India Matters: Peace in the jungle

Sutapa Deb-Kolkata: This week we are travelling to the Jhargram parliamentary constituency in West Bengal. A no-industry zone, it has witnessed years of violence triggered by Maoists. Add to that, the presence of an inordinately high number of people living below the poverty line. The state government says it has unleashed a tide of development. We check the ground reality.

The Jhargram constituency falls in Junglemahal, a forested area spread across three adjoining districts – West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia. In 2008, Junglemahal attracted nation-wide attention because of killings and encounters between Maoists and security forces. For nearly three years since then, the region has been on the boil. But the turning point came with the death of Maoist leader Kishenji in November 2011. Junglemahal has seen no incidents of murder or abduction by Maoists in the last two years.

Our first stop is Lalgarh. A gram panchayat and block headquarters in the constituency, it was once a hotbed of political violence.

Today, with peace restored, life is back to normal and Lalgarh and its neighbouring blocks, present a different story. There is no fear of violence, of police raids, or bandhs. There are no longer any no-go areas.

Few would venture out to remote villages. Those who did, were not sure they would return home. For people this has been the most significant change.

Peace has also brought in a frenetic pace of development activity to the area.

The first college is coming up in Lalgarh. Also an industrial training institute, a polytechnic and a primary teacher’s training institute in Ramgarh. There’s a model school for girls, a women’s college and a girls’ hostel. Ponds are being dug under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA).

A 60 crore rupee bridge being built from Lalgarh to Aamkola will reduce the distance to Jhargram subdivision by 12 km.

People call the bridge a fantasy, an impossible dream come true. Whats interesting is that though a major chunk of the funds comes from the Centre, the credit has gone to the state government.

The state government’s scheme to recruit 10,000 special police constables and home guards from Junglemahal has provided employment to young men and women. Nearly 10 times the number applied for the posts. Among the successful were Hemanta Roy and his friends.

Says Hemanta, ” I was a good sportsman and would participate in marathons. I had applied for many jobs earlier, wrote a number of exams, but made no headway. I completely lost hope. When the state government announced that it was recruiting for the post of home guards, I applied. When I got to know that my name was on the list, I cried with joy. My family is very happy that I have a job.”

His colleague Anup Pratihar, who also belongs to Lalgarh, adds,” Its not just us. I have spoken to a number of my friends and found they have also got some opening in different places. I am happy they are no longer unemployed. Earlier to earn money we even faced injury. Now we are better off and there is peace in our area.”

They say that everyone got the jobs on the basis of merit. No one had to use influence. For men like Hemanta, being a homeguard has meant an escape from a hard life as casual labour with an uncertain income.

As a home guard, Hemanta earns 345 rupees a day. Based on a no work, no pay principle, it amounts to about ten thousand rupees a month, barely enough to meet the needs of his four member family.

Hemanta’s wife, Laxmipriya Roy, tells us she is hoping to get an opportunity to work as an aanganwadi worker. She has studied till Class 10. She said, “I am happy that my husband has a government job. The wages may be low, but he gets a lot of respect.”

The recruitment of young men and women to the police force will discourage disruptive activities and help the administration build an intelligence network in the villages.

For the feel good factor, sports like football are being promoted by the district police. There are 22 men’s football clubs in Lalgarh.. The state government gives 25,000 rupees to each football club for equipment and gear. A high point in police public relations was the organisation of the Junglemahal cup in West Midnapore by the police.

Pradyut Chalak, who is captain of one of the football clubs in Lalgarh, said, “People are very poor in this area. The state government’s initiative to provide money for kits has made a number of people, who did not show interest earlier, to come to the grounds.”

Sanat Kumar Roy, a footballer, said, “For some years there had been no enthusiasm for sports. However, this has changed. We want the Junglemahal tournament to continue in the coming days.”

For the first time, young girls too are playing football in Lalgarh, apparently confident to step out of their homes.

Moyna Patra, a budding woman footballer, said,” I started playing football in 2012. This was an initiative taken by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. I don’t whether any sporting activities were held earlier. Those were days of terror. In 2012 we got to know that football will be played here. The information was passed to the police station and then to the school. Since I was a child I dreamt of joining the police force. I also liked sports and I hope to make my future through sports.”

However, there are few opportunities available to be groomed as a professional footballer. For instance coaches to train them, or even a proper football field for practice. The field they use is full of sand and pebbles and makes play very difficult.

There are other government schemes to encourage education of girls and discourage child marriage. Bicycles for all girls attending classes 9 to 12, a yearly stipend of Rs. 500 and Rs. 25,000 for every girl student who reaches the age of 18. Moyna says she plans to join the government polytechnic nearby, which will open this year, and learn about computers.

Another footballer, Pradyut Chalak who takes us to his home in a poor settlement, says he wants to be a primary school teacher. His aunt, Sumitra Bera, said, “Their father is a daily wage worker earning Rs. 150 a day. We hope they can get a job so that they can begin earning some money. Both father and sons face many deprivations.”

Our next stop is Amlashol, a tiny village of about 85 houses, near the Jharkhand border. A majority of families are tribals like Sabars and Mundas. Amlashol hit the nation’s conscience in 2004 with the report of five starvation deaths. Nearly 40 per cent of the Jhargram constituency comprises tribals and 28 per cent Scheduled Castes. The Chief Minister’s scheme of Rs. 2 a kilo of rice per week to all communities in Junglemahal has made an impact.

