The first thing Bedoni Sabar mentioned when asked what the government has done for her was, “Oi, du takaye chaal (You know, that rice at Rs 2).” The 38-year-old mother of five sat plaiting babui grass into ropes on her doorstep while her two-year-old daughter cried for attention.
For Bedoni, whose family lost members to hunger in 2004, the supply of affordable rice to Amlasole village in Belpahari on the Jharkhand border means a less frantic struggle for food. In the last decade, rice has come to be one of the most tangible tools of government outreach and a major poll plank.
Belpahari, the erstwhile nerve centre of Maoist operations, had a spate of hunger deaths since 2000. “My mother-in-law and father-in-law were old and there was hardly any potato or edible leaves in the forest. They passed away but we managed to survive,” she said.
While West Bengal is the country’s largest rice-producing state, Bankura, Purulia and West Midnapore in the southwest are marked by rough forest terrain, scarce rainfall, and infertile soil. Its topography earned it the British name of Jungle Mahals or Jungle Estates. It was in the sal forests of Jangalmahal that the CPI-Maoist first thrived in Bengal after it was formed in 2004.
The regular supply of affordable rations these past few years, however, has been cushioning resident tribal population from the vagaries of seasonal forest food.
Now, Bedoni said, “we cook rice in the morning and eat it with the starch. Then we set out into the forest to collect firewood and leaves. We eat some of the leftover food in the noon and cook a full supper.”
Subsidised rice was introduced by the Centre and the Left Front government in Bengal in 2009, covering 2.64 crore people living below the poverty line. It was one of the many incentives offered in Left-wing extremism- affected areas to wean tribals away from Maoists. As soon as she came to power in 2011, Mamata Banerjee reworked the Left government’s rice scheme, increasing the number of beneficiaries by 20 per cent to 3.2 crore people in 31 blocks in Jangalmahal.
Banerjee understood how central and strategic the food security issue would be to get the restive tribal belt to warm up to her after 34 years of Left rule, political observers say.
In West Midnapore district’s Binpur II block, an LWE-affected area, ration dealers say the distribution system is working flawlessly under the five-year-old government. “There are times when we sell people their weekly 2 kg rice on credit. They pay us the Rs 2 later, after selling their forest produce. Nothing like this had ever happened before,” said Sunil, one of the dealers in Belpahari.
Anuradha Talwar, social activist and adviser to the Supreme Court commissioners on Right to Food for West Bengal, agrees that the rice scheme is a step forward in ensuring food security for rural Bengal. “Targeted food distribution for the poor usually ends up favouring the rich because of corruption. Rations under the previous government were irregular. But this time a tight distribution machinery has ensured that most of the really poor get their share,” she said.
“Once hunger is tackled, Maoists lose their relevance. It will surely count in the elections,” Food Minister Jyotipriyo Mullick told The Indian Express.
But Nilotpal Basu, CPI(M) central secretariat member MP, alleged, “The rice scheme was not a ploy to isolate Maoists. It was implemented with the tacit support of the Maoists. It is an open secret that the Maoists joined hands with Mamata against us.”
Amlasole, once synonymous with hunger deaths, has become a byword for food security. Mamata travelled to Amlasole in 2014, the first chief minister to do so in a decade. In her rally she said, “I had come here then (in 2004). Today I want to say that no one during our rule will starve.”
However, hunger is rearing its ugly head in another part of Bengal: the sick tea gardens of Darjeeling, Alipurduar and Jalpaiguri, which allegedly saw 70 starvation deaths till December last year. The rice rations were rushed to 22 sick tea gardens in North Bengal.
These elections, Mamata has been extolling her rice scheme. “Trinamool maane du muthi bhaat (Trinamool means two square meals of rice),” she said while addressing an election rally in West Midnapore’s Lalgarh Friday.