Ground Report: As Bihar Goes to Polls, How Has 'Smart City Bhagalpur’ Fared?

Like the rest of the country, the funds allotted for the project have not been used. Of a total allocation of Rs 382 crore, just Rs 11 crore have been utilised.

Bhagalpur: Bhagalpur lies on the banks of river Ganga and faces abject weather conditions. The tilled riverbank bulges into a vast expanse of plains, a large part of which is clustered by buildings with unpainted plastered walls.

A large board on the state highway welcomes onlookers to the ‘Smart City Bhagalpur’.

Board welcoming people to Bhagalpur. Credit: Ribhu

Narendra Modi visited Bhagalpur on September 1, 2015 before the assembly elections. He promised a better future and a 1.25 lakh crore package.

Now, the package’s fate is in limbo and funds are not flowing in.

Mujhe bataiye bhaiyon aur behnon, mere se jawab Lok Sabha ke chunao me maangna chahiye ke nahin mangna chahiye (Tell me, brothers and sisters, will you not not ask me questions on my work before the next Lok Sabha elections?),” the Prime Minister had said.

The BJP lost on all seven assembly seats in Bhagalpur.

About four years later, Modi visited the town again.

On April 11, the road flowed with people marching under the hot sun to see their prime minister.

He spoke for about half an hour to a crowd of thousands at the 240-acre Hawai Adda (airbase). He attacked the opposition, accusing them of “speaking the language of terrorism”.

A boy wears a Modi mask while others look at the PM speaking on the big screen. Credit: Ribhu

He said the opposition wanted to weaken the armed forces. He revisited the Pulwama attack, saying that India now retaliated strongly to Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.

Modi urged the crowd to ask the opposition parties, whom he referred to as “mahamilawati” (adulterated), if they’re on the side of the “brave soldiers” or “terrorists”. He promised to pull the plug on “corruption shops”.

He spoke briefly on schemes like Ayushman Bharat and Ujjwala, and how they benefitted many households. He also cited the government’s decision to provide 10% quota for upper castes. He said the PM KISAN scheme would provide financial assistance to all farmers, instead of just those who have land holdings up to five acres.

If the NDA government came to power, Modi said he would ensure that every household gets cooking gas and every vehicle runs on CNG. He promised to uplift and revive the silk city as well.

He pulled out an array of slogans in the native Angika language to loud applause.

A lot of faces stared at the animated leader on the giant TV screen. Young and enthusiastic men clad in orange, holding BJP flags, wearing his mask danced around, roaring whenever the leader delivered a punch.

When the speech ended, the ground echoed with the “Jai Ho” track. Last year, the UPA had procured the rights of this A.R. Rahman hit song.

In the evening, the unattended airstrip would become a testing ground for enthusiastic youth on bikes, grazing cattle and people learning to drive cars.

Crowds listen to the Prime Minister’s speech. Credit: Ribhu

A shabby smartness

One particular promise that excited Bhagalpur was the ‘Smart City’ project.

The plan was to develop 100 cities across the country to make them citizen friendly and sustainable. In 2015, the commitment to invest in 100 ‘smart cities’ over five years was made. The project has now been delayed and only a small portion of the allocated funds have been used so far.

About Rs 166 billion was allocated to the Smart Cities plan between 2015 and 2019. By January this year, the government acknowledged that only 21% of the allocated amount – Rs 35.6 billion – was used.

In Bhagalpur too, the situation is same. A report in Dainik Jagran said Rs 382 crore was allocated to make Bhagalpur a ‘smart city’. However, only Rs 11 crore has been used so far.

Under the project, a traffic light was set up at Tilkmanjhi Chowk, one of the densest areas. It was named after Adivasi leader Tilka Manjhi, who took up arms against the Britishers in the 18th century, a 100 years before Mangal Pandey.

The traffic light system has not been functional for the past three months.

Pranmohan Mandal is a traffic constable who mans the chowk. He said that local media gave a report where it was stated that it would cost around Rs 30,000-40,000 to fix the traffic lights, but no action has been taken so far.

The traffic light stands at a lull, while an anti-alcohol messages graces the space between. Credit: Ribhu

The government claims the Smart City project will be completed by 2022, but the slow and conflicted start only raises more questions.

Questions on keeping a sense of political and social ethic – sticking to a political promise – arise from the grassroots level in Bhagalpur. Several look at it as a matter of nationalistic pride to vote for Modi in the upcoming elections.

