Unnao, Uttar Pradesh: This busy, bustling town in central Uttar Pradesh will vote in the third phase of the 2009 Lok Sabha election on Thursday, but not just as any other constituency.
Unnao, after the delimitation exercise completed in 2007, has become the parliamentary constituency with the largest electorate. Delimitation involves redrawing the boundaries of a constituency on the basis of the latest population data.
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Unnao has 1,897,474 voters, up from 1,303,203 in the last Lok Sabha election in 2004.
Located in one of the economically most backward states in the country, it displaced Outer Delhi, which was the largest constituency until 2004. And, unsurprisingly, the key issues at stake revolve around the lack of development.
According to Indicus Analytics, a Delhi-based think tank, Uttar Pradesh, one of the most backward states in the country, has a 56.27% literacy rate, well below the national average of 65.40%. Almost one in three people in the state live below the poverty line and at least 31% of the villages are yet to receive electricity.
With such a large number of voters to reach out to, the candidates, who include Annu Tandon from the Congress party, Ramesh Kumar Singh from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Arun Shankar Shukla alias Anna from the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Deepak Kumar from the Samajwadi Party, are having a tough time reaching out to the electorate. All the more so because there seems to be a disconnect between the voters and the politicians.
While voters, a cross-section of whom were interviewed by Mint, concede that they are troubled by the lack of basic infrastructure, they believe their single biggest challenge is water contamination because of high fluoride content in underground water, causing disease and disabilities. Consumption of high levels of fluoride is known to cause health problems including dental fluorosis, skeletal fluorosis and weakened bones.
“Contaminated water is our biggest problem. The fluoride in the water makes it polluted. But no politician takes up this issue or even mentions it,” said Razi Ahmed, who runs a small cosmetic shop in the lane outside Congress candidate Tandon’s house in Unnao. But candidates do bring up the issue in private conversations.
“The main issue here is non-development since nothing has been done to develop this district… Though it is a large constituency, issues are more or less homogenous,” said Tandon.
“Another issue here is the fluoride content in water which is responsible for a high percentage of disabled people.”
The BJP candidate, Singh, blamed the high fluoride content on tanning industries that pollute the water. “I have some programmes in mind and have made several plans” to deal with it, he said.
According to Mradula Asthana, president of the SUVI Disability Association, a social organization in Unnao, “the number of disabled people in Unnao district is very high compared with elsewhere. Approximately 15% of the population suffers from some disability, a very high figure.”
“The main reason behind this, apart from lack of awareness, is the contamination in the water because of its high fluoride content. But nobody pays attention to this issue and no candidate has come to us promising to address this,” she added.
“The tanning industries near Unnao are the main cause of polluting the water,” Asthana claimed. Mint couldn’t immediately contact such industrial units for comment.
Unnao residents also claimed the tanneries on National Highway-25, from Lucknow to Kanpur, dump their wastes in the Loni drain that joins the Ganga. There are more than 100 such tanning units on both sides of the highway.
Some villages in the district have a long history of problems due to contaminated water. In Makoor village in Unnao, the high fluoride content in the soil has contaminated the water in the wells. As a result, most of the 400-odd villagers suffer from fluorosis and related diseases, some villagers said.
“The water here has been contaminated for decades. It leads to disability. Approximately 75% (of the) people here suffer from some disability or the other. However, even though several people have come here to look into the matter, nothing has been done,” said Ramdhar, a 50-year old resident of Makoor village, who uses only one name.
Villagers here such as Sandeep Yadav say the former member of Parliament from Unnao, Brajesh Pathak of the BSP, had raised the issue in the Lok Sabha following which a tank for filtering water was approved by the Centre. But that plan hasn’t yet taken off.
With the politicians ignoring the issue, the locals are resigned to their fate.
“I will probably vote for Annu Tandon this time because she is from Unnao itself, even though I usually vote for BJP. However, our main problem — that of contaminated and dirty water—should be solved. No party or candidate is taking this up,” said Nand Kishore Tripathi, who runs a small dhaba on NH 25 just outside Unnao city.