Tanushree Bhasin travels through the state capturing the people’s responses to Mamata’s promises.
Mamata Banerjee’s helicopter has been the topic of much controversy, with the Left opposition criticising her for ‘unnecessary opulence’. But when the West Bengal chief minister landed at Silda, Binpur on March 26, 2016, she launched an attack on the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which has continued to hold on to the Binpur assembly segment despite losing the state. Her pitch: “Look around you, the TMC government has given you roads, peace, water and development.” TMC is the Trinamool Congress.
Most agree that Mamata has never been photographed in anything but rubber slippers. These slippers are part of a carefully manicured larger image of simplicity, which has now been tarnished by charges of corruption against her party’s leaders. Mamata, however, has repeatedly avoided speaking about the allegations directly. Her strategy so far has been to draw attention to the fact that her party has been able to bring peace to the region since coming to power in 2011. In addition, she has also spoken about her policies of giving rice at Rs.2 per kg to the poor, free cycles to girls in classes 10 and 12, and providing water to villages that have so far had no water supply for consumption or irrigation.
In her speech she spoke about how the TMC was the only party that had bothered to print its election manifesto in the Santhali Alchiki script in an attempt to reach out to the adivasi electorate. She also spoke haltingly in Santhali, urging voters to vote for the TMC – in her words, the only party that “cares for adivasis.”
Even though Mamata’s rallies at the various assemblies at Jangalmahal have seen heavy deployment of security forces, the turnout has been consistently disappointing. Mamata, in what the CPI-M has alleged is an attempt at deflecting criticism, has blamed the weather and spoken repeatedly of the summer sun in her rallies.
A group of young women listen to Mamata’s speech at Silda, standing under the shade of their umbrellas. In conversations with them and others in Jangalmahal, a sense of cynicism and helplessness came through, when they suggested that efforts by the TMC to provide the basic minimum were commendable – yet not even close to addressing the deep-rooted problems of poverty, unemployment and dismal standards of education.
Almost everyone, including the local CPI-M cadre, agree that the three-decade-long Left rule in West Bengal was one marked by little progress. But the TMC’s development has followed a predictable trajectory – the empowerment of security forces and handouts don’t necessarily make lives sustainable.
“I have two children and my greatest worry is what will happen when the cheap rice stops. It’s just not possible for people to actually be given cheap rice forever. We want jobs and education. But those things haven’t happened yet,” said Choton, at Bela Tikri village in Lalgarh, on his way to the PDS shop to buy rice.
Those in Lalgarh are clear about why the adivasi uprising began here in 2008: it wasn’t just a response to atrocities by the police and state, but because Jangalmahal had simply fallen off the map of West Bengal.
Even though Mamata has attempted to counter this by repeated visits and visible development, the fear of once again being forgotten or branded Maoist continues. The old systems of repression continue.
Mamata has promised new jobs, particularly in the police. But as Kalipada in Belia village at Lalgarh explained, “The problem always has been one of jobs. It has been three years and I am yet to get paid Rs.3,000 for the work that I did on a pond under MNREGA. They call me a Maoist sympathiser because I grew up with Chhatradhar Mahato, and cheat us. Even the jobs that are being given out are to those who already have money and can pay bribes to the babus.”
Roads seem to be appearing out of nowhere in Jangalmahal. Construction workers said that they have been asked to finish before the first phase of elections begin on April 4. Most of the projects had been sanctioned much earlier, but the timing and speed of construction has ensured that the new roads dominate most addas here.
The ‘Sabooj Sathi’, a scheme to distribute cycles among female students in schools, is yet another highly visible scheme. It was implemented with the aim of reducing the dropout rate of girls in 2014. Then the state government decided to extend the plan to include another 40 lakh students in October 2015. The scheme, much like Nitish Kumar’s ‘Mukhyamantri Balak and Balika Cycle Yojana’, attempts to help students – many of whom will be casting their first vote in 2016.
There is no water in Jangalmahal. Repeated reports from various authorities including the Central Ground Water Authority have warned the government of the depleting water table here. Some protests have already begun.
Mamata’s answer lies in an under-construction piped drinking water project at Belpahari that promises “drinking water to everyone by 2020.” But this too has run into trouble and has borne no results yet.
Ragunath Murmu, who created the Alchiki script used in the Santhali language, is omnipresent in schools here.
The problem lies elsewhere though. Santhali is not taught in all schools, and in those schools where students are taught it, there aren’t enough teachers, and often several class levels are made to sit in one classroom and taught together.
Moreover, activists allege that what the students are taught are merely translations of Bengali history, with Santhali culture and history still taking a backseat.
For those in Belpahari, the hunger deaths of 2004 at Amlasole village haven’t been forgotten. Clearly then, for parents, the mid-day meal scheme is a vital incentive for ensuring regular attendance. In this school at Belpahari’s at Nayanagarh village, the menu has been kept simple because of a recent bout of chicken pox: rice, aaloo posto and dal.
Schools will close soon. And almost all of them will be converted into polling booths.