Four towering floodlights stand dumb testimony to Saifai’s monumental folly — an “international” cricket stadium, built in 2004 at a cost of nearly Rs 95 crore to host day-and-night matches in this very small village of around 7,000 souls. In the past 10 years, however, the stadium has not hosted a single international match, a state-level league match, or even a cricket carnival. In its present condition — a riot of overgrown weeds on the grounds, broken stands and pillars, the exposed concrete grey with grime — it doesn’t look like it can host even a school-level game.
“It had a problem,” says YP Singh, the sports office in charge of the facilities in Saifai. “It was 3 metres smaller than the required international standards. So we’re thinking of demolishing parts of it and rebuilding it. Of course, the government is yet to take a decision on it,” he adds, matter-of-factly, as if demolishing stadiums and rebuilding them were routine.
But then everything in Saifai seems unreal, quite like the Bollywood stars who performed on the final night of Saifai Mahotsav earlier this week.
The remote village — 20 km from Etawah town in western Uttar Pradesh and around five hours’ driving distance from Delhi — has more sports infrastructure concentrated in a square kilometre than, probably, any other place in India. There’s the dysfunctional cricket stadium, an “athletics stadium” with an all-weather running track, and the Chandagiram hockey stadium which has an astro-turf surface. An indoor stadium is almost nearing completion and under construction is an “international-level”, all-weather swimming pool, at a cost of around Rs 103 crore — the delay in which led to the suspension of the state’s sports director last month.
“Netaji”, as the Samajwadi Party (SP) leader is universally called in these parts, “wanted to develop Saifai as a major sports centre,” says Singh, sitting in a large, plushly done-up office at the Chandagiram stadium. That may have been the intention, but the reality falls short. There are few around and the facilities seem to be used hardly. The athletics stadium proudly carries a banner of the last big tournament held here — the 2012-13 school athletics and wrestling championship. The Chandagiram stadium, affiliated to the Sports Authority of India, seems to be used more, having hosted several junior level championships. Perhaps, the 2016 National Games, which the UP state government is planning to bid for, will finally bring the facilities in Saifai to some use.
Saifai is also home to the UP Rural Institute of Medical Sciences and Research (UPRIMSR), housed in three gleaming steel and glass building blocks, nicely laid out with clean, well-manicured lawns. Established in 2005, it offers high-quality, state-of-the-art medical care in oncology, infertility treatment and psychiatry, besides other more common disciplines like cardiology and orthopaedics, to thousands of rural folk from as far as Kanpur, nearly 200km away. Many of those who come here do not even have access to primary healthcare facilities.
Ganga Devi has come to Saifai from Bina town in Etawah with her elderly mother-in-law who has fractured her hip. “Where else do we go? Especially, poor people like us. The doctors here operated, and we paid Rs400. We only have to buy medicines.” You only have to see the long line of food stalls outside and the crush of “Vikrams” (large, garishly decorated autos that ply in rural UP) outside to understand how popular the hospital is. “I make 22 journeys to and from Etawah each day,” says Ajay Singh, leaning out of his vehicle, crammed full with eight people. “There are apparently 300 ‘phatphatis’ which ply the route daily.
Much of the recent development in Saifai dates between 2003 and 2007, the SP’s earlier stint in power. All the stadiums, the hospital and even the Saifai airstrip, on which nearly Rs49 crore were spent, came up at this time. The Mayawati interregnum that followed put a stop to most of this. In fact, many projects which had been sanctioned were stopped midway. But now, work has begun again in earnest — so much so that the whole of the place seems to be under construction. At the “international” stadium complex, work is underway on the swimming pool and finishing touches are being given to the indoor stadium and 250-bed sports residential college; at the UPRIMSR complex, a five-storeyed paramedic complex and emergency trauma centre are nearly ready. In all, the Akhilesh Yadav government has announced projects worth Rs 334 crore in the village since it came to power last year. There’s also a proposal to upgrade Saifai airport with night-landing facilities and improve a 54-km-stretch of road to Mainpur — which has run into trouble because it entails cutting down 1,500 trees.
Jagdish Singh, 60, a native of Saifai, is a happy man. His grandchildren now go to the English-medium SS Memorial Senior Secondary School in the village, and he can meet all the sarkari officials in Saifai now that it has been elevated to a sub-division. The owner of 25 bighas has seen land prices appreciate more than 20 times in the last 10 years; and also opened a photo studio to cater to the large floating population of doctors, nurses, students, etc who live in the village now.
His son, a postgraduate with a B.Ed degree, runs it. This, if anything, is his only regret — that the SP government has not helped young men like his son get jobs and brought any industries to Saifai.
But on Wednesday, the hordes who had descended on Saifai to watch Salman Khan do his Dabangg act and Madhuri Dixit her Dhak Dhak steps, weren’t bothered about such things. BMW sedans, Toyota Landcruisers and spiffy Mercedes zipped importantly to and from freshly spruced up guest houses — there are no hotels in Saifai. Twenty-two-year-old Sonu, had come down from Etawah for the show, had parked himself in front of the VIP entrance to the shamiana from 4pm, hoping to catch a glimpse of the actors and dancers as they rehearsed. Every once in a while, a khakhi-clad policeman would ask him to go elsewhere, but Sonu wouldn’t budge. There were around 5,000 law-enforcement officers, milling around the village that day.
“Today’s show is going to be wonderful, much better than last year when Hrithik Roshan performed,” he says in anticipation. Does he know about Muzaffarnagar, the relief camps and the media criticism of netaji and the Mahotsav, I ask. “They are all afraid of netaji and want to bring him down,” Sonu says, dismissively. “Besides, Muzzaffarnagar is a long way off and today we’re here to have fun!”