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Poll ripples give lake city a miss

Udaipur, Nov. 23: Around the Lake Pichola that reflects beams of light every evening from the palace in its midst, the tourist season is peaking in time with the elections.

Still waters run deep, of course.

Here, in Udaipur, that is as celebrated for its peace today as it is for Mewar’s valiant history, the gentle ripples on the Pichola’s waters wash into placid shores. Shores that abhor threats to the tranquil tenor of unadventurous tourism.

Kashmir is far to the north. Gujarat a little to the south. Elections in Udaipur are a distraction at best, a test of tolerance at worst. Despite Narendra Modi being in the vicinity — he was resting last night at Banswara after a day of rallies in the districts bordering Gujarat. Sonia Gandhi is due here tomorrow. Udaipur couldn’t care less.

“I will vote if I have the time,” says Puneet Ram Chaturvedi, who runs a grocery near the City Palace that advertises its stock in English and French. “The foreigners are just beginning to come in.”

Udaipur is wanting to settle down to a season of profit. For more than a year now, its denizens have watched some of their own shrinking from the cityscape. The public sector Hindustan Zinc Limited (HZL), that sustains a large part of Udaipur outside tourism, has been transferred to the private sector Sterlite Industries.

From the Lake Pichola to the Debari smelter of the company, at the gates to the city, it is only a 20-km drive, but it marks a journey from blissful quietude to mute restlessness.

A stone’s throw from the smelter is the labour quarters, once a stronghold of the Congress through its trade union, the Intuc. Yesterday, a casual question on the elections thrown at a gathering of the young and the old provokes animated discussion.

“I voted for the Congress in 1998,” says Jamnalal Mali, an operator for 20 years at the smelter. “Last year, the Centre sold the company. In February this year, the new management forced so many workers to take a ‘voluntary’ separation package. Now I have to do the work of five workers on my shift.”

At the Congress office in town, Intuc leader Prakash Srimal says 2,000 of 6,000 workers were retrenched. The separation package of 60 days’ salary for each completed year of service meant a minimum payout of Rs 3 lakh to a worker at the bottom of the heap.

The mines in the countryside around Udaipur use contract labour. Srimal says the wages actually paid are less than the minimum of Rs 60 per day stipulated by the state government.

The funny thing is nobody knows for sure how the downsizing at HZL is going to play out in the elections. “HZL was sold off by the Centre but the state did little to help us. I suspect that the Vajpayee government in Delhi and the Gehlot government in Jaipur are in cahoots. Vajpayee could not have sold HZL for a song if Gehlot had not agreed,” says Chog Chandra, a driver who ferried officers in a jeep but now also manipulates heavier vehicles and cranes.

Can the disinvestment policy mean different things for the BJP at the Centre and the Congress in the state'

Trilok Purbaiya, the sitting Congress MLA, says it does not matter that people are losing jobs in HZL because his party has much to show. Pradesh Congress Committee chief and MP from Udaipur, Girija Vyas, backs him. They are hoping Sonia will clinch the election for them.

“In the last elections, we won all 10 seats in Udaipur division. This year it will be a repeat,” asserts Vyas. “We will get votes because of development and our management of famine.”

At the BJP office in the city, party coordinator Shiv Kishore Sanadhya, a former MLA, says Gehlot has raised money from the rest of Rajasthan to fund development projects only in Jodhpur.

“The lakes of Udaipur are going dry. State government employees are owed several instalments of dearness allowance and the youth are not getting jobs even after the government lowered the age of retirement from 60 to 58 years,” he points out.

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