WITH polling having concluded in West Bengal, erstwhile enclave dwellers in Cooch Behar have a far more pressing concern — ration cards. Though the administration has promised to issue the ration cards after the election results are declared on May 19, there is uncertainty among the 13,000 former enclave residents here, who were among those granted Indian citizenship after the country ratified the Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh last year.
The 13,000 people are residents of villages which were Bangladeshi enclaves before they became Indian territory following the agreement.
The lack of ration cards makes the ‘new Indians’ ineligible for the state’s welfare measures, particularly the du takae chal (rice at Rs 2 per kg) scheme. “We have been issued election cards but no ration cards. This means no rice, no kerosene and no milk powder. Those in the camps get them, but we have to still toil on whatever little land we have,” said Saddam Hussein (21), a resident of Madhya Moshaldanga, an erstwhile Bangladeshi enclave now in Indian territory. There are large tracts of highly fertile land here and hence rice (the staple in the region) is aplenty; the problem, however, is that most of it is owned by a small group of farmers. And those below the poverty line haven’t been issued ration cards.
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Those with ration cards — around 1,000 people lodged at the three camps in Dinhata, Mekliganj and Haldibari (all once residents of Indian enclaves in Bangladesh) — have another grouse: lack of sufficient food. At present, each family is provided with 30 kg of rice.
Families with more than five members are given an additional five kg for every extra member. But this policy isn’t working out. “My family has 14 members. It’s the largest in the enclave camps. But according to the present rationing system, I get 75 kg of rice. In Bangladesh, our family consumed almost double the amount,” said Abul Kasem (62).
While those at the camps have adapted by creating small kitchen gardens — cultivating pumpkins, gourds and beans — the district administration blamed the rice shortage on insufficient planning by the Centre and its ‘inability to understand cultural differences’. “The average five-member family in urban areas of Bengal consumes about 20 to 30 kg of rice. But in rural areas, particularly Cooch Behar and the adjoining area of Rangpur in Bangladesh, rice is eaten four times a day. Almost everyone is employed in hard labour and rice is the fuel. Eating habits can’t change in a day and the Centre has failed to take this into account,” said a state official.
Then there’s unemployment. While some camp residents have been able to find jobs under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the model code of conduct has delayed payments. In addition, resentment from local residents at the ‘new Indians’ allegedly ‘getting preference’ has led to increased tension in the area. “They don’t want us here. That is to be expected. But we have no money. Whatever money we brought with us is close to finishing and it’s making us desperate. We were promised that our land in Bangladesh would be sold and we would get the money but we have not received a single penny of it. We haven’t been able to go back and oversee the sale either.
Whenever we ask, we are told ‘after the elections’,” said Jayprakash Roy at the Haldibari camp.
After the migration, the ‘new Indians’ had submitted a detailed list of their land — about 5 sq km in total — to the district administration. The Bangladesh government had in turn promised to buy the land at market prices and ensure that the money is transferred to those who had opted for Indian citizenship. But this is yet to materialise, the residents said.
For enclave dwellers on the Indian side, the land issue has become even more pressing as they don’t have pattas (land right documents). Many fear that their properties will be gobbled up by land sharks looking to profit from the government-planned development in the area. “The Bangladesh government wants to build police stations, roads and hospitals. We haven’t been given proof that we own the land that has fed us for generations. Already surveyors are trying to take over,” said Sunil Ray, a former resident of Mrigpur enclave, now in Bangladesh.
The district administration here hopes that all issues will be resolved soon. District magistrate P Ulaganathan said that with polls over, “the problems of the enclaves would be accorded top priority”. But Trinamool Congress district president, Rabindranath Ghosh, maintained that much of the problems stemmed from bad planning and delays from the Centre. “Take funds for instance. They released some of the money almost a year after they were scheduled to. This was all political because the BJP wanted to put us under pressure,” he said.