Till even less than a decade ago, Bengal’s westernmost district -Purulia - used to reverberate with the sounds of gunshots and bomb blasts. Fear shrouded and death stalked this once Maoist-infested district that is one of the most backward in the country. Excruciating poverty was passed off as the reason for the spread of red terror in Purulia. And saffron is the new hue to beat this poverty.
Today, even the remotest tribal hamlet of Purulia, where adivasis and Other Backward Castes (OBCs) are a decisive factor, has turned saffron and euphoric ‘Joi Shree Ram’ slogans have replaced ‘lal salaam’ and ‘Mao zindabad’.
Along the roads to these hamlets, where the state police and central forces once feared to tread, saffron flags with images of Lord Rama and Sita, and Hanuman, apart from BJP flags, flutter in the hot and dry winds blowing in from the Chotanagpur plateau. The Trinamool’s flags are there, too, but few and far between.
Purulia’s saffron turn is, perhaps, befitting of the region. According to legends, Lord Rama and Sita stayed for a few days in the forests here during their exile from Ayodhya. Ayodhya Hills, a major tourist attraction here, is said to be the place where they rested, when Sita complained of thirst. Lord Rama is said to have shot an arrow into the ground, and water gushed out to form a lake called Sitakund. This is a pilgrimage spot, especially for tribals of the region.
“Purulia, and the entire adivasi belt, finds many mentions in ancient Hindu texts and was part of Vajra-Bhumi. There are innumerable temples and shrines dedicated to many devis and devatas in this region. The adivasis are deeply reverential towards Lord Rama and Devi Sita,” says local historian Sukumar Mahato.
Poverty is the driving factor in Purulia. The Left, with its mere lip-service to alleviating poverty, failed miserably to improve the lot of the people. Or, if many are to be believed, deliberately kept the people wallowing in poverty. Agriculture, though the mainstay of the people here, is hardly remunerative. A number of monsoon-fed rivers, big and small, flow through Purulia, but they do nothing to improve agricultural productivity.
The percentage of arable land is declining in the district due to growing aridity. Purulia has some large industrial units, including steel, cement and power plants. But these do not contribute much to the local economy, apart from providing low-level employment to locals. A few small-scale lac and sericulture units are struggling to survive in the absence of state patronage, outdated technology and lack of marketing links.
“There is widespread agricultural distress here. Most farmers are marginal and farming is mostly subsistence. The poor, especially the adivasis who constitute about 30 per cent of Purulia’s population, survive on forest produce that earns them barely enough to put food on their plates once a day,” says Sunetra Singh, a social activist who runs an NGO for women’s empowerment in Purulia town.
Basudeb Banerjee, a former CPM leader who resigned from the party in the early 1990s, says that no development worth the name has taken place in Purulia over the past seven decades. “The plight of the people has remained the same and, if anything, the poor have become poorer,” he says.
Banerjee, 76, was a headmaster at a government school and, in his own words, quit the CPM in disgust once he realised that the party was interested only in staying on in power and not improving the plight of the people. “The CPM let down the poor very badly. Despite reposing faith in the Left in many elections (Purulia was the pocket borough of the Forward Bloc, a constituent of the Left Front), the people were betrayed by the Left. I realised that the Left wanted to keep people poor in order to retain and strengthen control over them,” said Banerjee.
Purulia was represented in the Lok Sabha for many consecutive terms from 1977 to 2014 by the Forward Bloc. Its big brother, the CPM, controlled the crucial gram panchayats, panchayat samitis and the zilla parishad, as well as the seven Assembly segments in this Lok Sabha constituency.
Banerjee says that Purulia’s “pathetic economy” survives on micro enterprises that yield barely subsistence incomes. Purulia’s economy, he remarks wryly, runs on “small change”.
“Locals, who are mostly unskilled and semi-skilled, find limited employment in the big industries that have come up here. And these units are not labour-intensive anyway. So, the large units’ only contribution to Purulia is industrial pollution. As for the small-scale sector, though sericulture and lac have a lot of potential, they have not been encouraged and developed. Agriculture does not yield enough and even though many schemes like ‘krishak bazars’ were launched with a lot of fanfare by the present Trinamool government, they have not been effective at all,” says Kalicharan Majumder, a teacher of economics at a government college in Purulia.
Majumder, who has authored a few research papers on the plight of adivasis, recounts their lives: “The adivasis survive on wild shrubs, tubers and forest yield. For many of them, selling firewood collected from the forests and tendu leaves is the only means of sustenance. Ant eggs are a delicacy for them. Their poverty is to be seen to be believed”.
The Left Front came to power in Bengal in 1977 on the promise of eliminating poverty. But for the Left, poverty was a slogan merely to come to power, and a means to cling on to it. Patahasai, a village near Sita Kund in Ayodhya Hills, is a case in point. Bansakanta Mahato, a village elder, says the plight of his family, and that of all others in the village, has remained unchanged over the past many decades.
“The food I used to have as a child in the 1940s, and what my father used to have when the British were the rulers, is quite the same as what my grandchildren and great grandchildren have even today,” says the 78-year-old.
The food he refers to is mostly a mix of some wild green leaves and boiled or roasted tubers, with some poor quality rice. That too once a day and in good days. Quite often, the villagers survive on puffed rice soaked in water - mostly non potable - with some jaggery. Eggs and meat are, to most, an unheard-of luxury.
Bansakanta's son Chatradhar has a few hens, but they too are so under-nourished that they barely lay eggs.
