At the stroke of another midnight, 68 summers after August 1947, land and nationalities changed hands for the third time in a densely populated, sparsely developed part of India and Bangladesh.
P Ulaganathan, the young 39-year-old district magistrate of Cooch Behar in West Bengal, knows the math and the map of the land swap. But more than geography, he wants to talk about history.
“Right now, we are sitting at the cusp of changing not just global geography, but also the way these people have looked at themselves, what they have perceived about their lives for decades,” he says. “Our work ranges from ensuring that these new migrants know what their fundamental rights are to making sure that they have no difficulty getting their children married.”
In “resettlement” camps — “as opposed to rehabilitation camps”, says the DM — at Haldibari, Mekhliganj and Dinhata in Cooch Behar district, where they are scheduled to stay for at least the next two years, 980 people who have opted for India and Indian citizenship are finding their way towards both.
‘I’ve never spent a night in a home with a fan’
ON a six-acre land stretching drily on either side, tin homes stand atop elevated concrete platforms in 14 neat rows. At the edge of the camp, in a playground with colourful swings, slides and climbing roaps, children are making the most of the watery winter sun.
The temporary, numbered homes at the Dinhata camp, bearing 300-odd inmates, are just about comfortable in this mild weather. Since the new migrants started coming (the first batch of 62 persons arrived on November 20), the houses have acquired curtains — the colourful strips helping tell one accommodation from another.
Around 220 families from former Indian enclaves in Rangpur, Bangladesh, chose to move to India, and of them 201 are now living at the camps. None of those living in former Bangladeshi enclaves inside India has chosen to go to the other side.
The new Indians from Bangladesh were told they could bring along whatever belongings they wished. So an odd motley of belongings lies spilled over outside the tin homes — beds, cupboards, books in suitcases, and even the odd duck.
“We will probably end up selling the furniture when we are a little more settled. This bed was my father’s and his father’s before that. But there’s no space for it here,” says Ram Chandra Das.
Along the camp’s fenced boundary are toilets, cattle sheds, a dining hall, offices of government representatives, and an overhead water tank.
Outside, a platoon of BSF and officers of the district police are constantly on patrol to ensure the safety of the migrants.
It’s an entirely new existence for the 980 inmates in the three camps, though separated from Rangpur by just 150 km. Like the residents of the former Bangladeshi enclaves in India, they lived all these years in areas that were demarcated only by weathered stone pillars and forgotten by governments on either side.
Villages did not have basic public services such as electricity, healthcare facilities or roads, while parents often forged documents to ensure that their children could go to school. They couldn’t vote, and not having identity documents spelled detention or imprisonment.
A week after the first families moved into the Dinhata camp, the initial trepidation of being “caged in” by the wire fencing at their new address dissipated after the administration explained it was to ensure that “outsiders” didn’t enter and that the migrants themselves were free to move about.
Officials anticipated that problem. Not the one that followed.
The menu for the food to be given to the camp inmates was decided by the Centre and state government in consultation — rice, daal and two vegetable curries. “The problem is one of too many channels. We at Cooch Behar speak to the West Bengal government, before it in turn speaks to the Central government. Finally the MEA speaks to the Bangladesh government. So, for instance, when we spoke about the need for protein in diet, we suggested fish. But by the time the menu was approved, soyabean was finally decided,” a senior official says.
It was also decided that for around a month, self-help groups would feed the migrants. Thereafter, they would get rations. No one, it appears, accounted for fish.
“We need fish or at least some other source of protein apart from soyabeans. We are Bengalis and we have fish two to three times a day. Even if there is nothing else to eat at home, we’ve never gone a day without maacher jhol (fish curry). Here we’ve been eating vegetarian food for days,” says Manmohan Burman (36). “It’s intolerable.”
On November 28, after a dinner of rice, watery daal, a potato curry with the odd smattering of beans, and the inevitable soyabean curry, a delegation of the migrants marched up to the district administration’s office at the Dinhata camp and put in a written request for change of menu. Officials have now forwarded the request to the state government, seeking more fish.
