IN AN iconic scene in Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s Pather Panchali, portrayed memorably by Satyajit Ray on the silver screen, Durga and Apu crouch amid fields of towering Kash grass watching a train rumble past towards the city — with its promise of better opportunities, away from the abject poverty of their village.
It is this lasting image of poverty that Prime Minister Narendra Modi alluded to at a rally in Thakurnagar, North 24 Parganas, last month, to pitch his promise of development to the Bengali electorate. “Pather Panchali ne… hamare gaon ki tabki sthiti ko bhi bhaavi peediyon ke liye racha hai… Kaise kamaai ke abhaav mein, yuva palayan ke liye majboor the aur swastha suvidhaon ke abhaav mein, bimaar masoom zindagiyan shikaar banti thi. Saathiyon, durbhagya se… gaon ki sthiti par utna dhyan nahin diya gaya jitna dena chahiye tha. Yahaan Paschim Bangal me toh, sthiti aur bhi kharaab hai (Pather Panchali documented for the coming generations the situation of the villages in those times… How unemployment forced youths to migrate and the absence of health services led to the death of many innocents. Unfortunately… villages were not given the kind of attention they needed. And the situation in West Bengal is the worst),” he said.
As the battle heats up for the Lok Sabha elections, stakes are high in West Bengal. For the Modi-led BJP, it is fertile territory to pick up seats that it may lose elsewhere. For Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who has pitched herself as one of the national leaders of an anti-Modi front, it is a prestige fight.
One of the fronts in this battle is rural Bengal, where the BJP has been rising, and was the second largest party in last year’s panchayat polls. One of the weapons in the armoury of both sides is government schemes — Mamata, who fought last time on the plank of Poriborton, recently wrote letters to beneficiaries of her government schemes, like Modi, who talks of Vikas, had done earlier. Click here for more Election news
In Pather Panchali (meaning ‘Song of the Road’) territory, this fight for credit leaves few ripples. Its long, halting journey from when the novel was written in 1929 rides on accepting what it gets.
The story of Pather Panchali’s Nischindipur village has been for decades the story of every village in Bengal. As a matter of fact, when the author wrote the novel he had already retired to Ghatshila village, now in Jharkhand. Barely kilometres from Ghatshila lie the once Maoist-dominated Jhargram, West Midnapore and Bankura districts of Bengal — all three filled with villages named Nischindipur.
The one in Binpur I block’s Nepura in Jhargram district is possibly one of the larger Nischindipurs, home to nearly 200 families. In the western arm of the village, in one corner of a patchwork of unsown fields, a group of 20 men and women are digging up the inside of what will become a rectangular pond.
Parul Saddar, 60, moving the dug-up earth, is grateful for this MNREGA project, but says the money is never on time. Her husband is ailing, and her farmer son and four married daughters live in other villages. “Everyone in our village has a job card. We have Aadhaar, voter and ration cards. But of course, we don’t get 100 days work a year. We don’t get paid for this work either most of the time, or it is delayed,” says Saddar.
But, things have been improving, agree villagers.
A concrete road runs through this Nischindipur now and the highways leading up to it and other villages in the area are smooth and fast — laid on a priority basis by both the former Left government and the Trinamool regime, to counter Maoist activity.
Each home has a submersible pump for water as well as electricity, while the village has two community submersible pumps. The health services are regular and every Thursday a team, including a doctor, visits.
Across the village, mud homes are being replaced by houses under the Indira Awas Yojana (officials call it the ‘Bangla Awas Yojana’). Amar Patra (18) says while the huts were cooler in Jhargram’s punishing summers, they needed constant repairs after the rains. “We would have to re-thatch roofs for up to Rs 5,000. The Indira Awas Yojana homes are easier to maintain,” he says.
However, for every instalment received under the scheme, the villagers say, a “cut” has to be usually paid to agents of the ruling party. “Of Rs 1.3 lakh we get, we have to give Rs 20,000,” says a villager, at his half-built house. While the floor and walls have been built, he ran out of money for the roof and has been unable to occupy his new home.
Jhargram TMC MLA Sukumar Hansda denies this, saying he had received no such complaints. “If I had, I would definitely have taken action on the matter.”
The school system in the village is robust. Ashish Pal (36) has been a social sciences teacher at the school since it was first started in 2006. Up to Class 8, the single-storey school now has 73 students. “The number of students has been increasing, while the dropouts have decreased. All the government schemes to aid education have worked, at least in our village. Free books are given along with uniforms. Kanyashree (a West Bengal scheme in which Rs 25,000 is given to each girl child upon graduation and Rs 500 annually to prevent girl students from dropping out); Sabuj Saathi (bicycles given to each student by the state to facilitate their going to school); Sikhashree (Rs 1,500 annually for OBC students and Rs 750 for SC/ST students to prevent dropouts); and other such programmes have been hugely successful. Many students have completed their higher education and then gone for jobs in towns like Lalgarh,” says Pal.
