayat member, goes door-to door urging people to get into a bus arranged by the BSP. Many men are holding flags with Mayawati and SP leader Akhilesh Yadav’s faces. Some women, dressed in their brightest saris, have worn the Mahagathbandhan caps over pallus. Says 50-year-old Mewalal Gautam, “Hum Modi ko harane ke liye ja rahe hain (We are going to defeat Modi).”
However, where the plan earlier was to send six buses full of villagers to the rally, in the end, only one vehicle goes, with most declining saying they must work.
Sreemati, 35, who says she has attended ‘Behen’ Mayawati’s rallies in Lucknow earlier, admits that for her, the event is an excuse to get out of home. “We are always cleaning, cooking or filling water,” says the mother of three.
Outside the rally venue, carts have lined up selling sugarcane juice, fried snacks and clothes such as dupattas, pyjamas and shirts. The women and children from Malaka settle down after buying drinks. Local leaders try to keep up interest till Mayawati arrives, but it’s difficult against the heat.
The BSP chief arrives three hours later amidst commotion, as the crowd rises like one, including Sreemati and her children, to catch a glimpse of her chopper. Her arrival on stage is greeted with enthusiastic claps. However, as Mayawati begins talking, about “Modi’s false promises”, “the money given to Adani-Ambani”, and the “Rafale scam”, most struggle to keep pace.
As the speech ends, local leaders have to signal to them to clap.
Two hours later, Sreemati and the others from Malaka stream out, to the stalls outside. As they eat, the children urge their parents to buy toys, but don’t get any. Their day out ends with barf golas (ice candies).
As they get into the bus to return home, a BSP worker reminds them, “Voting is on May 6.” The group nods, and departs.