Forty-five-year-old Fukurani Mondal and her four children have been sharing one tiny classroom in Birnagar Primary Girls’ School with another family of four for the past three years. With no toilet facilities in the building, the families have to go out in the open to respond to nature’s call.
“It gets very difficult during the monsoon but that has been the norm for three years. There is no toilet in this primary section of Birnagar Girls’ High School. We had asked the panchayat to build one toilet for us but our pleas fell on deaf ears,” Fukurani, a beedi worker, told The Indian Express.
In January 2016, more than 100 houses at Birnagar I gram panchayat area, which falls under Malda South Lok Sabha constituency, were washed away due to erosion in river Ganga, rendering around 400 villagers homeless. Since then around 60 families are living in the three-storey primary section of Birnagar Girls’ High School. The primary section of the school was constructed around the time the villagers moved in. However, this section couldn’t be made operational after that. Its secondary and higher secondary section is operational.
Although the school authorities had built two toilets behind the building, those are locked away as they were constructed illegally. Upset over the “apathy”, around half of the residents living in the school have decided to boycott the election this time. The Malda South goes to polls in the third phase on Tuesday. Click here for more election news
“We have no place to go. Either they return our land by carrying out proper river embankment protection work or they should provide us an alternative place to stay. We cannot stay in this school forever. We did not even receive any compensation after the river swallowed our land. This time no political leader came here for campaigning as they have no answer to our problems. We have decided to boycott the election as there is no point in having faith in the political parties which do not address our concerns,” said 35-year-old Indrajit Mondal, who drives a toto (a three-wheeler battery-driven car) to earn his living.
The family members said that they had gheraoed the local panchayat office and made several deputations to the local authorities seeking rehabilitation or at least one toilet on the school premises, but all fell on deaf ears.
“We have accepted this as our fate. The river took everything from us. But why should we vote if the political parties are not bothered about our problems? This is the only way we will register our protest,” said Urmila Mondal, another resident of the school.
Many such families also echoed Urmila’s sentiment and accused the government and the local political parties of leaving them in the lurch.
Another beedi worker by profession, Anjali Mondal said, “We are just stuck in a limbo. Neither we can afford to go somewhere else as we have no money, nor we have the land to build our own houses. We only make Rs 150 to Rs 200 per day. What’s the point of casting our vote, if we do not get compensation and relief? We will not vote this time.”
Domestic worker Umrika Rabidas, who lost all her savings after her house was washed away by the river, is also determined not to take part in election. “Had the political leaders kept their promise, we would have thought about casting our vote. Now, we don’t have the will to vote,” she said, adding that most of the residents living in the school are doing the same.
When asked to comment on their decision to boycott the election, local BJP MLA Swadhin Kumar Sarkar said, “It is their freedom of choice whether to vote or not. We cannot force anyone to vote.”
An Election Commission official, on condition of anonymity, said these voters can opt for NOTA if they are not satisfied with the candidates. “This is the reason why there is a NOTA option in the EVM. If they feel the candidates are not right, they should go for NOTA. By doing so they will exercise their democratic rights,” the official said.
Several villages under Baishnabnagar area have been affected due to riverbank erosion. The situation gets worse during monsoon as the water level rises. Despite it being an annual phenomenon, residents said that proper measures have not been taken to control the erosion.
Although construction of an embankment to control the erosion was undertaken under Farakka Barrage Project in 2016, a large part of the swallowed land is still underwater as the project is yet to be completed.
Similarly, repair works were undertaken by the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) in the same year to fill the missing land with sand and asphalt. That, too, remained unfinished.
About 25 families, which are still residing dangerously along the river bank, remained cut off from the main land with no proper roads. They have to cover slopes and uneven surface to reach the main land. “We were told that if we vote for BJP then riverbank protection work will begin soon. We voted for the BJP which won the Assembly elections from Baishnabnagar in 2016. Work did start, but it has already been seven to eight months and the project is yet to be completed. The repair work was done only to safeguard the house of the BJP MLA and it did not progress further,” said Arun Rabidas, a resident of Rabidas Para along the riverbank.
The house of BJP MLA Swadhin Kumar Sarkar is located on the bank of the river Ganga and was partially damaged in the erosion. He is one of the three BJP MLAs who won the Assembly elections in 2016.
“Now, when we ask the MLA to resume the repair work, he says it will be done after the polls. We have lost faith in the system. We are not sure whether we will exercise our franchise this time,” said Sentu Rabidas, another resident of the area.
Due to the elections, the local panchayat office remained closed. Congress leader and the Birnagar 1 gram panchayat pradhan Shima Haldar Roy was not available for comment. Local TMC leaders, who were seen participating in election campaigns, refused to comment on the issue. “We do not control the panchayat here, so we cannot do anything for them,” said a local TMC leader.
When asked about the allegations of the residents, the BJP MLA said work will soon resume to complete the land filling process and the embankment. However, he regretted the fact that there was no toilet for the 60 families residing in the school.
“It is unfortunate that there’s no toilet in the school. We had asked the BDO to look into their demand. What we have learnt is that a toilet cannot be constructed as the district has been declared as Open Defecation Free (ODF). Now, if they construct a toilet then it would mean the district is not an ODF district. As an MLA, I have my limitations on the work of panchayat but I can assure that both Farakka Barrage Project and NTPC will start the phase 3 work in the area to complete the unfinished project,” Sarkar told The Indian Express.
Malda was declared ODF district in November 2017.
Asif Iqbal, secretary of Ganga Bhangan Protirodh Committee, said more families will be displaced in this monsoon as several villages will be affected in the erosion. “We have made deliberations to respective authorities to either offer rehabilitation to the affected people or complete the river embankment works. But it is taking a lot of time. If it is not completed before monsoon, the river will swallow a large number of houses in Baishnabnagar area,” Iqbal told the newspaper.