As one travels along the districts in the Thar desert along the international border with Pakistan, one gets to see and understand different perspectives on development. For people here in Rajasthan, development is much more than what it’s made out to be by the business, political and administrative classes.

Interaction with a cross section of people reveals how seemingly small political interventions by different governments over a period of time have the potential to go a long way. At the same time one sees the dark underbelly of what is peddled as achievements by the media. In fact, the most important aspect of the border areas is that their remoteness often results in things not getting reported from here.

A journey on the Lalgarh-Jaisalmer Express from Bikaner to the Golden City was a revealing experience, as the train chugged along the desert crossing towns like Phalodi and Pokhran with people interjecting in discussions. Incidentally, Phalodi is known as the Salt City because of the salt enterprise here. It is also the nerve centre of political betting in Rajasthan and locals claim that most of the time those betting on parties and faces here are proven correct. Perhaps this is the reason that smaller media outlets are reporting on the Satta market of Phalodi on a daily basis.

The place is also known to record the highest summer temperatures in the country, which can cross 50 degrees. And Pokhran needs no introduction as it was the site for India’s nuclear tests both in 1998 and 1974. The place is known for the five salt ranges that surround it.

Coming back to the issues of development, an interesting interjection came from fellow passenger Monali, who is preparing for the National Eligibility Test (NET) in her parental town of Phalodi after having completed her MSc in Chemistry and now married in Bikaner. “It is not a matter of pride that temperatures have started shooting up above 50 degrees in Phalodi. We just get to hear about global warming with no real efforts to tackle it. Only people like us know what extreme temperatures and water scarcity really means. Employment is the other major issue that needs to be addressed in these parts. If I do not clear the NET and get a proper job, there is no point working in a private educational institution since the wages there are a pittance. Private schools do not pay teachers more than Rs 5000 to Rs 6000.”

She further added, “People have a tendency to marry off their daughters at the earliest and do not want to send them outside for employment. The problem is severe even for the men, who have to go to places like Jodhpur, Jalore and Mumbai for small private jobs. The scenario can be understood from the fact that postgraduates often work in the granite unit of Jalore and are even willing to work as peons in the government sector.”

Another fellow traveller, Manu, who came from the Hanumangarh district, had a much broader perspective on issues in the region, given her vocation as field facilitator in a social sector organisation.

“There are multiple problems at every level. If one talks of farming, the farmers in these parts are largely into cultivation of cumin and fennel. The recent spurt in cumin prices had led to everyone going in for its cultivation and now the prices are crashing. Farming is no longer remunerative and in the hope of getting a good crop the use of pesticides is on the increase in a big way. This along with the depleting groundwater table is leading to a crisis in the future. You have to dig almost 1,200 feet to touch water in some of these parts. But these issues hardly get reported or deliberated upon,” she explained.

Manu also shared insights into the social scenario. “There is a lot that needs to be done in the field of education, health and hygiene in the case of women. There are still communities that are reluctant to send their girls to schools. Higher education needs to be made more accessible. Then there are the social evils of caste and gender inequality that one gets to experience regularly. Come to think of it, a beautiful concept of Indira Rasoi Yojana, under which a person can have a meal at just Rs 8 in the Indira Rasois (kitchens) in rural areas that are run by women’s groups with the help of the government, is often having problems on account of people not availing of the facility because of casteism. But concepts like Indira Rasois, giving smartphones to women, giving bicycles to girl students and starting English schools are interventions that have a huge potential to turn things around,” she said, pointing out that women in the remote villages in the desert have the courage and ability to work wonders if given an opportunity.

The initiatives are those started by the Congress government in the state under Ashok Gehlot. The Congress has been building a poll narrative around them as their candidates move around seeking votes from the people. Of course there are questions galore on the extent of their implementation.

The rural parts continue to grapple with the problems of rain-fed agriculture where canal irrigation has not been provided, combined with daily wage assignments. Water and electricity shortages are nothing new although tapping of solar power is showing a lot of promise.

As one moves to the city of Jaisalmer that is presently thronged by visitors, particularly from the neighbouring state of Gujarat, one can see this tourist destination gradually turning into an apology. One is greeted by stray cattle at every corner of the city and there is filth all around. Seeing stray cattle on every crossroads and the narrow bylanes of the city might interest the foreign tourists, who can be seen taking pictures, but they pose a great risk to human life, something personally experienced by this reporter.

Incidentally, civic amenities are a political issue in Jaisalmer, with people expressing their anger vocally even as Ruparam Dhande of the Congress and Chotu Singh Bhati of the Bharatiya Janata Party fight it out on the Jaisalmer seat. The second constituency of Pokhran in the Jaisalmer district is witnessing a fight between Salah Mohammed of the Congress and Mahant Pratappuri of the BJP. There are an estimated 4.7 lakh voters in the two constituencies.

Supporters of the two parties are divided on the issues. “No one can tackle this stray cattle menace. People have their religious sentiments attached to feeding cows, and have their own meals only after feeding the bovines that are used to being fed daily,” a shopkeeper said.

“The problem is that no one complains. There is action by the administration if someone registers a complaint,” said another.

A common refrain of the people is about the erratic power and water supply. “The situation of those living inside the fort is much worse as water tankers cannot negotiate the narrow alleys,” said Deepak Kumar, who runs a shop of artefacts inside the fort.

Sonar Quilla in Jaisalmer is perhaps the only living fort in India, where people still reside inside the fort complex, making it truly worth visiting.

The political maze is difficult to interpret when one talks to people. “I will vote in the name of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. I agree that the local Congress candidate is a good choice and even schemes like the Chiranjeevi Yojana started by Ashok Gehlot are very good. But who is accountable for the paper leak scam, the rampant corruption and deteriorating law and order scenario?” asked Lokesh, who resides in the fort.

Yet there are many in favour of the Congress repeating its performance of 2018.

Incidentally, the manifesto announced by the BJP, which it prefers to call a Vision Document, also runs high on promises. These include free education for girls till the postgraduate level, purchase of wheat at Rs 2,700 per quintal, bringing jowar and bajra under the minimum support price mechanism, providing gas cylinders at Rs 450 each to poor women, a Rs 2 lakh savings bond on the birth of a girl child, and an increase the wages of Anganwadi workers among others. The party has also promised a probe led by a special investigation team into the exam paper leaks, and the formation of so-called anti-Romeo squads against male harassment besides a women-only police station in every district.

Incumbent Chief Minister Gehlot has reportedly termed the BJP manifesto a “twisted form” of schemes launched by his own government, and has claimed that the people are disappointed by the document.

Photographs by Rajeev Khanna