Most nights, however, the migrants admit, are joyous affairs.
“We’ve never had electricity before. I don’t think I’ve ever stayed a night in a home with a fan. It’s incredible,” says Padman Burman, 28, at Mekhliganj camp. “My children can actually study at night. This is allowing them more time to play and by the time they have had dinner, they’re almost asleep. Earlier, I would try and get them to bed by evening and it was impossible.”
Dusk falls quickly in Cooch Behar. Standing next to the tin walls of his house that are glittering from the light overhead, Padman breaks into a broad smile and adds, “Others take such things for granted, but I still can’t believe it.”
‘We are three families, allotted one house’
At all the three camps, the district administration has set up small offices, also located in tin sheds. After they have spent the day negotiating the paperwork that comes with acquiring new citizenship, the migrants line up at these offices every evening. They have many questions — about their current problems, their future prospects, and the laws that they are still trying to get the hang of.
The government has held a series of seminars informing the migrants about their rights and duties, as well as the Indian Penal Code and the penalties associated.
But the one problem that surfaces repeatedly, says Ulaganathan, is of family members left behind. They were not counted when the initial list was prepared of people living in enclaves on either side, and now remain unaccounted for.
Motia Rahman and his wife, Elema Bibi, thought they would finally be able to live together after 17 years of marriage. He lived in the Indian enclave of Dahala Khagrabari in Bangladesh, while Elema belonged to Cooch Behar. Now, after the swap, he is at the Dinhata camp, but she can only visit him and not live there. This is because her name was not included in the initial headcount that took place in Bangladesh in 2011 and served as the basis for the exchange of people after the Land Boundary Agreement was signed this year.
Motia grieves similarly for his three sisters, left back in Bangladesh. “The 2011 headcount took place over just three days and nobody was given prior information about it. As a result, many of us have had to leave our family members behind while others haven’t come to India because they couldn’t. In my family of 16, only 13 names were included,” says Motia.
As a senior district administration says, the headcount of September 2011 (done on both sides) followed talks between former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh and his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina.
The joint survey counted 38,521 residents in Indian enclaves inside Bangladesh and 14,863 in Bangladeshi enclaves in India.
The official explains, “However, with no plans to actually formalise the agreement at the time, the headcount was not done as effectively as it could have been.” It just recorded names of individuals and their religion, leaving out crucial detail such as family size.
“We have been allotted one house, since the 12 of us were counted as one family. But it is in fact three families. We are three brothers and we are all married with children. It is impossible for us to fit into the single house allotted to us,” says Rehman Khatoon, at Mekhliganj camp.
“Every single permutation and combination possible is taking place,” says Ulaganathan. “We even have a case where a man whose name was there in the 2011 headcount was later arrested in India for smuggling. He was then sent to Jalpaiguri jail, and is about to be released now. But he is no longer a Bangladeshi citizen and is also not enlisted in the camp.”
Inmates are also apprehensive about another thing left behind — their land. Land prices had stagnated in the enclaves due to lack of buyers from outside, and when they finally left for India and that land got freed, many of the migrants were not able to sell their plots in time.
With the land swap allowing India and Bangladesh to take control of respective enclaves in their territory, the government is the new owner of their land.
“I owned two bighas — all of it agricultural land and extremely fertile. You could plant anything there and have a great crop. I have never had to borrow money in my life or depend on anyone else. My land fed me and clothed me. I had to entrust it to my relatives and friends to try and sell it and give me the money,” says Kanti Mohan Roy, a resident of Haldibari camp.
Many migrants have given a detailed list of their land — amounting to about 5 sq km — along with associated paperwork, to the district administration, requesting that it ensure a fair price for them.
The Cooch Behar administration says the Bangladesh government has promised to buy the land at market prices and ensure that the money is transferred promptly to those who have chosen to adopt Indian citizenship.
