Jalandhar West boasts of a bustling sports goods industry and a leather complex. What it can’t boast of is something quite basic — amenities. The sorry state of affairs is laid bare by the sewerage work in progress on the Kapurthala road, used by tens of thousands of commuters every day. The work has been going on for the past two years, but it seems like an eternity to the residents.
“We are not even able to enter our factory from the front gates as the road is dug up. We have been using the rear entrance for the past many months,” says Rajesh Kharbanda, who owns the Nivia sports factory. “It’s a big hassle for us. Our business is affected as visitors from other states — or countries — are put off by the mess. But we have still not lost hope of ‘achhe din’ as a top-class road is expected to come up,” he adds like a never-say-die optimist.
Encompassing seven areas set up during the Mughal era and including several congested localities associated with the economically weaker sections, Jalandhar West is categorised as an “urban” constituency. But the irony is not lost on anyone. The 120-ft road, named after its width, is used by the residents of Basti Sheikh and Basti Danishmandan. Heavily potholed, it turns riverine during the monsoon, with virtually no provision for rainwater drainage.
What pains the voters is the fact that their constituency is represented by the BJP’s seniormost Cabinet minister — Bhagat Chunni Lal — and yet their lives have not changed for the better (state BJP chief and Union Minister of State Vijay Sampla, too, has his house in this reserved seat, but that also hasn’t improved things). Vijay Dhir, a factory owner, says, “People had high hopes from Chunni Lal, especially because he had himself worked in a sports goods factory. The Bhagat community — Kabir followers and the predominant group here — became all the more confident when he became the Local Bodies Minister. But his 15-year-long tenure has been a huge letdown. Now, with age and health no longer on his side, his ‘Shrawan Putra’ (Chunni Lal’s hyperactive son Mahinder Bhagat) wants the ticket. Let’s see what fate has in store for him.”
Mahinder is quick to defend his father. “He won the seat in 1997, 2007 (called Jalandhar South before delimitation) and 2012. People are free to say anything, but we invested Rs 100 crore through the Punjab Infrastructure Development Board (PIDB) recently on roads and sewerage. About 60 per cent of the works are over.”
He promises that the Kapurthala road would get carpeted in a month. “I admit that the sewerage work has got delayed, but once it’s over, the road will be as good as any national highway and people’s problems will become a thing of the past,” he says, already talking like a candidate in the thick of campaigning.
Racing against time, the ruling party leaders have tried to woo the industry by setting up a Skill Development Centre for tannery workers at the Leather Complex, which is likely to be inaugurated in the coming days. “This is the only good thing that has happened to us as we hope to get trained labour. Otherwise, it has been years since the drums in the wet units were sealed by the Punjab Pollution Control Board and our work capacity has been reduced to less than half. No politician came to our rescue during the tough times,” says Raju Virk, a tannery owner.
The foundation stone of another skill centre, named after Kabir, to train construction workers was laid on the 120-ft road earlier this year. “The work had just started when it was suspended due to a technical glitch in the Rs 10-crore project,” alleges Congress councillor Sushil Rinku, a ticket-seeking Ravidassia.
A shopkeeper in Abadpura locality says bitterly, “If Chunni Lal has done us no good, his rival, former Congress minister Mohinder Singh Kaypee, hasn’t been any better. The latter’s family remained in the saddle for 45-long years. Post-delimitation, his house now falls under Jalandhar Cantonment constituency and he has lost his base here.”
He agrees that some people still have sympathy for Kaypee because his MLA father Darshan Singh Kaypee was gunned down by militants, but hastens to add that the residents are looking for change this time.
Revealing his AAP leanings, he says, “Most people here, including me, are Kabir followers and Darshan Bhagat is a candidate from our own community,” even as a customer at his shop observes that the recent rally of state AAP convener Gurpreet Singh Waraich in favour of the candidate was not exactly a crowd-puller.
The area residents believe that the caste factor will be decisive. “Of the about 1.5 lakh voters, half are from the reserved category: 30,000 Bhagats, 30,000 Ravidassias, 10,000 Valmiks and around 5,000 Brars. Whichever community has two candidates representing the main political parties will suffer as the votes will get divided and the third one will have an edge,” a local politician claims.
Vipan Kumar, a resident of Babrik Chowk area, says the scenario is fluid at present. “It’s difficult to say at the moment which way the voters will go. People are still making up their minds.”
For him, the best thing that has happened in the past five years is a mini civil hospital coming up on the 120-ft road. “It was difficult travelling all the way to the Civil Hospital at the other end of the city. The 30-bed hospital in our area will be a big boon for us,” he says. But he knows that his enthusiasm is not matched by the ground reality. With the code of conduct looming large, the government may not be able to open the hospital, whose basic structure is barely ready. Vipan will have to wait indefinitely, something that he and the other voters around him have been doing for years, if not decades.