Situated barely 38 kilometres from the national capital on the Delhi-Saharanpur Highway, one needs great driving skills to maneuver vehicles on the dusty roads of Baghpat. The sugarcane season has begun and you are bound to be greeted by long queues of sugarcane-laden tractors and buggies (bullock carts) almost as soon you enter the district.
Sugarcane is the backbone of the economy of this district and farming is the main occupation of a majority of the population here. "Here the social, economic and even political life revolves around sugarcane," says farmer Richpal Singh. The extent of the cash crop's impact on the lives of the people can be gauged from the fact that even marriages, construction of houses, purchase of farming equipment and education of the children, among other things, solely depend on its payment. It wouldn't, therefore, be hyperbolic to call this district, which was carved out of Meerut in 1997, as the 'Land of Sugarcane'.
The district that produced a record over 4.75 crore-quintal sugarcane last year has three sugar mills: in Ramala, Baghpat and Malakpur. More often than not, the area has witnessed farmer unrest over the support price of sugarcane. A cautious Mayawati, however, this time, contained the farmers' outburst by enhancing the support price to R250 this year well ahead of the sugarcane crushing season.
Though locals appreciate Mayawati's gesture, they make no bones in expressing their loyalty to Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) chief Ajit Singh. Baghpat has been the home turf of the party ever since the time of Ajit Singh's father Chaudhary Charan Singh. "The alliance between Ajit Singh and Congress would be beneficial for both the parties and would be sufficient to give sleepless nights to the rival BSP and other parties," opines Somendra Dhaka, former president of Baghpat Bar Association.
People sitting in groups, gossiping while puffing hookah, is another typical feature of this area. "With chaupals nearing extinction, people have begun chatting in groups either in their homes or in sprawling space of their gher (a space where farmers generally keep their cattle and elders spend a large part of their time). Be it social, political or even personal issues, everything is discussed at these meetings," says Neeraj Pandit, pradhan of the village Brahmin Putthi. Currently, fast changing political equations and payment of sugarcane are the major issues of discussion in these makeshift chaupals.
The constituency is more rural than urban in nature as over 90 villages fall in its boundaries along with four Nagarpalikas. Leader of the RLD in state assembly Kokab Hamid has been representing the constituency since 1984 barring a few occasions when he had to face defeat. He belongs to the royal family of Baghpat and has a good image among a majority of people. Issues related to farmers top his political agenda.
"My area has been facing problems like water crisis, illegal mining and boundary dispute with Haryana. I am keen on resolving them by putting in all my available resources," claims Hamid reminding that it was he who moved the resolution for 'division of state' in the assembly 10 years ago. In the previous assembly election, he defeated his archrival Saheb Singh of Samajwadi Party while BSP candidate Anil Jain finished third.
"The best thing about Hamid is that he has a clean image and has never got involved in any controversy," said Billu Pradhan of the village Santoopshpur Bakhur.
Echoing his sentiments, Pandit also rates his MLA as a 'good human being' who is easily accessible to people. "Despite being the member of a royal family, he has ensured he is available for his people," he states, mentioning the construction of a ghat at Yamuna bank, which he says is a boon for pilgrims who visit the district every year in good numbers.
Not everyone is impressed though. There is no dearth of people who accuse the MLA of paying mere lip service in the name of development. "He is an expert at paying lip service to keep the people in good humour," alleges Dr Yogesh Jindal, expressing his dismay over poor health services in the town.
Pratap Gurjar, district president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), too criticises the MLA for doing nothing for the development of the constituency. "We don't have good colleges and health centres. People are bound to send their wards outside the city for better education," he charges, insisting that it was Mahendra Singh Tikait who gave real strength to the voice of farmers.
"Even after 14 years of its formation as a separate district, Baghpat looks like a backward place where we still strive for a good educational institute, health facilities, roads and other civic amenities," he complains.
Hamid has used his MLA fund for constructions of roads, schools and hand pumps, but the biggest thing he has been credited for is the installation of demarcation poles between the boundaries of UP and Haryana.
The Yamuna divides the boundaries of Haryana and UP in Baghpat and its course shifts every year during monsoon, which leads to a conflict between farmers of both sides over the boundaries of their fields.
"The number of conflicts between farmers of both states has reduced since the demarcation poles were put up," claim Hamid.