An added incentive for the children is the mid-day meal, which is run by two self-help groups comprising 10 women each of the village. Jaba Rani Singh is cooking today a meal of rice (each child till Class 5 gets 100 grams of rice a day and from Class 6 onwards 150 grams), aloo posto and daal. Together, the 20 women make Rs 3,000 a month.
“This means each one of us gets Rs 150 a month. So we have created a roster by which only two of us come on any given day. The rest of the days I work in the fields as hired help. My husband and I don’t have land,” she says as she lights a fire under a massive pot while her colleague peels potatoes. “I’m used to cooking with wood. I do have a gas cylinder given by the government but don’t use it. What if I catch fire using the cylinder? Secondly, the first cylinder may have been free, but once it finishes, the refill will cost
Rs 900. Who has that much money?”
Five kilometres to the north of the Binpur I Nishchindipur, lies Nishchindipur village in Bankura. While not as remote, the village is less fortunate in its connectivity and a concrete road gives way to the red earth of these parts. But in Bankura’s Nischindipur too, which always had brick-and-mortar homes and where the villagers are a mix of farmers, contractors and service employees, Indira Awas Yojana homes are mushrooming.
TMC supporter Tapan Das says the villagers had to be given an ultimatum to apply for the scheme. “They started building around two months ago,” he says. The road that snakes through the village was built a year ago and a year before that, the village received its first toilets. All homes have water connections and electricity.
But not every Nischindipur is as fortunate. Forty-five kilometres away from Binpur I lies Binpur II block, with its own Niscindipur. It’s a smaller village with 100 families and 450 voters. It is the BPL card holders here who have access to electricity and not APL families, say villagers. A part of the road is tarred and at a small school, there are no teachers. So the children in the village go 4 km to the nearest school. Water is scarce.
Roshna Saddar’s family has started building a new home under the Indira Awas Yojana, but like others, has run out of funds. Her new house stands unoccupied.
The biggest problem villagers face however is of unemployment. “We did receive job cards eight years ago but got work through it just one time. Those who live close to the river can farm properly. For the rest of us, irrigation is an issue. Most of the young men have left the village for Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Pune and Kerala… My son has gone to Tamil Nadu. I don’t now where he is exactly and what he does,” says Saddar, whose family grows a little paddy and some vegetables for sustenance.
The women in the village collect Sal leaves from the forests nearby. These leaves are dried, flattened, stitched together and then sold to a middleman. “A bundle of thousand leaf plates is sold for Rs 100 to the middleman, who sells it at a much higher price,” says Tumpa Mardanya (30), going on to list their other problems. “We receive rice from the government at Rs 2 per kg, but for the seven of us in our family, we receive 8 kg for the week, the rest we have to buy at market price. Some weeks, the rice doesn’t come. There are no health care facilities here and if anyone falls ill, we have to rent an ambulance for Rs 300 and take them to the Belpahari health centre or all the way to Lalgarh.”
However, if these Nischindipurs have moved on, the village as imagined by Bandopadhyay still exists not too far away, in pockets of Jhargram-West Midnapore region. Last November, the Opposition had walked out of the Assembly claiming seven deaths by alleged malnutrition in Jungle Khas village in Binpur II. The village is occupied by the Sabars — one of India’s most primitive tribes, once deemed a criminal tribe by the British — and the Lodha tribe.
In Jungle Kas, Sudhir Sabar (60) died of tuberculosis. His last few meals comprised a little rice with herbs or puffed rice, says daughter-in-law Rebati Sabar. Chunnu Sabar’s 28-year-old son also died from TB after ailing for six months. Showing his life’s possessions, including three utensils, one blanket that the two used to share, and a run-down mud hut with thatched roof, Chunnu, 60, says he was unable to provide his son proper food or medication.
A few days after his son’s death though, the government made him a new home, painted in the Trinamool colours of white and blue. Other families in the village that saw deaths received similar homes. For a month after the deaths were reported, a kitchen was set up by the administration on the road running past the village. “We used to get three meals a day from the kitchen. Sometimes it was khichdi, other times rice, daal and vegetables,” says Chunnu.
The families whose relatives died also received 50 kg rice and 25 kg daal from the district administration, along with vegetables and oil.