Threads weaved with shame

Mohammad Danish, a boy of seventeen, operates a handloom factory. He is one of 19,000 handloom and power weavers in Bhagalpur.

When he introduced himself, he said that he was “rather ashamed” to admit his work.

“This mill cost more than Rs 4 lakh to set up. It’s our family business. I don’t know if there is enough work to sustain this business anymore,” he said.

The streets too, speak of a struggling economy. They’re littered with garbage and drains overflow, a strong stench lurking through the pathways.

“You know, everything has a local market, but for weavers, the local market is dying. I wish we could supply directly to the local market and eliminate the middleman,” he explains.

Besides, there’s the ever-accumulating electricity bill.

Times of India report said power loom owners like Danish have demanded a waiver on the pending electricity bill, accumulating to “several thousands of crores” since the early 1960s. Their demand not yet been accepted.

The Nitish Kumar-led government released Rs 400 crore to start the process of clearing the unpaid bills. However, this would require the metering of the 15,000 power looms. A 1,000 power looms were supposed to have been metered by the end of last year. So far, only 700 have been. The pending bill ranges between Rs 10-15 lakh, as per a South Bihar Power Distribution Company Limited (SBPDCL) functionary.

The handloom sector, a largely family enterprise, has begun showing signs of a community-based promising future. The Bhagalpur Regional Handloom Weavers’ Cooperative Union Limited (BRHWCUL) has established 145 societies to provide training to make yarn and weave it. They manufacture products that comply with national and international standards.

Better quality would enhance the reputation of power looms and handlooms in the market and could spike an increase in orders.

A handloom machine running in Nathnagar. Credit: Ribhu

Across the road, in another part of the weavers’ colony, a group of workers were busy dipping fabric into the paint. Among them is the 45-year-old Gopal Rajat, who has been working in the textile industry for the last 20 years.

He sends his boy to the ITI college.

“I hope he becomes a good man someday. I contact him every day on WhatsApp to ask about his wellbeing. You see, the screen is broken too,” he chuckles.

“What else do you see on the phone?”

“Didn’t you see how Modi has been weighing so heavy on the terrorists in Pakistan, and Pakistan as a whole? No prime minister has ever done that in the past,” he said, before dipping the last bit of fabric into a tub of dark blue colour, which had already stained his hands and bits of his face too.

Two workers dip a white sari to colour it saffron. Credit: Ribhu

A faulty alcohol ban scheme

Ever since Nitish Kumar curbed alcohol, a lot of people have been using marijuana.

In a shop on Sabour road, a 24-year-old who refused to identify himself spoke after blowing thick billows of smoke into the air.

“A man who is into the profession of labouring the muscles needs something to go by in the night. If it’s not alcohol, it’s ganja,” he said.

He said that the rich can readily access it since the price has increased manifold. “It’s the poor who suffers, always,” he explained.

The Nitish Kumar government passed a law in 2016 that punished people with hefty fines and jail terms if alcohol is found in their possession. The consequences of finding stored liquor or liquor in transit was the seizure of property (land, house), or vehicles. The laws were amended in 2018 to prevent the seizure of vehicle and property if a drunk person was found on the premise.  

Years after the ban, local newspapers in Bhagalpur still report alcohol-related incidents – social nuisances, smuggling and crimes.

The purpose of this ban, from the point of view of the government, was to stop the toxic nature of alochol consumption. Women were harassed to shell out their saving and illegal alcohol trade killed several people. The ban was sudden and the decision was taken before any efforts were made to make people aware of the nature of alcohol addiction. Nonetheless, there has been a clear impact. The Caravan reported that cases of domestic violence reduced greatly after the ban was implemented.

However, a black market trade for alcohol has flourished.

Hindustan Times reported that the West Bengal government intends to set up mega wedding venues in towns close to the Bihar border, so that families could hold functions there and enjoy the wedding with liquor flowing in glasses.

Jobs a tedious train journey away

The alcohol ban was seen as a measure to get the men to start working, who otherwise would spend a large part of the day drinking. However, employment is tied to opportunities. For Bhagalpur and its surrounding regions, the lack of effective industries – even of corporate nature – finds many youth jobless.

A lot of young and older men travel to cities like Delhi and Mumbai to work as labourers at construction sites. For the surrounding rural areas, the migration occurs when crops have been harvested.

