Sitting in Delhi and being bombarded by India is happening pictures can be quite monotonous; I decided that a visit to my hometown Ballia in eastern Uttar Pradesh would give me a first-hand feel of the 'Other India'. Coming here I am reminded that while some things change greatly with time, others don't change at all. Ballia is in the latter category.

The first thing that strikes me is the power situation - electricity cuts in most of the town last over twelve hours a day. If you want to get a glimpse of evenings in Ballia, you're out of luck; here it is darkness that seems to have the sole right to envelop large parts of the district once the sun sets. However, I was told that at eleven in the night the electricity gets restored. Patiently I wait the whole night for the ceiling fan to finally do what it was supposed to. The wait is futile. The next morning paper gives me the explanation. The two local power stations providing most of the power to the town could not meet their production target because rains have made their coal stocks wet. The result: the 1441 MW power station coughed up only 290 MW in the day! Doesn't it rain at other coal-fired power plants, I wonder.

The same rains are also creating dirty ponds all across the town - with its non-existent drainage and sewerage facilities - and this too isn't helping the situation. Diseases like cholera, diarrhea, cerebral malaria and encephalitis have surfaced. While every day newspapers are reporting multiple deaths and especially those of children, there seems to be little pressure on the local government to remedy the situation. A doctor friend in Ballia points out that the diseases can be easily managed and controlled, if the medical administration responds in time. But he believes - and I agree - that there is no good reason for the local administration and hospitals to respond in time. Not that you can enforce the medical code of conduct here. Most of the practitioners are not registered, but continue their practice with strategic support from the local medical bureaucracy. Ironically, I am in the process of penning down for one of my assignments how the fundamental right to health has created a binding obligation on the government.

Investing ten to fifteen lakhs for the elections is not a bad deal if it gives you the power to appropriate a minimum of six times your investment over the next five years.
 •  The encephalitis epidemic
If cerebral malaria and encephalitis are causing serious concern for the present, this is only a different malady from the recent past. Ballia has seen deaths in a number of villages in the district due to the presence of alarming levels of arsenic in the groundwater. New-Delhi based Centre for Science and Environment had drawn attention to the issue last year, and in April this year a scientist from Jadavpur University confirmed the contamination of Ballia's groundwater by arsenic. The District Administration knows that there is a serious problem here - and the fact of their knowledge can be easily proved! - which if not checked can assume severe proportions, yet its response has been to flatly deny the 'allegations' and file defamation cases in Ballia's district court against those raising the issue! Someone should write a post-graduate thesis on this - The effectiveness of a defamation case in treating arsenic poisoning.

This is the age of decentralisation, and India is good at making laws. I wonder if the panchayats don't have some power to intervene in the Arsenic issue. But the local elections this August offered no hope; even the voting is marred by violence and bloodshed. The high and mighty in the villages wants to get hold of the Sarpanch seats all over Ballia. It is not their commitment to good governance that drives them but the prospect of good business. Investing ten to fifteen lakhs for the elections is not a bad deal if it gives you the power to appropriate a minimum of six times your investment over the next five years! And how exactly the investment is made is perhaps best explained by the popular cry that I am hearing here: Saree, Paari and Gaadi can make you a Sarpanch. Giving a saree each to women will give you X votes; a Paari (calf) will you XPLUSY votes, and a Gaadi (usually a two wheeler) to influential vote managers at village levels could seal the issue in your favour. Such simple truths somehow evade our national planners and election commissioners.

In the town itself I witness a Lord Hanuman procession which seems to deliberately choose a route along which a Masjid rests. Almost inevitably the procession gets interrupted by a police lathi charge. The gods' journey to the Ganges is brought to a halt; the next day Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code is imposed - prohibiting any five people to come together - while the chief managers of religion from both sides are in the local newspapers demanding the resignation of the police chief. People tell me that this is a regular event here, bringing spice to lives spent in boredom, and even raises an issue that they finally relate to!

The entertainment here provides no escape either. I decide to pay a visit to a local theatre along with my wife and sister, but the elders suggest strongly that I shouldn't take the women with me. This fits in with everything else; after all here the local arms of national political parties are demonstrating against the law granting equal property rights to women. I wonder what Sushma Swaraj, Brinda Karat and Sonia Gandhi think of that; in Delhi the errants would be banished from the party for six years. For some reason political dissent in India carries a six-year sentence; perhaps that's the reform period for the misguided. I'll have to come back here in six years and see which has changed more - Ballia or Delhi. Something tells me they're connected.