LUCKNOW - Best known as home to the Taj Mahal, Uttar Pradesh is gaining a new reputation as India's "failed state", with a series of rapes and killings fuelling calls for it to be brought under central government control.
After yet more grim headlines Monday over another gang-rape and fatal shooting of two policemen, Home Minister Rajnath Singh announced he was "closely monitoring" the "prevailing law and order situation".
With senior members of his administration warning things could get worse unless deep-rooted social problems are tackled, the heat is on Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav.
But in an interview with AFP, Yadav insisted he would not be bowed by his critics and was determined to restore the good name of the state which has a population of some 200 million - the biggest in India.
"Because UP is a big state, politically, it is a very strong state and critics don't want to see a young chief minister here, they think 'let's damage him'," Yadav, 40, said at his residence in the state capital Lucknow.
But the "critics are making me more strong and they think I'm going to lose. No, I'm going to be strong and I will work more hard. In a good way I will improve." Since he became India's youngest state minister two years ago, Yadav has struggled to shake off the impression that he is merely doing the bidding of his powerful father Mulayam Singh Yadav.
The elder Yadav, a former Uttar Pradesh chief minister and federal defence minister who remains leader of the socialist Samajwadi Party (SP), triggered outrage during the recent general election with comments about rape in which he said that "boys will be boys".
But in the interview Sunday, the chief minister said that he was in favour of capital punishment for rapists.
Respect for women
"The society that respects its women, only that society progresses," said Yadav, once a student in Australia.
"We are people with such values, we are socialists, but since we are doing politics in Uttar Pradesh, anything we do becomes national news." The state's police have frequently been accused of failing to properly investigate accusations of rape, covering up for perpetrators who have family or caste connections.
The lynching of two girls gained national attention after villagers prevented police from taking the dangling bodies down from a mango tree until the local media had captured them on film.
A.L. Banerjee, Uttar Pradesh's top police officer, acknowledged there had been some "bad handling" of cases but said claims of apathy among his force were wide of the mark.
Privately, police say crime rates are unlikely to improve unless underlying causes such as high youth unemployment are tackled.
Mohammad Tauheed Siddiqui, founder of a charity for disaffected youngsters known as the Youth Club Welfare Foundation, said there was a general lack of resources.
"Not enough funds for schools, not enough funds to provide electricity to schools, no teachers, nothing," he told AFP.
While it adjoins New Delhi and its lawmakers include Prime Minister Nardendra Modi and his beaten election rival Rahul Gandhi of the Congress Party, Uttar Pradesh is widely seen as a victim of neglect.
Even major cities such as Varanasi suffer from the lack of proper roads, sanitation and high levels of unemployment. In rural areas meanwhile, power cuts lasting 12 hours a day are commonplace.
'Victim of neglect'
Some 40.9 per cent of the state's population lives below the poverty line, according to India's Planning Commission, while 42.4 per cent of its children are underweight, according to the UNDP.
Some analysts say the state's size - its population is bigger than Brazil's - makes it impossible to administer.
In a searing report last week, India's Outlook magazine said "the state is too large, hence ungovernable" with "too many power centres".
Uttar Pradesh has already been reduced after its northern tip broke away and formed the state of Uttarakhand 14 years ago.
R.K. Singh, the former top civil servant in the federal home ministry and now a lawmaker for Modi's party, said the failures were so deep-seated the state should be brought under direct rule as an emergency measure.
"There is no law and order. Rape and murder are very common. There is no control," he told reporters earlier this month.
"The state has completely failed. It is a fit case for the president's rule." Last month's elections, when the mother and son duo of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi led Congress to a humiliating defeat, illustrated how the public can turn on ruling dynasties.
The SP saw its share of seats in parliament fall from 22 to five and Delhi-based analyst Amulya Ganguli said it could be wiped out at state level by Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party.
"I don't think Akhilesh can do anything to redeem himself before the elections," due in 2017, Ganguli told AFP.