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Monday, May 10, 2021

Lockdown hurting, border town says talk about Covid, not caste

On April 5, Bangladesh announced a complete lockdown. That has dealt a fresh blow to Petrapol, 80 km from Kolkata, whose entire local economy is driven by business from the border.

Written by Dipankar Ghose | Petrapol |
Updated: April 14, 2021 7:58:56 am
Lockdown hurting, border town says talk about Covid, not casteThere are establishments offering cargo services, travel agencies, private taxis and vans, and shops selling refreshments to weary travellers. Since March last year, they have been “finished” and may not survive now, say residents.

A green board runs right across the road that, a little further ahead, disappears into another country. The board reads, ‘You are entering India Bangladesh border area. Always Be Cautious’. The party flags at this formal Indo-Bangladesh border crossing in Petrapol, North 24 Parganas, are a sign that the election fever has also reached here. Since last Monday though, the talk has taken a turn. “That word of our nightmares is back again: lockdown,” says a taxi driver at the border.

On April 5, Bangladesh announced a complete lockdown. That has dealt a fresh blow to Petrapol, 80 km from Kolkata, whose entire local economy is driven by business from the border. There are establishments offering cargo services, travel agencies, private taxis and vans, and shops selling refreshments to weary travellers. Since March last year, they have been “finished” and may not survive now, say residents.

A hundred metres from the border is a travel agency called Desh Travels. It has a large waiting hall but not one seat is occupied. The lights are off and there is just a fan on for the two people behind the counter, to save electricity. “This industry used to work on visitor visas. The road you see, it had no space to even walk. But in March last year, both India and Bangladesh stopped travel. We once had as many as five buses a day running from here to New Market in Kolkata. But now we are down to one or two buses, and even those are erratic. The company had 24 staff, now there are 15. The EMIs on the buses are not being met, and the drivers will be laid off soon. What will we and our children eat?” says Mohammad Amin.

Sitting next to him, Dilip Thakur’s eyes brim over as he says, “The few buses left would bring people coming to India for treatment, and some for business. They would go to Kolkata, and then hospitals in Vellore, Chennai and Bangalore. Now that too has stopped.”

What adds to the bitterness is that Covid, for Petrapol, is a distant issue with no real ramifications. Hardly anyone wears masks, nor does anyone have an idea about any vaccination drive. “Look around us, who has died from Covid? This is an urban disease, and we are facing the brunt of it. Please tell the government not to impose another lockdown… I am willing to vote for anyone who promises this,” says Thakur.

Petrapol falls under the Bongaon Uttar Assembly constituency that votes on April 22. In 2016, the TMC had won the seat. However, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Assembly segment voted decisively for the BJP, giving its candidate and Matua leader Shantanu Thakur close to 30,000 votes. As the BJP aggressively woos the Matuas, there is an overwhelming sense that the BJP is ahead. Thakur, contesting for the Bongaon Uttar Assembly seat this time, accompanied Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his recent Bangladesh tour, including the visit to a much-revered Matua temple.

Padam Biswas, who owns some land and runs a fruit juice shop in Petrapol, says, “Mamata Banerjee reached out to the Matuas, but really did nothing. We are behind Shantanu Thakur… There is nobody but the BJP here, even in flags.”

However, there are murmurs within the community over the BJP’s calculated silence on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which it brought in specifically for immigrant communities like the Matuas. “In Assam, the CAA will hurt them, so they don’t talk about it. The Act has been passed for so long, why haven’t they implemented it?” asks a Matua community member, refusing to be identified. However, he adds that still, most of them will vote for the BJP.

The TMC lists its works for the Matuas, and argues that the CAA ends up making the community, “which are already citizens of India”, feel like outsiders. Says a TMC leader, “The BJP has a big lead, but this is a state election. If some members of the Matua community break away, and we can show we have done work on the ground, we could still have a chance. Like everywhere else, people still respect the Chief Minister.”

On Thursday, in a last-minute flurry before the polls, the road from Bongaon to Petrapol, full of potholes, was being tarred and smoothened.

Back at Desh Travels, for Amin and Thakur, all this talk about the Matuas and CAA is indicative of what is wrong with politics and that no one really cares for the poor. “The BJP now plays only Matua politics, and the TMC even here has stolen money meant for Amphan relief. Has anyone come to ask how we are dealing with the lockdown?” says Amin.

Adds Thakur, “These politicians will never put a lockdown during an election. How will they campaign then? Maybe for once, it’s a good idea for the elections to never end.”

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