Ulaganathan says the district administration is simultaneously locating areas where land could be acquired and given to the migrants to begin new lives at the end of their two-year stay in camps. “This land will be as close to the land they have left behind as possible in terms of its condition. We have singled out a few locations,” he says.
While the administration is also trying its best to accommodate the families as per their size, officials admit that for relatives left behind, there is no immediate hope. “We’ll be writing to the state government and then they will communicate with the Centre and Bangladeshi government. As of now, there is no possibility of a second migration,” says an official.
‘My new identity is of a migrant, not a doctor’
After Naresh Chandra Burman moved into the Dinhata camp from his village in Rangpur, he quickly set up a bench outside his door. Burman was a doctor back there and this bench has stayed with him since he first began practising almost a decade ago.
“I used to practise in the market, and since I was one of the few doctors in the area… can’t say I was a rich man… but my life was comfortable. Here, things are different. My new identity is not that of a doctor, but as a migrant. I will have to start from scratch.”
Life as a doctor in the enclave wasn’t easy, the 38-year-old admits, particularly as public health care facilities were negligible for those living in those areas. Naresh recounts having to diagnose everything from mental health issues to complications during childbirth.
However, that feeling of not being useful any more gnaws at him. “I’m not sure what the Indian government has in store for someone like me. Will my degree in medicine count here? I can’t farm like others. But perhaps, I’ll have to learn,” he says.
Naresh’s sisters opted to stay in Bangladesh. “I wanted my daughter to have a good education so I came to India,” the doctor says.
But that’s another worry that plagues parents. Two district education officers have visited each household in the three camps, enlisting the children into schools in the area. “For young children, there are anganwadi schools here, while older children will be admitted into local colleges and high schools so that their studies don’t suffer,” says Kanti Chanda Roy, the district education officer.
He adds that though the schools are understaffed, the government is taking measures to ensure more schools are built and teachers hired.
But how about the children who were on the brink of giving their final examinations at school or college level? An official says they have taken this into account. “Efforts are being made to ensure that nobody misses an academic year. We’ve written to the West Bengal government education secretary to try and admit these students into good colleges, even if it’s in the middle of an academic year,” he says.
Naresh Mahanta (12) is among those enrolled already into a school. Holding up a Bengali language book, he says it is much better than anything he has seen before. “It has colour pictures,” he says excitedly.
After taking a shower, he switches on the electric tubelight, another first, and sits down to complete his homework — painstakingly copying lines from his new book into the notebook that he has got.
The district administration maintains that cases will be looked at individually and efforts are being taken to ensure that those in the camp can start working soon, and become financially independent. Almost 900 bank accounts have been opened, biometric enrolment for Aadhaar has been completed in all the three camps and job cards under MGNREGA have also been provided, while self-help groups for women and skill training have been arranged.
This red carpet in a system where things move painstakingly slow isn’t lost on the disgruntled residents of Cooch Behar outside the camp. “When we told them we were getting job cards, they laughed at us. When finally they did believe us, they got very angry and told us there were hundreds of Indian residents who didn’t get job cards despite trying. We are afraid that later they will still treat us like outsiders,” says Santosh Burman, who is staying with his family at Haldibari.
There is also the question of how long the government’s commitment will last.
On August 10, after visiting Cooch Behar to check on the preparations being made for migrants, Mamata had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi saying she hoped the Centre would “release the amount as approved earlier”.
It was only on Wednesday that the Union Cabinet approved a package for rehabilitation and upgradation of infrastructure of former Bangladeshi enclaves and the Cooch Behar district. It pegged the funds required at around Rs 1,005.99 crore — Rs 107.49 crore of this “variable”, for rehabilitation, “depending upon the number of families returning to India”.
However, the Mamata Banerjee government estimates the total expenditure to be around Rs 2,200 crore. “The amount released by the Central government is far too little and doesn’t take into account our everyday overhead costs. In many cases, we are yet to pay those providing services. For instance, none of the self-help groups providing food has been paid,” an official says.