Sukhdev Sabar, a resident of Amlashol, said, “There’s no hunger now. Mamata is giving us rice at Rs. 2 a kilo. It has solved most of our problems.”

We find better road connectivity and visible presence of the administration..Construction activity is on. Most of the tribal families who live below the poverty line have got financial assistance to build pucca houses in the last two years. However, they continue to be acutely dependent on the forests for their survival. It supplies them fuelwood and sal leaves that they sell.

Says Sumitra Sabar, a resident of Amlashol,”We don’t have any land and we have to feed a six-member family. If we had land, we would have cultivated it and grown food for ourselves. Now we survive by selling wood from the forest.”

There is a need for secondary schools. Students now have to travel nearly 24 km to go to one.

The residents of Amlashol have benefitted from the Rs. 2 a kilo rice scheme and from houses under the Indira Awas Yojana. But these are just baby steps for a vulnerable tribal population who have yet to be linked to a source of livelihood.

However, Nandkishore Munda’s son was one of the lucky ones. About 14 months ago his 24 year old son, Pandu, was the only one in Amlashol to get a job as a police constable. Today, he earns Rs. 16,000 a month and is sending home money for his brother’s education and repairs to the family house.

Nandkishore said, “I would not have been able to start the construction work otherwise. There is no money for it after selling paddy. Money is tight.”

Nandkishore is a marginal farmer who gets only one rain fed crop a year. Though he seeks work under MNREGA, he says payments are delayed. He says people like him could escape poverty if the government provided facilities for shallow tube well irrigation.

A contrasting picture emerges when we visit villages outside the media glare. Like Muchiband and Khurchibani villages in Shilda Gram Panchayat.

A majority here are landless and belong to the Scheduled Castes and other backward castes. There’s a severe shortage of water for agriculture. There are no wells or ponds with only one hand-pump for two villages.

Jaydev Mahato, a young resident of Muchiband, said, “The villagers are very poor. To survive, everyone is forced to work as labour. I don’t know how to express my pain. There is no help from any side. Political leaders come during the elections and promise to do this and that, but no one does anything. Everyone goes out to work either at brick kilns or as agricultural labour to other districts. Families stay away from the village for 3 to 4 months at a time, their houses locked. How will their children complete their education?”

There appears to be little development in these pockets. Nearly every house has a story of vulnerability.

Geeta Mahato says her in-laws are old and sick. She has to take care of them and is unable to work.

“My husband is unemployed. I am unable to bring up my children properly.”

Pushpa Mahat’s husband died two years ago. She has two small children. She says she has not received widow pension or any other assistance.

“I do not know how to feed my children.”

Diputi Mahato’s family lost their house in a storm but did not get any relief.

Clearly, the villagers have not received the entitlements for the disabled, old age pension, widow pension and Indira Awas Yojna. While the Rs. 2 a kilo rice scheme has staved off hunger, villagers say the quota of 2 kilos of rice a week for an adult should be increased.

Jaydev Mahato is the only youth in his village to get a job with the state’s civic police force. The civic police assist in traffic management and crowd control. Paid Rs. 141 a day, they are employed on a no work,no pay basis. Its much less than the Rs. 170 a day workers get under MNREGA. With civic police recruits given work for only 20 days a month, little has changed for him.

Says Jaydev, “If I had migrated, I would have got work for the entire year. The reason I am not leaving my job is that I am hoping it will lead to some opening in the future.”

Villagers are threatening not to cast their votes in the elections.

The Jhargham seat is reserved for the Scheduled Tribes. Sitting MP Dr Pulin Baske of the CPM won by nearly 3 lakh votes in 2009, the highest margin in the state.

Baske admits there are numerous challenges in the constituency, particularly the Maoist menace. While claiming that development schemes were initiated by the previous Left Front government, he blames the Trinamool government for lapses in implementation.

He said, “In the last 10 years I have done lot of work during my tenure in district Panchayat as a Zila Parishad Sabhadipati. I have got the National Award also like literacy movement , sanitation campaigning and the rural development work. The TMC government has been in power for three years, but the result is nothing. There’s no real peace. TMC and Maoists both combined to attack our workers and now they are in power running the Panchayat.”

Congress candidate Anita Hansda is contesting elections for the first time. She says she is trying to make voters realise that it is the Congress, not TMC that is behind development of the region.

“The Central Government only has brought in these developments with its own funds. Right from construction of schools to hospitals. Even rice at Rs. 2 rupees a kilo is an initiative of the Central Government.”

Also making her debut is TMC candidate, 26 year old Dr Uma Soren. She tells the people she will be trying to fulfil Mamata Banerjee’s dream to make Junglemahal a showpiece. She said, ” I want this place to be a model of example not only in India but also in the world.We will walk on the path which has been shown to us by Didi.”

Peace in Junglemahal has brought hope and opportunity for some.The challenge will be to reach the unreached.Courtesy:NDTV,NewDelhi.

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Author: madhubaganiar

Madhubaganiar loves to write on social issues especially for downtrodden segment of Indian society.

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