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Navel-gazing in powerless Ranchi

By Ehtasham Khan in Ranchi
February 14, 2005 20:32 IST
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Watching television in my hotel room, I get irritated. There is a power cut almost every hour. When restored, the voltage is so low that tubelight blinks and refuses to burn.

My hotel is on the main road in the heart of Ranchi, Jharkhand's capital. It is election time here.

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The waiter tells me the power cuts and the low voltages are quite normal. God bless small towns and villages. "We do not depend on electricity. We have a generator. Every time the power goes off, we have to change the system. Please bear with us," he says.

I am reminded of news reports that power cuts in many areas even on the day of election was one of the reasons for the Congress' defeat in Rajasthan.

It is still premature to say if there will be a power shift in Jharkhand. Especially when there are reports of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance having an edge over the divided Congress-led alliance.

The next morning, I leave for the news conference of the BJP Member of Parliament from Koderma and former chief minister, Babu Lal Marandi. I decide to use the public transport system. The hotel staff directs me to take an auto-rickshaw from Kadru Crossing opposite the ICICI Bank.

The upscale Church Complex where the bank is located impresses me. It has outlets of all the leading fashion brands. There are youngsters withdrawing money from the ATM. The imposing Capitol Hill Hotel nearby has come up in a place that was, until a few years ago, barren.

Ranchi has changed. The last time I came here was in 1994. This time, the flashy stores and confident-looking jeans-clad young women revealing their navel baffle me. A lot has changed. There are small Connaught Places and Nariman Points in Ranchi too.

But the condition of roads still reminds me of 1994. In fact, they have become more congested as the number of vehicles has increased. Garbage and mud is scattered all over the 6-km-long main road. At one end, the statue of Birsa Munda -- the tribal leader who fought against the British -- stands tall. He symbolises the adivasis' struggle for identity.

I go to the auto-rickshaw stand. The driver asks me to wait. He can't take me alone.

Three passengers sit along with the driver in front and four get into the rear. As the auto-rickshaw goes, tossing all over the bumpy road, I say my prayers. And this is supposed to be the state capital.

The driver tells me the high court has banned auto-rickshaws on the main road, so the drivers have to pay Rs 20 everyday to the police. "If I don't take so many passengers in one go, I cannot survive."

At the press conference, Marandi introduces a former Congress MP from Buxar who has joined the BJP. The former Congress leader says he left the party because there was no place for a tribal in it.

When I narrate my experience to Marandi, he says, "No doubt, 85 per cent of the villages here do not have electricity supply. Most of them do not have roads and drinking water. Industries are dying and there is a rise in terrorism. But we have been in power for only the last four years. The Congress party ruled for 50 years and they are responsible for this."

Next, I go to meet Mohammad Afzal, my father's friend. Afzal, a lawyer, lives in Kanke in the outskirts of Ranchi. The place is famous for the three mental health hospitals. His house is just next to the Central Institute of Psychiatry. In 1994, there were a few kuccha houses here. Afzal's house was probably the only pucca house then.

But now, this is one of the most upscale neighbourhoods with beautiful homes all around. Many multi-storied buildings have come up. Real estate prices have shot up. Afzal tells me the piece of land he bought five years ago for Rs 75, 000 is now worth Rs 500, 000.

Two years back, he used to charge Rs 2, 800 for a two-room house he had rented out. But now Afzal says he gets Rs 4, 500.

The tribals who lived in small huts around his house in 1994 are no more there. Afzal says: "Kanke was earlier very far from the town and mostly adivasis lived here. Now it is well connected to the town. The adivasis sold their land because they got good money. I do not know where they have gone. But now mostly migrants from Bihar and other places live here."

Afzal is happy because he has got everything settled in life.  His eldest son Tabrez is studying software in one of those private institutes here.

But Tabrez is unhappy with the education system in Jharkhand. He says: "The session in the Ranchi University is very late. It took me four years to get my bachelor's degree. I could not get admission in Delhi just because my results came late. The situation is the same is all departments."

He was left with no choice but to take admission in a private institute here. Like most of his batch mates, he wants to go to Delhi or Bangalore for a job. They say there are very few job opportunities in Jharkhand.

Though people in Ranchi agree not much has changed, everybody is proud of the Rajendera Institute of Medical Sciences. This was the Rajendera Medical College and Hospital till two years ago. The name has been changed and it is managed like Delhi's All India Institute of Medical Sciences.

"The health facility has improved. A lot of people from far away places come to RIMS. The doctors are good and it is well-managed," says Saurabh Sinha, a cyber café owner. "My father was operated upon there. They provided everything from the hospital. It is very clean too."

At the cyber café, two burkha-clad women sit next to me. Not bothered about the people around, they continue laughing, joking and giggling. They are apparently chatting with many of their 'cyber friends'. It is Valentine's Day. Something has surely changed in Jharkhand.

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Ehtasham Khan in Ranchi