A journey through Tripura reveals a state suffering in abject backwardness and neglect.
Does the Assembly election next year offer any hope?
A visit to Tripura, a remote state in the country’s northeast, takes one back in time to the immediate post-colonial India. Or even much earlier. Development, it would appear, has bypassed the state that has been ruled uninterruptedly by communists for the last 25 years. With virtually no industries and a sluggish economy, poverty and disease stalk the hapless people of the state, where infrastructure is in total shambles, healthcare is rudimentary at best, education is poor and unemployment rife.
The worst off are the tribals of the state who form about 30 per cent of the state’s population of 37 lakh. A large majority of the tribal villages have not witnessed any development since Independence and, in fact, exist as they would have even a century ago. Most of the tribal villages in the thickly forested hills are not connected by roads, very few have water and power supply, healthcare and educational facilities are miles away and require arduous treks through steep hills that would test the physical prowess of even the most agile, and starvation deaths are a way of life.
Leave aside the rest of the state, even Tripura’s capital Agartala presents a picture of backwardness and neglect. Most roads are a nightmare to negotiate, prolonged power cuts are the norm, potable water remains a dream for most, the stench from open sewers choking with dark, turbid water unbearable, and an air of despondency hangs heavy over the city. Agartala, in short, bears the shabby and defeated look of a city falling apart at its seams.
Blaming New Delhi
The state’s communist rulers put the blame for their abject failures on successive Union governments. Terms like “step-motherly treatment” (of Tripura by New Delhi) are bandied around by communists with practised ease. The Narendra Modi government has, over the past three years, being singled out for blame. “The present government has withdrawn the special category status to northeastern states and that has hurt us badly. Even otherwise, Tripura has never got its due from the Centre. Successive governments in New Delhi have never entertained our pleas for financial aid for developing the state. Tripura, because of its remoteness and backwardness, needs special attention from the Centre, but that has not been forthcoming at all,” says senior Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Badal Chowdhury.
But these are just excuses for not only covering up the inefficiency of the communists, but also for their “deliberate policy” of keeping people poor, says former Congress spokesperson and Agartala’s prominent physician Ashok Sinha. “Thousands of crores of rupees have been sanctioned for Tripura over the past quarter of a century. Most of these funds have not been utilised and the little that has been shown to be utilised has gone into the pockets of the rulers and their party,” said Sinha, who has joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) now with the sole mission of ousting the communists from power. “The Congress does not have any existence anymore in Tripura and it is only the BJP which can dislodge the communists from power,” he explains.
The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has been privy to the loot, says Sinha. “I took documents that clearly proved massive misappropriation of funds in the rural employment guarantee (MNREGA) scheme in Tripura to the then rural development minister Jairam Ramesh. He not only refused to intervene, but also reprimanded me for presenting allegations of corruption against a ‘friendly’ government,” recalled Sinha. The problem, he says, is that Congress governments at the Centre winked and looked away at the misappropriation of central funds that have been poured into the state. “Even if 30 per cent of those funds had been utilised properly, the face of Tripura would have been dramatically different today,” he says.
Statistics show that Tripura has received more than Rs 70,000 crore over the last four years from the Union government for development works under various heads. But, says BJP state general secretary Rajib Bhattacharjee, a substantial percentage of the funds have gone back because the “inefficient and inept” Left Front government in Tripura could not utilise the funds. “And most of what was shown as spent went into the coffers of the CPI(M) and the pockets of its leaders and cadres,” he added.
Bhattacharjee contends that even if a third of the funds that the state has received from the Union government over the past 25 years been spent honestly, the face of the state would have been dramatically different. Bhattacharjee’s allegations not only find wide acceptance among people of the state, but are also borne out by the sad ground reality in Tripura.
This village is actually a conglomeration of a few small hamlets scattered over three hills. To reach this village in Shimna Assembly constituency and under the Twisamongkrwi gram panchayat, one has to travel 40 kilometres through mostly dirt tracks and poor apology of roads to reach Gajakami village which has a company of the Tripura State Rifles stationed in ramshackle barracks made of mud and bamboo walls.
And then the gruelling, steep uphill trek to the village through narrow paths hewed out of the jungles starts to reach the first hamlet after a little over one weary hour. Swapna Rani Debbarma stays in the first hamlet of the village. Her family of 12 — husband, two sons, their wives and five children between them, and an unmarried daughter — can barely eke out a living and survive on only one whole meal a day. They have a small plot of land with a couple of hundred rubber trees and earn barely Rs 15,000 a year from selling latex sheets. They survive on shifting, or jhum, cultivation, growing some vegetables and tubers as well as some paddy. What they grow doesn’t even suffice to meet their own needs.
