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Posted at: Nov 29, 2016, 1:58 AM; last updated: Nov 29, 2016, 10:22 AM (IST)VOTE’S ON: ELECTION TOUR WITH THE TRIBUNE

The bitter truth in Budhlada

Unpredictable voters

  • Budhlada is known for not sticking toa party. In 1997, when the Akali wave swept the state, CPI leader Hardev Arshi won the election. Akali candidate Harbant Singh Datewas was elected in 2002, followed by Congress nominee Mangat Rai Bansal in 2007. Theconstituency was declared reservedfor Scheduled Castes ahead of the 2012 poll, when the voters chose SAD’s Chatin Singh Samaon.
  • Hailing from Samaon village, which falls in Mansa Assembly segment, the MLA failed to shed the ‘outsider’ tag in Budhlada. This time, the Akalis have preferred a senior medical officer, Dr Nishan Singh, who belongs to Hakaman Wala village of the segment. Speculation is rife that Ranjit Kaur Bhatti, who contested the 2012 election as a PPP nominee, may get the Congress ticket.

Amaninder Pal

Back in 1880, the forefathers of Prem Kumar Singla (58), who owns a fertiliser shop in the Budhlada grain market, shifted from Tohana (now in Haryana) and started their business here.

“From the last quarter of the 19th century, when Budhlada and its 12 villages became part of the British Empire, to the 1960s, the town’s market was the numero uno in the area. It catered to the residents of over 65 villages,” recalls Singla. Gradually, other towns developed and this one, located around 18 km off the Chandigarh-Mansa-Bathinda national highway, lost pride of place. “Today, the mandi covers only a dozen-odd villages,” he says mournfully.

Bad roads, poor civic amenities, no industry, inadequate higher education facilities — this Assembly segment consisting of 85 villages and two towns (Budhlada and Bareta) is largely nondescript.

A local journalist quips, “The only thing popular about Budhlada is a Punjabi song in which a man taunts his girlfriend: ‘Toon dina vich hi ho gayi ni, Budhlada depot di bus vargi (within days, you have started looking like a dilapidated bus of the local depot).’”

The buses’ anatomy has improved over the years. So has the condition of most of the link roads, which are now dotted with flex boards of private education institutes, offering “quality education” and “guaranteed jobs”.

What ails this constituency the most is the absence of industry and state-run educational institutes. Bhupinder Singh of Bacchowal village, located 7 km from Budhlada, earns a “few thousand rupees” as a history lecturer in a private arts college in the town. When he did master’s degree five years ago, Government Ranbir College, Sangrur, located 50 km from his village, was the nearest college offering the course.

“Apart from some private colleges, which charge hefty fees, the only higher education institute of repute is being run by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), where over 7,000 students are enrolled in various courses,” he says.

Retired principal and historian Jagjit Singh Aulakh, who has authored books on the history of villages around Budhlada, is unhappy with the state of affairs. Arranging books in his home library at Gurne Kalan village, Aulakh, a former SGPC member, says, “The Akalis have ruined the state. And they are least bothered about our constituency. Our youngsters travel to other cities for affordable professional education. This issue will weigh on their minds when they vote this time.”

On the outskirts of Borawal village, retired principal Budh Ram, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) candidate, is mobilising his supporters for a rally. We ask him about the major election issues here. He hurriedly replies, “We have no government college in the constituency. A government polytechnic college was set up near Bareta town around four years ago. But you can see neither teachers nor students there. I have been told that they enrol students only on paper.”

The town hit the headlines in 2011, when farmers organised a major agitation against the acquisition of about 750 acres of fertile land of four villages — Gobindpura, Sisiriwal, Bareta and Jalvehra — for the setting up of a private thermal plant. Gobindpura was the worst affected as almost half of its 1,458 acres was acquired. According to a report by Sanhati, a Delhi-based NGO, about 62 families of the village have become landless. Another 123 families have been left with very small land holdings. During the six-month-long agitation, one farmer died and 60 were injured. Five years on, the construction of the plant is yet to begin.

Gobindpura resident Kulwant Singh, who claims that 24 acres of his joint family's land was acquired, says, “Peeliyaan topiyaan vale company de engineers aunde ne 2-3 mahine baad. Oh gera marde ne aale duale. Pher chale jande ne. Bas panj saal to ehi challi janda (Wearing yellow hats, engineers of the private company visit the site every 2-3 months. This has been happening for the past five years).”

“We didn’t accept compensation. Therefore, we have been allowed to till our land. But what about the others? Only half of the affected families have so far been provided the promised government jobs. And what about the government’s tall promise of overall development that this plant was meant to bring? The electors will ask this question in the elections,” he observes.

In the 1930s-40s, Budhlada was popular for its boora khand (superfine sugar). A big factory owned by Muslims was located near the railway station; consignments were sent to Lahore and Karachi. Then the bitter pill of Partition ended it all. A ray of hope came in 1989-90, when the state government set up a cooperative sugar mill. But it remained operational for just four years. Twenty years later, the SAD-BJP government decided to raze it. Around 116 acres were sold to the Punjab Urban Planning and Development Authority (PUDA), which is now developing a residential colony at the site.

Datewas resident and veteran Congress leader Bogh Singh, who contested the 1985 Assembly elections from Budhlada, had played a key role in establishing the mill. “It was set up when militancy was at its peak. Residents of villages in the area hoped that it would usher in an era of development. However, flawed government policies and vested interests of some persons led to its closure. Had the mill remained operational, it would have revitalised the local economy,” he rues.

As we reach the site around 5 pm, workers are seen taking construction material to a building. Once the office of the mill’s general manager, it’s now being used as a store to keep bags of cement and other goods. “Ah ik dafter bachiya hai, te ik pani di tanki. Hor kuch nahi hai bachiya aithe. Sab pattiya gya. Hun tan aithe kothiaan banan giyaan (Nothing is left except this office and a water tank. Everything has been razed. Now, big kothis will come up here soon),” a worker replies with a wry smile, apparently aware of the phenomenon plaguing the state — shrinking industry and burgeoning real estate.

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