On the banks of the Hooghly, a tributary of the Ganga, in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas lie several jute mills. Alongside the mills are hundreds of mazdoor lines (worker settlements), often no better than ghettos, with the predominant population migrants from Bihar.
The mills suffered greatly during the nationwide lockdown announced in end-March to check the coronavirus. First, there were production losses as the mills shut, leaving many without wages. Then, when these labour-intensive units were allowed to reopen, they did so with only 15% of the workforce.
However, the workers here already seem to have put the lockdown woes behind them. Sitting on a bench at the entrance of the Anglo India Jute Mill’s mazdoor line no. 17 in Kankinara, about 50 km from Kolkata, 60-year-old Yogendra Singh and his younger brother Jaykishor Singh are debating when to leave for hometown Siwan, as they have tea.
Siwan, in west Bihar, votes in the second phase on November 3. Although the two don’t have a vote in Bihar anymore, they say they want to be home for all the poll excitement. The visit will also coincide with the wedding of the youngest of Yogendra’s five daughters, on November 6.
Yogendra retired from Anglo India Jute Mill in 2017, after working there for four decades. However, he chose to settle in Bengal. “Siwan has seen some development in the past decade but we still have to go to Patna (about 140 km away) for most things. Bihar may now have roads and electricity, but it still lacks good colleges and employment opportunities,” he says.
Once the local unit secretary of the Left-leaning CITU, Yogendra, however, believes Nitish Kumar has done “more or less” a good job as Chief Minister compared to his predecessors. “He has been better than those before him. Now, nobody comes to Bengal from Bihar. If people migrate in search of work, they prefer to go to Gujarat and Rajasthan.”
Chandan Shah, who is four decades younger but also made the same journey to Kankinara from Siwan, is a Nitish supporter too. Standing at the door of his one-room tenement, further deep into Line 17, next to a filthy nullah that divides the rows of houses, the 23-year-old says is planning to go home on October 25 to vote. “My family has received a lot of help from the Nitish government. During the lockdown, my brother received Rs 1,000 in his account. He (Nitish) has completely changed the law and order scenario in my home town.”
However, since the lockdown, the 20-hour travel back to Bihar has become prohibitively costly. As trains are yet to start from Kolkata’s Sealdah station, migrants depend on private buses. “It takes nearly two days to reach home on a bus. Travelling one-way costs Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,000,” Shah says.
Along the next nullah is mazdoor line no. 2. Sitting on the door sill of his rented one-room dilapidated house, 58-year-old Laxman Natraj is watching children run along the drain. A native of Chhapra, Natraj came to Kolkata in search of a job in 1983 and has since worked in several jute mills in the district. He talks of an unexpected benefit of the lockdown. “I would usually visit home twice a year to see my wife and children. This year, my wife had come down for a week on March 23, just a day before the lockdown, and has since been here… I don’t remember the last time we stayed together for so long,” Natraj beams, as his wife Laxmi stands behind him.
The two plan to go to Chhapra in the end of October, when Natraj would drop Laxmi off and also cast his vote. Like Shah, he also worries about the cost of the bus travel and hopes train services will resume by then.
The 58-year-old says they are also staunch supporters of Nitish. “He will win. My wife received Rs 1,000 from the government during the lockdown. Nal jal aa gaya, bijli aa gayi. Bas sirf ration card nahin hai (There is water, there is electricity. The only thing we don’t have is a ration card).”
In another two years or so, Natraj, who works as a clerk at Anglo India Jute Mill, will retire. He hopes Nitish will still be in power then. “I am here for work, this is not our place. So it’s necessary that Nitish stays. Whatever little work is left (to be done), will be completed by then.”
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