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Polls far, government further for Bengal’s smallest tribe

The Toto tribe, numbering around 1,600, is more concerned about its dwindling numbers, the daily struggle for livelihood and the annual battle against rains.

Written by Ravik Bhattacharya , Amitava Chakraborty | Totopara (jalpaiguri) |
Updated: April 10, 2021 8:16:59 pm
Toto tribe, West Bengal elections, West Bengal Assembly Elections 2021, Mamata Banerjee, Totopara village, BJP West Bengal, TMC West Bengal, india news, indian expressToto para under Alipurduar district.(Express photo by Partha Paul)

On the eve of polling day, the only sign of elections in Totopara village, housing the smallest tribal group in West Bengal, are 12 flags in total of the BJP and Trinamool, a lone poster of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and a lotus painted on one of the walls.

The Toto tribe, numbering around 1,600, is more concerned about its dwindling numbers, the daily struggle for livelihood and the annual battle against rains.

Sitting in a tea stall made of bamboo at the entrance of Totopara, Dhaniram Toto, 55, a retired central government employee trying to preserve the Toto language, says, “In 1901, the tribe included 172 people. In 2021, there are only 1,626 Totos.”

His reasoning for this is simple: “one life and one wife”. “Poverty has led the Totos to not have kids. When there is a divorce, people rarely remarry. Some have started marrying outsiders.”

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Dhaniram’s son Dhananjay, 32, the village’s first graduate and its only post-graduate, is yet to find a job. Sitting in the front yard of his one-storey house with his two-year-old son, Dhananjay, who completed his master’s degree (Library Science) in 2016, says, “There is a vacancy in the government library in the village. Yet, the government won’t hire me. If I don’t get a job, why would other youngsters in Totopara even study?”

Bhagirath Toto, 51, among the lucky ones with a government job, as Group D staff in the Veterinary Department, says, “For us, it’s either work in the betel nut farms or as labourers in Sikkim or Bhutan (about half-an-hour’s walk from the village). A few go to other places.” Work in Sikkim is three times more profitable, with earnings of around Rs 1,000 a day. Because of Covid curbs, the border with Bhutan is closed these days.

Children from relatively well-to-do Toto families have started moving to Siliguri and Darjeeling to study.

Come the rains, Totopara is even further cut off. As there are no roads, the government and private bus service connecting it to Alipurduar, the district headquarters, cannot ply. “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 rains, these are in spate and we have to wait three-four days to cross to the other side,” Bhagirath says.

Habule Toto, at 75 the oldest man in the village, suffers from a very modern-day illness of high blood pressure. Speaking in the native language as Dhananjay translates, he says he hopes to see the health services improve in his lifetime.

Ask about the polls and Pipili Toto, 41, a member of the village panchayat, says, “Politicians rarely come here, even to ask for votes. Last week, when BJP MP Jual Oram (a tribal leader from Odisha) came, there was no one to welcome him.”

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