A 24-hour train journey on a cheap general ticket gets them to Delhi, where they rent a room with fellow workers. They cook their own food and look save money for home.

Lekin kya karen bhaiji, hamara to kismat hi kharab hai na (but what to do brother, our fate is so bad),” says a man, taking another drag out of his clay chillum, making sure that the red saafi was wrapped around it well and the fire kept burning.

A man makes room for himself in the general compartment of Farakka Express, which goes through Bhagalpur, all the way to New Delhi. Credit: Ribhu

“One of the people we know, he lives here, right around the corner – he went to Bombay and murdered his seth (contractor), stole all the money, and left. If we go there now, we will get into trouble. They’ll also know that we are from Bihar, so that means more trouble,” he said.

“Yes, you cannot hide the secret of the tongue. As soon as I open my mouth, they’ll know that I’m a Bihari,” another man explained.

Bhola Kumar is a 40-year-old man from Laxmipur Pakra, about 30 kilometres away from Bhagalpur. He sells bananas near the railway station. His cycle, along with those of a few others, is parked at the end of the Lohiya Setu, popularly known as Ulta Pul.

Bhola cycles 60 kilometres daily to with his banana stock to Bhagalpur and back.

“What do we do? There is no work at home. We have to come here,” he said.

Small-scale farmers like Bhola Kumar have to solely rely on the money they get after selling their banana production in Bhagalpur.

“The police trouble us a lot, they charge us Rs 100 a day just for stalling the cart here,” he said.

Another person, Kyare Mandal, said the police puncture his cycle, which frustrates him a lot.

At the railway station, a 55-year-old man named Bharat was waiting for the next train to Delhi.

“If I don’t go to Delhi, a lot of trouble awaits,” he said.

Bharat is short and slouched, with wrinkles spreading across on his face.

“I owe a huge debt to my landlord. If I don’t go to Delhi and send him money, he won’t let me till his land anymore. I will starve and die,” he said.

Bhola and Kyare Mandal man their cycle full of bananas near the railway station. Credit: Ribhu

No jobs for freshers

Students from Bhagalpur and even others, come to ITI Bhagalpur only if they secured a low rank in the qualifying exam. “There is hardly any campus placement. Even though the campus is being monitored by IIT Guwahati, we don’t get much exposure here,” some students say.

The students have no choice but to apply for Group D jobs in railways, where the competition is stiff.

Across the city, the T.N.B college, established in 1883, specialises in UG and PG courses and research as well. However, the 264-acre college campus barely has any students and mostly remains empty. Bittu Kumar Yadav, the president of the students’ union, said that the kids don’t attend classes.

With a median population age of 29 years – which is to be achieved in 2020 – India has the most number of young people.

Across education, healthcare and the executive sector, there are 60 lakh vacancies in India. There has been an 89% decline in direct recruitment by the Central government ministries and departments in 2015, as compared to 2013.

Students pose for a picture before their exams. A lot of freshly eligible student voters – “90% of them” – don’t have a voter ID card. Credit: Ribhu

A diaspora of detachment

For Bhagalpur, its especially hard to retain its nostalgia for those who leave it to study and work further, eventually becoming its critic.

Rohini Lall is an author based in New Delhi. She was brought up in Bhagalpur and then moved to Delhi in 2017. She writes:

Home is all around me and yet, there’s almost a compulsive desire to stay away. For a lot us, including me, the experience of home sours, even though the idea of it doesn’t.

A lot of things keep me apart from home — apathy, incompetence, a sense of limbo, the spirit of resignation, a sense of lethargy that swallows you if you go there at all.

But when I look at things that I keep close, I think of the faint smell of mango blossoms and smile. I look at my wardrobe chock full of silk and I’m immediately and immensely proud.

However, that isn’t enough. I can aid my home and I do but I can not and WILL not live there. For my home, is also my captor’s home, my rapist’s home and that’s why I can never return.

Her story is of young people moving out of Bhagalpur. They hardly come back. While it’s natural for people to seek opportunities in the convenience of a globalised economy, for several of them, there is a sense of reluctance.

“Bhagalpur is not just a city in Bihar; it lives on in every person who ever felt like they belong there,” she says. “Bhagalpur is more than a pincode, more than a piece of land.”

Additional reporting by Rahul Paswan.