Shravasti: It was at about 9 AM on Friday, January 14, 2022, when I reached Shravasti district after an hour’s drive from the Bahraich district in eastern Uttar Pradesh, with the aim of exploring the region.
Located about 150 kilometres from the state capital of Lucknow, Shravasti district was one of the six biggest cities in India during Gautam Buddha’s lifetime. Still, the district today lacks all the indicators of development.
As soon as I stepped into the Bhinga market, the district headquarters, I felt like I was in some village lacking all basic facilities. The small, congested market was underdeveloped, with people roaming carefree without masks as if COVID-19 never existed.
On enquiring more about the district from the locals, I learned that the district’s economy was dependent on agriculture. Most people took daily wage jobs due to the dearth of employment opportunities.
I was trying to figure out a story by meeting more and more people from non-government organisations, teachers, policemen, and people deployed in the district from other big cities. By then, it was afternoon, and I was guided by someone to go to a village that was about 26 kilometres away. I asked my cab driver to locate the village on the map and believe me, it took us more than two hours to reach the village owing to the deplorable condition of roads leading to the village. On reaching the village, I failed to find my story, and with a disappointed mind, I was headed back to the Bhinga district headquarters. On our way to Bhinga, we realised we did not eat anything that day, and we were hungry. I asked my driver to find a clean place where we could sit and have some refreshments, but we failed because there were none, and I was scared to go and sit at the crowded eateries due to growing COVID-19 cases.
In Bhinga, I finally managed to find a clean place to eat. It was Aamir Biryani corner, a small non-veg eatery with four tables. While having the refreshment, I had a small chat with a restaurant proprietor Mohammad Aamir, a 26 years old youth from the district, who started this business after failing to find a job.
Aamir was a sociology graduate from the Faizabad University, but he could never find a job. Coming from a big family, Aamir could not afford to study much, and his dream of joining the Indian Police Service could never be fulfilled. When he realised that his family could not afford to keep him in another city and pay for the tuition fee for IPS preparations, he contemplated attempting the Banking exams for the post of Probationary Officer. Still, he also had to go either to Bahraich or to Lucknow for studies, and he couldn’t afford this as well.
He said he managed Rs 12,000 per month for rent, two cooks at Rs 8,000 each, a helper at Rs 5,000 besides managing the logistics for his restaurant. His restaurant is facing losses, but he aims to open a big premium restaurant someday soon in the Bhinga.
Interestingly, Shravasti is also one of the seven ‘Aspirational Districts’ in UP. During his speech to bureaucrats on January 22, PM Modi mentioned this district as well.
Later I spoke with S Srivastava, who shifted to Shravasti from Kanpur district in Central Uttar Pradesh. Explaining how she felt on arriving in the district, she said, “As soon as I stepped out of my taxi, I felt like I shifted to the eighteenth century.”
“All my life, I had complained how backwards the Kanpur district was, but after shifting here, I got to know what actually backwardness means. There are no gyms, specialist hospitals, railway stations, bus stations, and even any good place to eat. Forget about food delivery; even the courier or postal mails take a lifetime to reach here. The prices of everything, be it fruits or vegetables, are high because of the lack of a proper transport system. I thought if not gyms I can go work out in the parks. Still, there is not even a single park,” she said, adding, “Internet today has become a basic need for everybody, but here a third party server provides the internet network with a speed of just 1.5 mbps and charges us Rs 3,500 per month. Such is the condition of this district.”
There are CHCs, PHCs and a district hospital here but no specialty clinic and being a woman, it is challenging to survive, but it is the job due to which I have to live here. “I initially thought of bringing my kids here, but there are no good educational institutes, so I dropped the plan. The underdevelopment of this district also takes a toll on mental health.”
Shravasti has the sixth-lowest literacy rate in the country, as per Census 2011. And according to the Human Development Report for UP, 2008, its human development index is the lowest in the state, its deprivation index the highest. The district has two legislative assembly seats held by Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) each.
The district has no highways, no railway network, no industrial set-up. Most of the population depend on agriculture, which is rain-fed for want of water for irrigation. Government-aided and private schools have come up, but the three-degree colleges offer only BA. Yet no one talks about the development of this district which sees thousands of Buddha pilgrims from across the world every year.