In mid-June, Meerut’s leading dailies, on the front page of their city supplements, urged citizens to vote in larger numbers to make the city ‘smart’.
In about three days, only 1453 people had participated in the online exercise - which would be a test of popular participation and a parameter in the final decision. This was very discouraging, a community meeting had concluded. City authorities, and civic leaders, all declared that with a population of 15 lakh, at least 150,000 should vote.
The same day, HT visited the office of the city mayor Harikant Ahluwalia, a BJP leader. He was busy preparing a document listing out why Meerut should become a ‘smart city’. The claims included its mythology including as Hastinapur in the Mahabharata, its role in the 1857 mutiny, its industrial activities, its status as a hub of educational institutions, as the largest tax contributor to UP, as having the largest cantonment in the state, and more.
When asked what would happen if Meerut was indeed declared a smart city, he paused thoughtfully, and said, “We will then become smart. Everyone’s levels will lift up. People will start thinking better. We will become a Wi-Fi city. Right now, even 4G is elusive. Everything will be perfect.”
In the mayor’s less-than-clear response lies Meerut’s paradox.
It wants to be ‘smart’ but its leader doesn’t quite know what that means. It is a city of the aspirational and ambitious - but it hasn’t yet taken to the symbols associated with urbanism in India with many malls shut down due to lack of business and apartments finding it hard to attract buyers. It is a city of wealth - but there has not been corresponding investment in maintaining and upgrading its infrastructure. It is a hub of the private sector - but it wants, desperately, to have institutions of the state. It has thriving industries - but no worker movements.
And while it is in UP, the city’s key goal is better connectivity and integration with Delhi. Whether parties shape their narratives on these issues - or stick to old categories - will tell us about the nature of the 2017 elections.
Thriving industries, no worker movement
The bazaars of Meerut are thriving.
That should not be a surprise, for a recent document published by the District Industries Centre of Meerut testifies to the economic life of the city and the region.
It has 19 large and 22 medium industries with a capital investment of over ? 1200 crore each, 1165 small industries with slightly less than ? 200 crore investment, and 7151 micro industries with ? 312 crore investment. Together, these industries generate almost 100,000 jobs.
The primary industrial products include sports goods, musical instruments, scissors, machinery, paper and printing, agricultural implements, handlooms, embroidery and more. Meerut is also a great hub of jewellery production.
Gopal Agarwal is an old socialist, who takes joy in narrating tales of Lohia and the turbulent decades of the 60s. He is also with the SP’s trade union wing.
When asked about the state of the workers movement in these industries, he candidly admits, “There are no unions anymore, no organised worker activities. The party itself will not back it. Votes here are mobilised on caste and religion, not on worker issues. It does not help that many unions themselves became blackmailers.”
Wealth, but limited investment
R K Jain, secretary of the western UP chamber of commerce, has been a close observer of the industrial life of Meerut for almost 50 years. He says, “Businessmen will tell you things are not good. They will complain about recent taxation rules. But I can tell you, everyone is doing well.” Despite being in region associated with crime and lawlessness and being a site of communal violence itself, Jain says Meerut’s economic prospects have not got too adversely affected.
But he adds a lot of the money made in the city is not invested here. “People prefer to buy property in east Delhi instead because they are still not confident of Meerut’s growth.”
And that confidence, Jain says, will come only with two things - more government offices and greater connectivity to Delhi. Jain reiterates the demand for a separate bench of the Allahabad High Court in Meerut. “UP government should have a separate secretariat here. All the work is currently in Lucknow. The CM barely comes here.”
Road to Delhi
His point about connectivity is echoed by Vipin Sharma, project head of the Ansal
Town right on the highway before turning towards Meerut. The township has sold 1500 out of its 2500 flats. Many are people who have moved out of Meerut’s congested Old City.
But Sharma isn’t happy. “Most people in Meerut prefer to buy plots or duplex, and the apartment culture has not picked up.” The company’s primary target was people who worked in Delhi - they sold Meerut as a more attractive destination than Noida or Gurgaon.
“But the biggest problem is connectivity. Delhi is only 67 kilometres but it takes almost three hours. There is no toll road, no flyover, and too many cuts on the highway. The rail connections are also weak.” Other real estate developers complain that while this road has as much if not more traffic than the Taj expressway, the SP government has focused only on extending that to Lucknow because it passes through Mulayam Singh’s home districts.
The centre has now committed itself to the construction of a Delhi-Meerut expressway, with a budget of over ?8000 crore in three years. But neither Jain nor Sharma are willing to get enthusiastic it just yet. “Meerut has been a part of NCR since the early 70s but Ghaziabad and Noida made it, we got left behind. Let us wait to see how long the road takes.”
For 2017, locals say the party which credibly promises to bringing UP government offices to Meerut and enhance its linkages to Delhi would emerge victorious.
But an old Rashtriya Lok Dal leader, who wished to remain anonymous, was skeptical. “I think elections would be held on caste and religion. These issues are important but not vote determinants.” If the recent Kairana controversy is any indicator, he may well be right.
But how parties shape their narratives around Meerut’s growth - and its future place in UP and links to Delhi - will tell us a lot about the nature of the 2017 election.