“Most days we don’t have enough to eat. We often have to survive only on elephant foot yam (a tuber that grows profusely in Tripura), wild plants and herbs,” said Swapna Rani, who has to negotiate a treacherous and slippery path downhill a few times a day to fetch water from a dirty pond. The pond, about 500 feet below her house, also serves the other families of the hamlet. Naturally, dysentery and diarrhoea are common, as are deaths due to these enteric diseases. Swapna Rani lost her father-in-law to diarrhoea two years ago. The nearest primary health centre at Chanchu Bazar — it lacks basic facilities anyway — is one and a half hour walk away, and the critically ill never survive the punishing trek. Many a pregnant woman in this village, and in numerous other villages across Tripura, has died or delivered stillborn babies while being carried across hills to the health centres, which are often nothing more than empty buildings.
A little distance away is another hamlet with five families. Purna Mohan Debbarma, 40, earns about Rs 900 a week by selling vegetables. Thrice a week, he and two of his fellow-villagers wake up a little past midnight and trek to Gajakami and then to Ramnagar (a small trading town), reaching there at 2.30 am. They buy vegetables from farmers there and then journey to Agartala in jeeps to sell the veggies at a Lake Choumoni market there. “Profits are not much and after deducting all expenses, I have just about Rs 300 left in my pocket.On bad days, the profits are lower,” he says.
Purna risks his life every time he undertakes that midnight journey from his hamlet. The forests have many wild animals, including leopards, and there have been attacks on humans by these animals. “We don’t go out of our houses at night, but then, if I don’t go, my family will starve. So we go in a group with mashals (torches),” said Purna. Two men in a village on another hill, says Purna, were attacked by a leopard two years ago and one of them died later of the injuries.
Mangal Sardarpara does not have any electricity as well. No development schemes have ever been executed in this village and it stands today as perhaps it was a century ago. The only signs of modernity are the corrugated iron sheets that the villagers use to build their houses instead of the traditional mud and bamboo. They got the sheets from the government three years ago. They get work under MNREGA for barely 30 days a year, and that too at Rs 150 a day. Children have to walk to Gajakami, which has a senior basic school (till class VIII) with dilapidated classrooms and barely any facilities, for education and beyond class VIII, to Sidai Mohanpur, which is some 20 km away. Not surprisingly, no one from the village has ever studied beyond class VIII and learned little, given the dismal state of education and teachers in Tripura.
Another 30 minutes’ trek through narrow pathways brings one to Twisamongkrwi village which is, again, a conglomeration of small hamlets scattered over two adjoining hills. Phulkali Debbarma stays in one with her husband, two sons and four daughters. They don’t own any land and depend on jhum cultivation, but they don’t grow enough to even fulfil their own needs. They barely manage to survive by selling bamboo shoots at the nearest market at Chanchu Bazar. That fetches them barely 800 rupees a month, and most of that goes for the treatment of her husband, who is a tuberculosis patient. She owns only two long cloths to cover herself; she is luckier than many other tribal women who don’t even have that and go around bare-torsoed.
A Road To Nowhere
To ease the woes of the residents of these hills, the state government grandly announced before the last state assembly elections in 2013 that a 1.04 km road would be constructed from nearby Tilpara to Chanchu Bazaar that would reduce travel time to the nearest market (at Chanchu Bazar) considerably. Never mind that the road had already been sanctioned under the Prime Minister’s Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY). The road stands as a sad testimony to the loot of the exchequer.
There is no road worth the name: it is a mud track. A board shows that ‘construction’ of the road began on 11 January 2014 and was completed exactly one and a half years later on 10 July 2015. Strangely, repair works on the road started exactly a month after its completion on 11 August 2015 and will be completed on 12 August 2020! The board does not (in violation of norms) mention how much money was spent on construction and is being spent on repairs.
Local people say they never saw any construction activities. “A track laid of bricks was constructed way back in 1987 (when the Congress was in power), but even that was a shoddy, half-completed job. This time, some labourers came sometime in March 2014 and dumped a few bags of mud over the tracks and levelled it. That activity went on for three days. That was all the road construction that took place,” says Sachindra Debbarma, a small trader, who runs a provision store at Tilpara.
Needless to say, almost the entire amount of Rs 7.5 lakh that would have been sanctioned by the Union government for the construction of this road was misappropriated. “Such sickening scams have been, and are being, shamelessly replicated tens of thousands of times all over Tripura. The extent of loot that is going on is simply unbelievable. All the money coming from the Union government is going to the coffers of the CPI(M) and some senior party functionaries,” said the BJP’s Ashok Sinha.
Journey To Basaibari
The journey to Basaibari village, which also falls in Simna Assembly constituency (adjoining Agartala), is perhaps like no other in the world. From Agartala, a backbreaking one and a half hour ride over 35 km of cratered roads takes one to Morabari. From there, one has to walk over dirt tracks for a kilometre to reach the Sumili river. And then starts the tiring and unique 3.5 km trek upstream through the river to reach Basaibari.
