Taralata Mahato (25) draws awed whispers from women of Jhambeda village in West Midnapore’s Jhargram block as the only one from the village in the police.
Taralata lives in a pucca two-storey house with whitewashed walls and a huge cowshed — a palatial home by Jhambeda’s standards. Her family is among the more monied in the village. “My father and brother are in West Bengal police services, so it was not difficult for me to get into the police when the all-women police station opened in 2012,” she says.
Soon after Maoist leader Kishenji was killed by police in 2011, West Bengal government created 33,000 police jobs — including 380 posts of women constables — in the adivasi-dominated Jangalmahal districts of West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia. Three years on, an expanding service class — a new rural middle class — is visible in the socio-economic profile of Jangalmahal. But the benefits have been cornered almost entirely by monied and socially powerful families like Taralata’s.
“You get into these services only after paying local TMC bosses and police bribes ranging from thousands to lakhs, depending on the posts,” alleged a 28-year-old farmer who gave his name as Deb. “You should apply only if you have that kind of money,” he said.
The new opportunities have seen many youths who had migrated to neighbouring states in search of jobs return. “I was a driver in Bhubaneswar since 2009. Three years ago, a friend from Nedabohara, my village, told me that posts in civic police were open. I returned, applied and got a job,” said Manoj Mahato (30), a civic police volunteer in Jhargram. He said he makes Rs 200 a day.
Even as people return, a steady out-migration, especially of agricultural labour and farmers, continues from the region that has seen poor rain for years now.
While Taralata has been reporting to work at her police station in Jhargram everyday, her neighbours, including Archana, have been travelling to neighbouring districts like Hoogly and Burdwan to work on farm lands this past year.
“The rains last year were so bad that the crops almost failed. With just one crop this year, we have been left with no work and little money. For the first time, so many of us from our village set out by train to work on others’ fields in Burdwan where the paddy harvest is much bigger than ours,” Archana’s friend Suchitra said.
“We do not bother working under the 100-day job scheme because our payments from last year are still due. And we are assigned only 16 to 20 days of work so there is no real use,” Sunil Murmu, an agricultural farm labourer said.
“Earlier, we used to water fields with canal water but since the last four years the Kangshabati river is all dried up and the government has done nothing. The centre is not releasing funds to the state government for the 100-day work scheme because the state government has been misusing it,” alleged Amiya Patra, CPI(M)’s candidate from Taldangra in Bankura district.
However, TMC’s Shivendra Bijoy Malla Deb disagreed, saying job creation had been the biggest boon of the TMC government in Jungalmahal, this far. “Jobs in factories, contractual labour engaged in development work have all gone to villagers and daily wages have also shot up since the Left Front days,” he claimed.
In the towering green and husk hued Sal woods of Jungalmahal, demand for forest produce like sal leaves has fallen drastically. For instance, according to forest officials, the thermocol and paper plate industry has gradually elbowed out vast markets for plates made out of sal leaves, a traditional source of livelihood for adivasis, by 30 per cent.
Moreover, there is no institutional assistance to market these products.
“In the Left Front days, through LAMPS, sal leaves, kendu leaves, and babui grass were bought at regularised rates from adivasis. But now contractors, mostly Patels from Gujarat, have entered the markets exploiting tribals and buying their hard work off for a pittance,” Patra said.
Sukumar Hansda, Jhargram MLA and Minster for Tribal Affairs in the state said, “We have been earnestly buying kendu leaves used for making biris through LAMPS. It is the most costly variety of forest leaves and very profitable. The adivasis are gaining. We do not deal in Sal leaves, though.”
Besides the many push factors like a less profitable traditional occupation, pull factors such as increased mobility and connectivity due to better roadworks have triggered out-migration in the tribal belt.
In the remote village of Amlasole, where hunger deaths were reported in 2004, 50 men left the village in search of work for the first time, travelling down south to Tamil Nadu, to work as labourers.
“Contractors have been driving up to our village and taking away men in tempos. My husband Kanu Sabbar left two years ago with a contractor to lay pipelines under roadways somewhere in Tamil Nadu. He visits twice a year but he will not come back now. There is more money and a better life outside,” said Gurmari Sabar, plating babui grass into ropes to be sold as cot strings in the market.