Though the tiny village of Totopara in Alipurduar district — about 75 km from Cooch Behar town — is set to vote in the fourth phase of the Assembly elections on Saturday, it seems almost untouched by the tumult of a polarising election campaign.
Inhabited by Totos, the smallest tribal group in West Bengal, the only signs of the election campaign in the village are the 12 flags of the BJP and the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC), a poster of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, and a wall painting of the saffron party’s election symbol “lotus” at the main chowk. The chief concerns occupying the minds of the villagers are the glacial growth rate of their population, livelihood issues and whether they would get stranded during the monsoon rains this year.
At a bamboo tea stall at the entrance of the village, former central government employee Dhaniram Toto says, “In 1901, there were 172 people in the tribe. In 2021, there are only 1,626 Totos.”
The 55-year-old man, who is now working to develop the Toto language, attributes the slow growth of the tribe to its “one life and one wife” lifestyle. He adds, “Poverty has led Totos to not having kids. Even when there is a divorce, people in the village rarely remarry. Some have started to marry outsiders.”
Dhaniram’s 32-year-old son Dhananjay Toto is the first graduate and the only postgraduate degree holder in the village. He completed his master’s degree in library science in 2016 but has not yet found a job. Sitting in the front yard of his one-storey house with his two-year-old son, Dhananjay says, “There is a vacancy in the government library in the village. Yet, the government has not given me a job. If I don’t get a job, why will other youngsters in Totopara even study?”
Fragile transport links and connectivity to the rest of the district have also impeded the village’s development. A state government bus, a private one and some jeeps connect Totopara to the district headquarters of Alipurduar, but the village mostly remains cut off from the rest of the district during the rains.
Bhagirath Toto, a 51-year-old Group-D employee in the district veterinary department, points to the lack of proper connectivity. “There are no roads. One has to cross three rivers, including the Torsa and Raidak, to reach Totopara from the Hashimara Air Force Station [about 18 km away]. During the rainy season, these rivers are filled with water and we have to wait for three or four days to cross to the other side.”
The oldest man in the village, 75-year-old Habule Toto, sits on the verandah of his wooden house, with his wife Mira Toto (65). Habule, unwell for quite some time, tells The Indian Express in his native language that the government should improve the health services in the village. As Dhananjay translates, he says, “I am unwell and have high pressure. Doctors from the primary health centre have given me medicines. The government should think about improving the health services here.”
The villagers also talk about the lack of livelihoods in the region, and say it is their main concern. While Toto youths working as migrant labourers in Sikkim earn about Rs 1,000 a day, those in Bhutan — about half an hour of walk from the village — working as daily wage-earners make about only Rs 300.
“For us, it’s either about working in the betelnut farms or as a migrant labourer in Sikkim or neighbouring Bhutan one-and-a-half kilometres away. As the border with Bhutan is closed, the only option is to work in Sikkim. Some people also go to other places,” says Bhagirath.
Totopara panchayat member Pipili Toto (41) explains that no poll campaigning takes place in the village, and adds, “Politicians also rarely come here, even to ask for votes. But last week, BJP MP Jual Oram was here. But there was no one to welcome him. While roads and public infrastructure have improved, more Toto children [from families relatively better off] are now staying in paying accommodations or hostels in Siliguri and Darjeeling for education.”
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines