Aghapur, a tiny Gurjar-dominated hamlet in Noida, was put on the national map when Manveer Gurjar won the recently concluded season 10 of television reality show Bigg Boss. The settlement hides behind a glittering facade of buildings that house some of Delhi NCR’s famous restaurant chains. The long winding road that connects the village to Dadri Main Road is littered with garbage, and water from the overflowing drains clog its narrow lanes. Mud-brick houses with roofs of corrugated iron dot the village. It is, however, hard to miss the frenzy of construction activity in the area. A little less than a kilometre into the village, past the government-run school and dispensary, two-storey buildings painted in bright colours and grocery stores lend a touch of modernity to this rustic village.
As campaigning draws to a close for phase one in Uttar Pradesh on Wednesday, Rajnath Singh’s son and BJP candidate from Noida, Pankaj Singh chose Aghapur to begin his day. The crowd slowly began to swell as the afternoon sun beat down on Aghapur’s community centre, venue for Pankaj’s campaign address. Local party leaders tried to keep the atmosphere charged by egging the crowds to join them in chanting “Bharat Mata ki Jai”. The man whom they all have been waiting for was running late.
The election fever seemed to have also gripped the local school, abutting the community centre. Kids, not older than eight years, sporting BJP caps and scarves, squeezed themselves between the rusted iron bars of the gate that separates the two buildings and joined the small gathering. Bang opposite the government-run school stands a red-brick building with its walls exposed to the elements. An English-medium school run by a NGO occupies its ground floor rooms. After their morning lessons, the students, dressed in casuals, were just settling down for their mid-day meal. The school, Sai Bal Sansar, founded in 1999 by SaiKripa trust, initially operated out of a temple basement in Sector 40. They took children off the streets and put them in classrooms. Eight years ago, they moved to Aghapur and tied up with Pathways School, a premier institution in Noida. “We teach them in English-medium. Through the NGO (Sai Krupa) we present books. We also provide a one-time meal, mostly daal-chawal. We have 180 students, since today is Wednesday, most went for classes in Pathways. We have 10 teachers and one is a cooking staff. They are not B.Ed qualified. Three teachers from locality. We are also running a formal school in Sector 134 in Wazirpur village. Some of the children, after Class V, we send them there. It is not free, we take a nominal fee of 500 towards school uniform and books,” says one of the teachers volunteering at the school.
For those without empty plots of land or farms, education is the only way out of Aghapur. Most of Aghapur residents survive doing odd jobs, the rest on rent from the rooms they sublet. It is not surprising the NGO-funded school has more students on its rolls than the government-run school. It is quite visible that the local school has been starved of government funds and needs a much-needed facelift. Students dressed in khakis seek refuge under the shade of the crumbling school building as their teacher checks the previous day’s homework. The school is just not big enough to squeeze all its wards inside. Besides the few wooden benches inside the classrooms, the only visible furniture outside are the three plastic chairs and a bench used by the teachers.
Sukhbir Yadav, a vegetable vendor, has a different story to share. A self-confessed Akhilesh Yadav supporter, Sukhbir has been a resident of the village for years but his vote is in Mainpuri, a Samajwadi Party stronghold. He was full of praise for the SP chief. He claims it was the Akhilesh-led government that turned around the school. “Earlier, the mid-day meals were of poor quality. Now, they come in packaged containers,” he says. A school teacher was even brought in to tutor the students for two hours after school, Yadav adds. After little probing, he reveals that he sends his son to a private school in Ahmedabad.
Street lights with fused bulbs, power-shortage, a park littered with cow dung, and a community centre without either doors or windows are among the list of problems locals complain of. The anger is palpable among Aghapur residents as most feel their power has been snatched from them with the Uttar Pradesh government abolishing gram panchayats in Gautam Budh Nagar. In 2015, the Akhilesh-led government decided against holding panchayat elections in this district. Since then, villagers are left at the mercy of Noida Authority to approve and implement development works.
An hour behind schedule, Pankaj’s cavalcade slowly crawls through the lanes. He steps off his white Fortuner and makes his way to the venue along with sitting Noida BJP MLA Vimala Batham. Pankaj receives a rousing reception from a crowd of less than 100 people, most of them local party workers. A few minutes into his address, Pankaj steps into the shoes of his father. His diction, flair, characteristic baritone voice bounces off the surrounding buildings, holding the audience to his every word. In his election pitch, Pankaj targets the SP and BSP for failing to address the problems ailing Noida. “I know that the people used to make the gram pradhan work but now even Noida Authority did not want to appoint a local in-charge. They snatched all the power, it is only here and nowhere in Uttar pradesh. Only in Gautam Budh Nagar. With all your help, we will work towards restoring a honest system. All the corrupt will be sent to jail. Noida generates Rs 14,800 crore in revenue and how are we so behind? Noida Authority allots Rs 1 lakh crore towards development works, they need to come out with a report where the money was spent. They (BSP-SP) need to give us an account of what they have done in the last 15 years. I will not make any big promises, whatever I can do I will work honestly towards the betterment of Noida,” Pankaj said.
Noida, known as the gateway to Uttar Pradesh, formally came into existence in 1976. The constituency has over five lakh registered voters with 109 polling centres and 483 polling booths. Considered a safe seat, local BJP leaders accused the party high command of parachuting in Pankaj, an “outsider”. The local party workers, aspiring for the Noida ticket rebelled; most prominently Captain Vikas Gupta, a popular face among the retired military veterans community in the city. Pankaj also sought to address his “outsider tag” by repeatedly telling crowds that he has been a party worker for several years and he would be moving to Noida soon. BJP MP Mahesh Sharma, who previously held the Noida seat, also took Pankaj under his wing and has been actively monitoring his campaign. Residents and party cadre alike are also unhappy with the work done by Sharma’s successor Vimla Batham. She stood in the 2014 bye-election after Sharma vacated the seat and won with over 60,000 votes margin. Asked whether he would breach the 1-lakh margin previously set by Batham, Pankaj says: “I don’t think like that, but I can say people are giving good response and blessings. Party workers are also working hard. Regarding the margin can only tell after the results.”
On Batham, who has been actively campaigning for Pankaj, he says: “She worked a lot. She tried her best. However, much she could she did. SP government created hurdles for her. Whatever the MLALAD fund is, she utilised till well. She also got a good response. She has been actively campaigning for me.”
Batham has made use of the entire Local Area Funds made available in her two years as MLA. Pankaj did not make any major poll announcement, except for promising to improve the infrastructure and law and order situation in Noida. “Basic needs will be looked after. Noida Authority is in a position through which most of the work gets done. They should also understand that wherever there is requirement, they must get the work done for the public. Any public representative has to listen to the public problems and represent them before the govt institutions and fulfil their expectations,” he said.
The BJP, in their poll manifesto, stated to upgrade the UP 100 service, launched amid much fanfare by the Akhilesh government. The service promises quick and effective response in case of emergencies. Commenting on the service, Pankaj said: “Whatever changes are required we will take them forward. Law and order situation is very bad in the state. BJP govt will ensure that crime goes down and nobody gets political patronage. Specifically to Noida: Anti-romeo squads will be beefed up to control chain snatching and more women police stations will be introduced.” If BJP sweeps Uttar Pradesh, will Pankaj be wooed with a cabinet berth? “Bahut chota worker hoon, jaise bhi hoon waise hi kush hoon,” he replies.
Indrajit Katana, who organised the programme at Aghapur, hopes Pankaj would be different from the previous elected representatives. His approach is a bit wishful: “Whoever the public elects are cut off from the realities. Hoping Pankaj Singh would do good.”