Lalgarh, once a hotbed of Maoism in West Bengal, is today dotted with government buildings painted in’s preferred blue-and-white. Jangalmahal, comprising the districts of Paschim Medinipur, Jhargram, Purulia, and Bankura, was home to the tribal uprising that shook the Left Front government during 2008-11. Since 2019 however, the year the won five of the six Lok Sabha seats in Jangalmahal, there is fresh political churn in the largely tribal region.
Local people acknowledge the change in their lives since the Trinamool Congress came to power and the bloodshed stopped. Now they want more.
“Didi poriborton enechhilo ebong unnoyon hoyechhe. Rasta-ghat bhalo hoyechhe, bridge hoyechhe aar ekhane shanti firechhe. Kintu kichhu lok goriber taka loot korechhe. Bekarotto berechhe. Manush ekhon onno upaay khujchhe. (Didi brought change and development — better roads; bridges. There is peace. But some people looted the money of the poor. Unemployment has risen. People are now looking for other options),” said farmer Shyamal Tudu.
In 2019, the BJP led in 31 of the 40 Assembly segments in Jangalmahal. A common refrain is that the TMC was hurt by its own leaders.
“It is unfortunate when local leaders who are supposed to help, indulge in corruption and snatch your rigths. Adivasi people want respect, not grants and dole. Benefits of social welfare schemes must reach the poor,” said Binay Hansda, a trader.
Rana Oraon, who drives a toto, an e-rickshaw, in Jhargram, said: “The violence has stopped, but people are still angry. They’re making a note of who is reaching out to them. Whoever reaches them fast, gets their vote.”
The BJP has sensed the frustration of the public with the local administration, and sought to tap into it aggressively.
At Usuldungri village along the Ajodhya Hill road in Purulia district, farmer Budhulal Beshra, who owns a bigha of land, spoke of his problems. “My land produces only one crop a year. We are dependent on rain, there is no provision for irrigation. There is acute water scarcity in this region. At times, we get water from a waterfall downhill. But that’s a long walk, so we mostly go to a well nearby. This water is extremely dirty, full of insects.”
Villages like Usuldungri were under the control of Maoists upto a little more than a decade ago. They now have roads, but not much else. The village is part of Baghmundi Assembly constituency, which votes on Saturday.
It’s the corruption that makes people feel the most frustrated and betrayed.
Opening the tin door to what was supposed to be his toilet, Beshra said, “We did not have a toilet, so the government sanctioned this. It doesn’t even have a pit. The contractor said I have to sign the (completion) form for him to get the money to buy a commode. So I signed it, but he never came back.”
The youth complain about the absence of formal job oportunities.
“We were with the Maoists. I have met Kishenji and other Maoist leaders. We had firearms, which we surrendered to the government because the government promised us employment. But only three people from our village got jobs,” said 26-year-old Ukil Mandi, who sells firewood for a living.
“I visited Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s home in Kalighat (in Kolkata), where her security personnel beat me up. I now periodically cycle 30 km with 25 kg of wood that fetches Rs 100 per kg. Some of my neighbours walk that distance,” he said.
About 80 km from Usuldungri is Puncha village in Purulia district’s Manbazar Assembly constituency, a reserved ST seat that votes on Saturday. There are 19 Sabar tribal families in the village. The Sabars were classified as a “criminal tribe” by the British, and 38-year-old Janaki Sabar says it appears nothing has changed since then.
“Even today, if there is a theft in the area, the police visit our houses first. We are still looked at with suspicion,” said Janaki. Her husband and four sons are migrant workers in Mumbai and Chennai.
Janaki’s neighbour Manindra Sabar (32), a daily wager who earns Rs 200 a day, said: “All houses in the neighbouring areas have electricity. We don’t. A few houses ‘hook’ from the power line. We have repeatedly requested the district magistrate and block development officer for electricity and roads. Nothing has happened.”
In Katiam village of neighbouring Bankura district, the 20 Sabar homes are in darkness. The connections were cut after they defaulted on bill payments. A plastic cover has been put on the power cables to prevent theft by ‘hooking’. The village is part of Ranibandh Assembly constituency, which votes on Saturday.
“During the harvest season, I cut paddy for which I am paid Rs 180 per day and 2 kg of rice. I also travel to Burdwan (about 180 km away) to pick potatoes in the fields. There I am paid Rs 200 per day. After the season is over, I have nothing to do. My family doesn’t own any land. So I pick bael from the forest and sell them for Rs 3 each,” said Baneshwar Sabar (26), who has studied until Class 4.
Prashanta Sabar (17), is the most educated among the Sabars of Katiam village. A student of Ranibandh High School, he completes his studies by dusk. “My school is about 3 km away. Under the Sabooj Sathi programme of the state government, I received a bycycle, which I ride to school,” he said.
Says 60-year-old Santosh Sabar, “Some people in our village have mobiles. But we have to go to the neighbouring village, about a kilometre-and-a-half away, to charge them. We pay Rs 5 for charging our phones.”