Walking through this river is the only way to reach Basaibari. At the best of times, there is ankle deep, and at times, calf-deep, water flowing through the river. But the trouble starts when the water level rises during the monsoons. “When it rains in the catchment areas, the water level goes up to around 15 to 20 feet. And we are then marooned. We remain cut off from all areas around us till the water level goes down,” says Bishuray Debbarma, 22, who stays with his wife and a young son at Basaibari.
There are about 20 families in this small village nestled at the base of the hills and looking out onto the Sumili river that is their source of sustenance as well as sufferings. “During the monsoon months stretching from May to October, the river is in spate for an average of 10 days every month and we remain marooned in our village during those days. So we start stocking up on foodgrains and food items as far as possible from end-April. But we are people of very limited means and lead a hand-to-mouth existence. Stocking up means taking things on credit from the store owners at Morabari and they take advantage of our situation and charge interest,” says Bishuray’s wife Swarnamala.
When the rain waters from the hills come gushing down, the current in the river becomes so strong that it is impossible to take a boat and go downstream towards Morabari. Apart from the river, there is no other route out of Basaibari; the hills are too steep and covered with thick forests that are impossible to cut through. The state government was supposed to construct a road skirting a hill to reach Basaibari, but all it has to show for it is an unfinished culvert. “The politicians always promise to complete the construction of the road before elections, but they forget about it later. My father told me the first promise of constructing this road was made in the mid 1960s,” said Bishuray.
The villagers may stock up on provisions, but there can be no planning for medical exigencies. If anyone is unlucky enough to fall ill when the river is in spate, an uncertain fate awaits him or her. Many have died waiting for the water level to come down before they could be carried to the Morabari primary health centre which, again, lacks most facilities, medicines, doctors and paramedics. Just last year, the wife of Okesh Debbarma (Bishuray’s first cousin and neighbour) delivered a stillborn child since she could not be taken to the health centre for three days during her advanced stage of pregnancy and when she went into labour.
But the story of Basaibari does not end there. Basaibari, and Matiabari (another village a further 2 km upstream) are hubs of ganja (cannabis) cultivation. The fertile banks of the Sumili river are overtaken by cannabis plants. Villagers are suspicious of outsiders and hostile towards anyone who photographs their cannabis plantations. Entry into these villages can be gained only through local contacts and a lot of subterfuge.
Villagers say that till about 20 years ago, they used to grow vegetables. “But the vegetables never used to fetch good prices. And during floods, the vegetable gardens would get destroyed. Cannabis plants, on the other hand, are hardy and can withstand flooding and submersion for even up to a week,” says a man who does not want to identify himself.
What is more, he alleges, it is the local CPI(M) leadership which encouraged them to grow cannabis. Three things were achieved very diabolically by this, say Opposition politicians. The impoverished villagers were happy with an increase in their earnings; a portion of the money made from the sale of cannabis started going into the ruling party’s coffers; and, the CPI(M) tightened its stranglehold over the villagers by holding out the threat that it would get anyone flouting party diktats arrested by the police for growing cannabis. But, say the villagers, proceeds from the sale of cannabis has been declining over the years since the middlemen, who are either CPI(M) cadres or closely aligned to the cadres, have been taking a greater share of the profits. The cannabis leaves, after being dried and processed, are mostly smuggled out through the porous border to Bangladesh.
The Ethnic Issue
The Tipras (also known as Tripuris and Tipperahs) are the original inhabitants of the erstwhile kingdom of Tripura that was ruled by the royal family of Debbarmans for more than 2,000 years till it merged with the Indian Union in 1949. The kingdom once comprised what are now the Sylhet, Chittagong and Dhaka divisions of Bangladesh, Cachar Valley of Assam and Mizoram, besides the present-day state of Tripura itself.
A heavy influx of Bengali Hindu refugees from erstwhile East Bengal and then East Pakistan due to persecution by the majority Muslims there reduced the Tipras to a minority in their own state. In 1901, tribals formed 53 per cent of the population of the princely state of Tripura while non-tribals were 47 per cent. By 1911, non-tribals were in a majority, forming 52 per cent of the population while tribals were reduced to 48 per cent of the population. The 1951 census revealed that non-tribals formed 62.77 per cent of the population while tribals were at 37.2 per cent. The percentage of non-tribals rose to 68.47 per cent in the 1961 census and 71.05 per cent in the 1971 census. The 2011 census revealed that tribals form about 28.3 per cent of the state’s population today. The Tipras form 54.7 per cent of the tribal population, the Reangs 16.6 per cent, the Jamatias about 7.5 per cent, the Chakmas 6.5 per cent and the Halams, Mogs, Mundas, Kukis and Garos make up for the rest of the tribal population.