The administration, which denied starvation saying the deaths were caused by diseases such as TB, denies any food shortage in the area. “The ration system is robust in the entire district. The deaths that had taken place were not due to starvation but TB and other diseases. These are primitive tribes, and by themselves do not go to the doctor or hospitals. Alcoholism is also very high, which leads to medical problems,” says Jhargram District Magistrate Ayesha Rani.
Right to Food Campaign West Bengal convener Anuradha Talwar says the government told them the same. “Their opinion was that the reluctance of the Sabars to go to hospital had led to the deaths. When we raised the issue of TB, this was blamed on excessive drinking… Yet its relationship with poor nutritional status was not acknowledged.”
Talwar says their team further found that the DOT program of ASHA workers to administer the anti-TB drug at home every day was not followed. “According to the Pardhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana Nodal Officer, there was also an amount of Rs 500 per month available for TB patients as a nutritional supplement, but no one had received this money,” adds Talwar.
A report by the Right to Food campaign released in December, a month after the deaths, talked of stunting in growth among both Lodha and Sabar adults and children, and their poor diet, with little or no milk, fruits, vegetables, meat or eggs. “The Sabars we spoke to claimed to receive Rs 100-Rs 130 for a day’s work in agriculture. The work hours varied from five to seven hours. In some cases, they were given a small amount of muri (puffed rice) to eat in the afternoon. The statutory minimum wage for agricultural workers in West Bengal is Rs 244. There is obviously no attempt to enforce this wage.”
Still, says Kumar Rana, who is with Amartya Sen’s Pratichi Trust and has been researching rural Bengal for years, the state has come a long way.
Himself from a small Adivasi village in the Jhargram area, Rana says, “When I was five, around 1967-68, hunger was perennial and death due to starvation common. All were touched by it — the Adivasis, non-Adivasis, Dalits. During non-harvesting months, our mother would give us boiled maize in the evenings to kill hunger so that we wouldn’t ask for a meal in the night. There was a crisis of food in Bengal’s villages. This no longer is the case.” Rana says this abject poverty meant villagers also lived at the mercy of moneylenders and landowners.
According to him, the change came about due to education, especially amongst girls. “There are other indicators that show Bengal is not doing badly. The state has a low fertility rate of 1.7 while the national average is 2.6. UP has an average of 3.6. The infant mortality rate in Bengal is 28/1000 while the national average is 50/1000.”
In recent times, he adds, two measures of the state government have especially made a huge impact — one universalising the provision of rice, at Rs 2 a kg to each person in rural Bengal; and second, measures for women, whether it’s encouraging the girl child to go to school or self-help groups.
According to the District Administration, 35,000 girls have benefited from the Kanyashree scheme in the past two years in Jhargram alone, while 45,000 students have been helped by Shikhashree.
TMC Jhargram MLA Hansda says, “The BJP is misleading people by saying they have a mass following in this area. Look at the kind of development we have brought to the region. Every village is connected with roads now, schools and hospitals have been set up all over the district. You will get to know in a couple of months which is the stronger party in rural Bengal.”
But the BJP’s contention, and also their poll platform, is that a majority of the schemes being implemented are actually Central schemes. This tribal area was among the parts where the party did well in the panchayat polls. “Whether it’s houses under the Indira Awas Yojana, LPG cylinders under Ujjwala Yojana, construction of toilets… these are our schemes which Mamata Banerjee has passed off as own. We will also let voters know how the Chief Minister pulled the state out of Ayushman Bharat, depriving thousands of healthcare. There is rampant corruption whether it’s Indira Awas or MNREGA, that is done through the state government. Even her grand scheme of giving rice at Rs 2 per kg is a central scheme,” says BJP Jhargram president Sukumar Satpati.
And so, the fight for credit continues.
Jhargram DM Ayesha Rani points out that in this newly formed district alone the state government has made three super-speciality hospitals, three new bridges and two new colleges. The district administration has also set aside Rs 10.4 crore for the vulnerable Sabar and Lodha tribes, allotted Rs 18.2 crore for new school infrastructure, and provided treatment free to 199 village children under the Shishu Saathi scheme.
Homes are now being constructed everywhere, Rani says, “but under Bangla Awas Yojana. We don’t call it Indira Awas Yojana. Our biggest focus though remains connectivity and we have built 1,125 km of road under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana. Which we call the Bangla Sadak Yojana.”
As a result, the railway tracks, 19 km from Lalgarh, are now not the only route bearing the dreams of Bengal’s Nischindipurs, like they did in Pather Panchali.
But, nearly a century later, they are still headed only one way: out.