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No toilet, no school, no proper roads: ‘Forgotten’ groups say they will not vote

Anger of former residents of Bangladesh-India enclaves justified: BJP; TMC accuses saffron party of inciting them

Written by Ravik Bhattacharya | Kolkata | Published: April 16, 2018 12:23:09 am
At an enclave in Cooch Behar, prior to the pact. (Express Archive)

A school, a health centre, a drainage system, proper roads, and toilets. Pradeep Burman’s family of ten and other residents of Kokoyabari in Cooch Behar were promised these basic facilities along with legal documents for their lands under schemes of the state and central governments. For Kamaleshwar Sarkar, 40, who lives with his family in a makeshift refugee colony in Haldibari, a job and a home now seem a distant dream. In Bangladesh, he used to work for a pharmaceutical company, while his wife was a nurse. Today, he runs a toto (e-rickshaw) to fend for his family, which depends heavily on monthly government rations that he terms as “too less”.

Burman, 26, and Sarkar are among former residents of Bangladeshi enclaves in India and Indian enclaves in Bangladesh, who settled in in Cooch Behar after a historic pact between the two countries. On August 1, 2015, over 14,000 people in 37 enclaves got new identities and the promise of a better future after India and Bangladesh agreed on an enclave exchange. In Kokoyabari, most residents, including Burman, have had to construct makeshift toilets while they wait to get proper ones under the Swachh Bharat scheme. Without a school in the area, most children must trek to the nearest primary school, which is is two-and-a-half km away, or the nearest higher secondary school, which is 5 km away, Burman said.

“Everyone seems to have forgotten us. Just before the polls, some government people come and measure the land. Then they disappear. There are no proper roads. Aanganwadi centres are yet to open. People are yet to get papers for their lands. Here, people have small plots of one or two bighas each,” said 66-year-old Bijendranath Burman, a resident of Falanpur, speaking to The Indian Express over phone. Burman was the president of the erstwhile Chit Nagarik Suraksha Committee, which fought for the cause of enclaves until an agreement with India was reached.

According to Burman, small agricultural holdings in Falanpur add up to 506 acres, while in Nalgram they stand at a total of 1,393 acres. None of the residents in these areas have received the required papers yet. “All we have are only a few tubewells and some solar-powered pump sets for irrigation. Even the voter ID cards given to us have a lot of anomalies and don’t contain proper addresses. So many political parties are knocking on our doors now. But we have all decided not to vote in the panchayat polls. We feel cheated. In the newspapers, we read money has been sanctioned, but we see little on ground,” said Burman.

Official sources said Falanpur has a total population of 2,700, of which over 500 are voters. The ruling Trinamool Congress has blamed BJP for inciting the former enclave dwellers and hatching a conspiracy. “All-round development has happened…But it takes some time. BJP is going to these areas and inciting, misleading people… Roads are being built, Aanganwadi centres are being set up, electrification in the areas where they live is complete. The government is building apartments for those who do not have land and have come from the Bangladesh enclaves. Their children are going to nearby schools. The government is also giving rations. We are talking to them and we are confident we will be able to convince them to vote,” said North Bengal Development Minister Rabindranath Ghosh, MLA and the Trinamool Congress district president of Cooch Behar.

“The anger of former enclave dwellers is justified. Little has happened. Only some roads and some tubewells. Their land rights are a major issue. Most of them do not have land rights papers for their own fields. The government is planning to give them small apartments whereas they want the land to build a home. Schools, jobs promised are yet to be delivered. This, even though the central government has sanctioned money. We have highlighted the matter with the Centre,” said Nikhil Ranjan Dey, BJP district president of Cooch Behar.

Sarkar and his three brothers stay in a makeshift shelter in Haldibari, where six to seven family members stay in a single room. The brothers take turns to run two totos. Roy claimed the family receives 30 kg rice, 5 litres mustard oil, 5 kg kerosene, 5 kg masur dal, 2 kg of salt and 2 litres of milk monthly from the government. “There are no schools here. There is no proper drainage system and no proper road. The government promised us employment and skill development through various projects, including animal husbandry and pisciculture. They promised to give us land too. Nothing happened. Many here are working as labourers to fend for their families. I left a job in a medicine company, and my wife, that of a nurse. So many times we have approached the BDO and SDO, nothing happened,” said Sarkar, claiming that his community had recently held a meeting and decided to abstain from voting.

Roy and his family hail from an enclave in Bangladesh’s Debigunj under Panchagarh. They had come to the Haldibari camp on November 27, 2015. There are 530 people (105 families) in the camp, of which 362 are voters, sources said. Roy’s wife, Kanika, said the low-cost apartments promised to them are still under construction. Each “apartment” has only one room for families with six or seven members, she added.

“Our surname is Roy, but somehow, after we got our voter IDs, it was written Sarkar there,” she further claimed. At Nalgram, another former enclave, there are 969 voters in a population of 1,800, official sources said. Residents contacted by The Indian Express said they are yet to get papers for their lands, which is their prime demand.

“I have a family of six. I have two-bigha land, but I am yet to get papers from the government even after three years. We also demand a proper road and a health centre. We will not vote this time. We have voted in the 2016 assembly polls, before which voter ID cards were hurriedly issued to us. But this time, we will not,” said Debicharan Adhikari (42), a resident of Nalgram near Mathabhanga in Cooch Behar.

Burman, whose family has two-and-a-half bighas of land at Kokoyabari, said almost none of the announced government schemes have reached the ground so far. “There are so many government schemes, but we are yet to benefit. We were promised toilets under Swacch Bharat. But that never happened. Some of us used our own money and set up toilets. So many government officials came, media took our pictures, but then everyone forgot us. We are fed up with the false promises. We still have no means of drinking water or a proper drainage system,” he said.

Kokoyabari has 52 voters from 16 families, official sources said.

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