Tale of twin polls & townships
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...
- A Tale of Two Cities, 1859
Two disparate townships on the eastern fringe yoked together by a civic amendment represent this classic Dickensian dichotomy as they head for their first municipal election as one entity.
The question plaguing the nearly 6.4 lakh citizens spread across the 65.5sq km Bidhannagar Municipal Corporation belt - formed by integrating the erstwhile Bidhannagar and Rajarhat-Gopalpur municipalities - ahead of Saturday's vote is whether the merger would fulfil their hopes or fuel their apprehensions.
Elections have been due in Bidhannagar Municipality since June 16, 2014, and in Rajarhat-Gopalpur Municipality since July 21, 2014. When the Mamata Banerjee government paused polls and announced that the two civic zones would be merged, the official explanation was better civic uplift of the backward areas together with the more prosperous ones.
The Opposition saw the move as the outcome of the ruling Trinamul's Lok Sabha poll performance in Salt Lake.
In the last general elections, Trinamul had trailed the BJP by 6,489 votes across 21 of the 25 wards under the erstwhile Bidhannagar Municipality. But across 28 of the 35 wards of the erstwhile Rajarhat-Gopalpur Municipality, the party led its nearest rival by 23,010 votes.
For voters, it doesn't matter why the civic elections were put on hold. "We aren't interested in the debate on why the polls were deferred. The question is: will the merger would do us any good?" said Samiran Ghosh, a 22-year-old grocer from Ghoshpara in Rajarhat-Gopalpur.
Residents of pockets of Rajarhat-Gopalpur such as Beraberi-Purbapara, Sangrampur, Narayanpur, Bosepara, Bishnupur, Patharghata, Chittaranjan Colony, Deshbandhu Nagar, Hatiara and Chandpur have long faced a shortage of drinking water. A large section of the erstwhile municipality's population of over four lakh still buys water to drink."We don't have major expectations from this corporation because it is expected to cater to the affluent in Salt Lake. Having said that, some improvement in the drinking water facilities would really ease life for many of us," said Amina Bibi, a 55-year-old midday meal cook from Beraberi-Purbapara.
In Salt Lake, residents of blocks BA, BD, BE, CB, DE, DK, FD and FE are peeved about water not being available round-the-clock in summer. "Why should we compromise on amenities because a less prosperous belt has been added to the civic sprawl?" 37-year-old Rashmi Sur, an IT-enabled services specialist residing in BE Block, demanded to know.
Middle-aged shopkeeper Babar Alam, a resident of Sangrampur, worries about funds being spent on the "richer" township. "Even the name of the corporation has no mention of Rajarhat-Gopalpur. We will probably be denied whatever little we used to get from the municipality," he said.
Retired bank official Soumen Chatterjee, who lives in AG Block of Salt Lake, is uneasy about law and order. "All funds are likely to go to Rajarhat-Gopalpur because that area has more voters. Problems like syndicate wars might spill over.... It's a lose-lose situation for us," he said.
The contrast between the 27 wards of Rajarhat-Gopalpur and 14 of Salt Lake in terms of civic infrastructure and amenities makes prioritisation the biggest challenge for the corporation.
Krishna Chakraborty, the last chairperson of the erstwhile Bidhannagar Municipality and frontrunner for the post of mayor if Trinamul wins, said her party would develop the backward areas without neglecting the rest. "Families grow. Everyone has to work together for the whole family to prosper. For the next five years, Rajarhat-Gopalpur will be our focus, but not at the cost of Salt Lake."
The Left's mayoral candidate Asim Dasgupta, who is banking on his support base in Salt Lake to win, stressed the need for a "delicate" balance. "The two places are in stark contrast and special treatment is necessary for both," the former finance minister said.