Friday, February 17, 2012

Denizens Of Darkness

As Uttar Pradesh goes to the polls, Bishwanath Ghosh revisits its biggest city, Kanpur, and speaks to a disillusioned citizenry that knows nothing is going to change — even if the mills have given way to malls.

I found it a little strange at first to hear the name of Kanpur being announced at the Delhi airport. I had never flown to Kanpur before, even though I was born in the city 41 years ago, and spent the first 22 years of my life there and after that have been paying the annual visit home. Kanpur is a city you take the train to — that's how I always saw it — and now, for the first time, I was flying into it.

The New Delhi-Kanpur-New Delhi service of Air India was started in 2005 at the initiative of Union Minister Sriprakash Jaiswal, who represents Kanpur in the Lok Sabha. But the sector turned out to be far from lucrative — on the inaugural day, I am told, only two people flew from Kanpur to Delhi, one of them being Jaiswal himself — and since then, from time to time, the service has either remained suspended or the sector altered in the hope of attracting more passengers.

So when the familiar female voice at New Delhi's T3 announced, "Air India announces the departure of its flight to Kanpur", a part of me kept wondering if this was real. My doubts were firmly laid to rest once I boarded the bus to the tarmac: the man standing next to me fished out a tin box of pan masala from his pocket, tore open the metal seal and threw it on the floor of the bus, and dropped two large spoonfuls of the contents into his eagerly-open mouth. In the plane, he used the sick bag as a spittoon. I knew I was going to Kanpur.

Kanpur is the city of pan masala. Every other moment you see someone tearing open a pouch of pan masala and emptying the contents into his mouth — just like the autorickshaw driver did when I approached him after a longish walk out of the airport, after having personally extricated my bag from the belly of the aircraft. My father, when he heard I was flying down, had asked me, "Should I send the car? I am not sure if you will find transport from the airport." Not wanting to bother him, I had replied, "Don't worry. I am sure there will be taxis." He was so right: no conveyor belt, no taxis. I did, however, spot a couple of Mercedes, three SUVs, and several cars fitted with the red light on their roofs — all waiting for passengers who had just travelled with me. Kanpur treats the moneyed and the powerful quite well. The lesser mortals have to fend for themselves — including finding a transport even at the airport.


Once upon a time there were mills, now there are malls. The malls stand like mirages on the mess that Kanpur is today. Roads are stripped of asphalt, power-supply is erratic, almost all the industries that the city took pride in have shut down, crime rate is high, traffic is chaotic, pollution at its peak. But people no longer complain. They have long grown inured to hardships. And this is Kanpur, the largest city of Uttar Pradesh, the state that has given seven Prime Ministers to India.

"Earlier, people voted for candidates. Now they vote for the caste of the candidates. A Yadav votes for the Yadav, a Brahmin votes for the Brahmin, a Thakur votes for the Thakur. No one talks about development — it does not seem to matter anymore," Anil Khetan, who runs Current Book Depot on Mall Road, tells me.

Anil, who is 53, has seen better days in Kanpur. His father, Mahadeo Khetan, started the bookshop in 1952: back then, Kanpur was the Manchester of the East and a citadel of the trade union movement. In fact, the Communist Party of India was born in this city, on December 26, 1925. For four terms until 1977, Kanpur was represented in the Lok Sabha by a trade unionist, S.M. Banerjee. "Even when Banerjee babu went to file his nomination papers, fifty to sixty thousand workers would march behind him. Today you won't find more than ten thousand people in Rahul Gandhi's meetings," Khetan said.

Khetan's father was associated with the Communist movement all his life and Current Book Depot was the sole distributor, in Uttar Pradesh, of Mir Publishers of the erstwhile USSR. The printed-in-USSR books have long disappeared from its shelves: I managed to find a collection of Chekhov's stories back in 1999. "Globalisation destroyed Kanpur," Khetan said, "it led to the closure of all the mills, which in turn led to unemployment and illiteracy — political parties are now feeding on them. Today if you take the IIT out of it, Kanpur will have nothing to boast of."


The presence of the Election Commission is being felt strongly in Uttar Pradesh — in the absence of political posters and banners. If you don't read the papers, you won't even know the state is going to elections. The walls are clean; no booths playing speeches or campaign songs. The most colourless elections the state has ever seen.

"Without the posters and banners, most people don't even know who the candidates are," Kumar, the veteran press photographer, told me. "One good thing about this is that candidates who have been visible in the public for five years will have an advantage. Those who show their faces only during elections will have a tough time."

I met Kumar at the Kanpur Press Club. In 1993, when I started my career as a journalist in the city, I had voted in the office-bearers' election. Kumar is now the secretary of the club, and every journalist walking in stops by to touch his feet: it's the Kanpur culture, to touch the feet of seniors. Since I am a visitor, I am served with tea.

People like Kumar know Kanpur and its politics like the back of their hands. Yet, when I ask him what this year's chunavi mudda — election issue — was, he falls silent and starts thinking.

"There is no issue as such," he tells me.

"Still, the candidates must be making promises?"

After thinking for a while again, he says: "Usually they talk about getting the mills reopened."

All the five mills run by the National Textiles Corporation (Swadeshi Cotton Mills, Muir Mills, Victoria Mills, Atherton Mills and Laxmi Ratan Mills) and three run by British India Corporation (Elgin Mills 1 and 2, and Kanpur Textiles) have long shut. Only the BIC-run Lal Imli manages to keep up five per cent production.

"When Atal Behari Vajpayee came here before he became the Prime Minister, he said, in his inimitable style, that the day his government came to power, smoke would rise out of the chimneys with the first ray of the sun. Nothing of that sort happened," Kumar smiles.


The mills began to close at a time when a bigger movement was sweeping through Uttar Pradesh — the Bharatiya Janata Party-supported movement for the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. It was to alter political agenda in the state for the next two decades, brushing aside the issue of closure of mills and the plight of workers rendered jobless. Today, it is too late: even workers laugh when they hear promises about restarting the mills.

"Not only Vajpayee, even Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh — they all made the same promise about smoke rising from the chimneys," says Prakash Chandra, who once worked as a weaver in Elgin Mill No. 1. "Chimney se to dhuaan nikla nahin, hamara dhuaan nikal gaya (smoke never came out of the chimneys, but our life went up in smoke.)"

Prakash Chandra, now 48, pulls a cycle-rickshaw for a living. When he has earned enough for the day, he parks the rickshaw at home and comes to the mill, where, outside the gate, he and his fellow workers have been staging a sit-in for many years now. '3176 days', says a signboard indicating the duration of their ongoing protest.

"Each time Sriprakash Jaiswal (the Union Minister and MP from Kanpur) wins an election, he comes here to receive garlands and make promises. And then he disappears for the next five years. He is going to come again very soon, along with the candidate from this constituency. And then he will disappear again," Prakash Chandra says.

Mohammad Naseem, a fellow protestor, chips in: "We gave our best years to this mill. When it closed down, we had young children at home to feed. I made my son work even when he was a child, when he should have been out playing. But I had no choice; we needed that extra money to survive."

He continues: "Now what is left of my life? I am 55 now. Even if the mill restarts, I won't have many years. Many of the workers have died over the years. Some died while they were sitting right here. One day, I will also die like that."

Published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine, February 12, 2012.