Not only were they reduced to a minority, the Tipras were also marginalised and neglected as economic and political power went into the hands of the Bengali Hindus. The Congress, which ruled the state till 1977, and then again from 1988 to 1993 (the Left came to power in 1978 and ruled for 10 years, and then uninterruptedly from 1993), started this neglect of the tribals. This led to intense resentment and anger among the tribals and erupted into a full-blown insurgency in the 1980s and 1990s. The state was rocked by ethnic riots between tribals and non-tribals and though insurgency has been snuffed out from the former, anger still simmers. This anger now finds expression in the demand for a separate state of Tipraland.
“The Congress is as responsible as the communists for the poor state of the indigenous tribals of Tripura. The Congress also used to loot money meant for development of the tribal areas and the communists have been doing the same. That is why tribal groups took to arms demanding secession in the 1970s and that is why, today, the demand for a separate state of Tipraland has been voiced. This demand finds quite a lot of support among the tribals. Had the tribals been happy, they would not have supported this demand,” said Jishnu Debbarma, a scion of the royal family of Tripura.
BJP state vice-president Ram Prasad Jamatia said that the Congress and the communists have fooled the tribals all these decades. “The poverty and backwardness of the tribal areas is unimaginable. There are many tribal families who don’t even have their own utensils to cook in. They roast yam, potatoes, vegetables and bamboo shoots and survive on those. Starvation deaths, which the government blames on malaria and enteric diseases, are common. There are no roads, education and healthcare facilities in tribal areas. Naturally, the tribals are angry,” he says.
Jamatia, who retired as a senior human resource executive from the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation recently and then joined the BJP, pointed out that of the Rs 15,956 crore state budget (of 2017-2018), just Rs 635 crore (3.97 per cent) is earmarked for the Tripura Tribal Area Autonomous District Council, which is supposed to look after the welfare of nearly 30 per cent of the state’s population. “You can gauge the level of discrimination against the tribals from this,” he says. Jamatia says that no student has ever passed the Class X board exams successfully from at least 40 schools in the tribal areas and in the rest of the schools in the tribal areas, just one or two students pass the board exams every year. Only 9.2 per cent of the tribals are matriculates. Primary health centres and hospitals in the tribal areas lack even the basic equipment and life-saving drugs, and doctors and paramedics posted there don’t work sincerely.
Jishnu Debbarma says that the communists have deliberately kept the tribals poor. “It is easy to control the poor. The communist cadres terrorise and subjugate the tribals. If the tribals are educated and progress in life, they will demand their due share of development and other rights, and the communists will feel challenged then. So it is the policy of the communists to keep the tribals in particular and the people of the state in general, poor and backward. That way, they can have a lot of leverage on the people and even small favours doled out by the government will make the people feel indebted to them. If a person has just one meal a day, a free cup of tea will be enough to gain his loyalty. That is communist philosophy. And those whose loyalty cannot be bought are beaten into submission,” he explained.
Thanks to unemployment (the number of registered unemployed is about 8 lakh, or nearly 22 per cent of the state’s population; the actual numbers are higher), lack of industries and revenue generation, endemic corruption, lack of development and progress and the 25-year misrule of the CPI(M)-led Left Front, anti-incumbency is very high. But the CPI(M) is well-entrenched in power, and dislodging it would be a difficult task.
BJP-in-charge of Tripura, Sunil Deodhar, who has been camping in Agartala for three years now and has toured the state extensively, says that the CPI(M) would have been ousted in the last elections only, but for the extensive rigging of the polls. “The electoral rolls are inflated with a huge number of fake voters. All these votes go to the CPI(M). And then there is the infamous rigging machinery of the CPI(M) wherein voters are intimidated by CPI(M) goons, people are disallowed from voting and their votes cast by CPI(M) cadres, polling officials and police are co-opted and opposition candidates terrorised,” said Deodhar.
The BJP has gone for the jugular against the CPI(M). It has launched an aggressive campaign and is being increasingly seen by voters as a viable and strong alternative to the CPI(M). To that, CPI(M) state committee member, Badal Choudhury said that, “We will launch a counter-campaign soon against the BJP’s communal agenda. The people of Tripura do not want a communal force in the state. The BJP’s economic policies have been disastrous for the country.”
But, it is evident that the CPI(M), unnerved by the BJP’s campaign highlighting its dismal record in Tripura, is trying to shift the attention of the electorate to other issues. “But we will not allow that and the focus will remain firmly on local issues like lack of development, corruption, unemployment and the abject failure of the CPI(M) to do anything for Tripura,” said a senior BJP leader. If the BJP sustains its aggressive campaign and can convince the people of Tripura that it can dislodge the CPI(M) from power, the polls scheduled for early next year could witness the exit of the CPI(M). But even so, it will be a very closely-contested election, and one marked by violence because the CPI(M) is bound to unleash its cadres if it sees power slipping from its grip.