In Patahasai, as in hundreds of other villages in this constituency, diseases such as malaria, dysentery, cholera, tuberculosis and a plethora of other life-threatening ones - is common, and so is death. The mortality rate is very high and most die even of common ailments due to lack of proper and timely medical attention. Bansakanta had six sons and two daughters, and just three survive now. Over the past four decades, he has attended the cremations of four of his grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and two daughters-in-law.
“We were six brothers and one sister. My sister died when she was seventeen, one brother when he was 22, and two more before they reached 40,” he recalls. Which, in effect, means that the mortality rate here has remained unchanged since British rule. Most of these deaths were from communicable and common ailments, and a couple from snake-bites.
What has changed in Patahasai since Independence is the increase in the number of starvation deaths. “No government will admit it, but starvation deaths are common. Such deaths are passed off as deaths due to diseases, but those diseases are brought about by malnutrition and starvation. In the past, the villagers used to live comfortably off the lands and the forests. But with dwindling returns from agriculture, increasing aridity, various restrictions being imposed on entry into and collection of forest produce, and the entry of rapacious middlemen who exploit tribals and others and deny them a remunerative and fair price for their produce, poverty has increased,” says Majumder.
He contends that healthcare has improved and thanks to vaccination and other medical interventions, life expectancy has also gone up. “But while this has resulted in an increase in the population of the poor, their means have remained unchanged. Thus, poverty level amongst tribals, SCs, OBCs and other marginalised sections has actually increased with the rise in population and stagnation or even decrease in per capita earnings,” said Majumder.
The cruel irony here is that Purulia, like the other most-backward districts of the country, has been getting a lot of central as well as state funds for poverty alleviation, healthcare, heavily subsidised foodgrains, subsidies for agriculture and many freebies. But most of these funds have been blatantly and shamelessly siphoned off by politicians, bureaucrats and dalals (middlemen).
During the British days, there was barely any administrative apparatus or state intervention here and the people were left largely to themselves. After Independence, too, things remained largely the same. During Left rule, only the (ruling) party tightened its grip over the poor people of Purulia.
A large number of schemes were announced and allocations made both by the central and state governments, but little of the funds or benefits reached the poor. The (ruling) party and a small group of politicians became the largest beneficiaries of these schemes and welfare projects meant for the poor.
“The resultant abject poverty and deprivation of the people here provided the fertile ground for the entry of Maoists into Purulia from neighbouring Jharkhand and also Odisha. They (the Maoists) found ready recruits from among the angry and impoverished tribals and OBCs of Purulia and the neighbouring districts,” said Sanjukta Barui, a social activist. Barui has chronicled the spread, and ultimate elimination, of red terror in Purulia.
“The CPM leaders and workers at the ground level had become high-handed and rich, while their fellow-tribals or fellow-villagers remained poor. This triggered discontent and anger which the Maoists successfully tapped into. Thus, the numerous attacks on Left leaders and their killings by the marauding Maoists evoked a lot of public support and only increased the influence of the Maoists,” said Barui.
The sight of Maoists ransacking and razing ostentatious and garishly-coloured mansions of Left politicians standing out conspicuously and in stark contrast to mud huts, as if mocking them, still remains embedded in people’s collective memory.
The spread of red terror in Purulia since the late 1990s triggered a counter-resistance from armed Left militia and security forces. Killings and counter-killings became the order of the day and the adivasis and the poor were caught in the cross-fire. As human rights abuses piled up, as they inevitably would in such a scenario, the poor got further alienated and veered more strongly towards the Maoists.
The widespread anger against the Left, and the reign of red terror in Purulia, resulted in the utter rout of the Marxists in the 2011 Assembly polls and the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. But the joy of throwing out the Left, and the attendant hopes of the advent of a reign of prosperity that the Trinamool ignited, were cruelly short-lived.
“The Trinamool turned out to be worse than the Left. In the Left regime, corruption was not as widespread. And even though the Left politicians were arrogant and high-handed, they were not extortionists like the Trinamool netas. There is corruption everywhere and we all see how even lower-level functionaries of the Trinamool have become rich within a short span of time. This has obviously triggered a lot of anger against the Trinamool,” said Sukhen Mahapatra, a BJP functionary.
What has also happened at the ground level is the silent outreach by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and other Sangh Parivar affiliates over the past one decade.
“We have been working amongst the adivasis and the poor and marginalized very silently for many decades now and ever since the elimination of red terror from here, we stepped up our activities. That has helped and since it coincided with growing anger against the Trinamool, it has resulted in this outpouring of support for the BJP,” explained an RSS pracharak who did not want to be named.
Shanti Hembram, 55, a widow and a resident of Balarampur village in Jhalda-1 block, had applied for a house under the Prime Minister’s Awas Yojana in 2016, but local Trinamool leaders demanded 50 per cent of the amount. “I decided not to apply. What could I have done with just 50 per cent of the money? I depend on my widow pension and on selling some firewood and tendu leaves,” she said.
But she was shocked to learn two years later that money to build a house had been sanctioned in her name. The money was allegedly siphoned off by local Trinamool functionaries.
Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee loudly claims that her government has supplied rice at Rs 2 per kilo to lakhs of poor in Bengal. But in villages across Purulia, the poor and starving say that they pay up to Rs 20 for a kilo of rice.
“That is why we don’t have enough to eat. Had we actually received rice at such a low price, our stomachs would have been full and many amongst us would not be dying of starvation,” said Bimal Mahato, 48, a resident of Pathardih in Purulia’s Baghmundi block.
The outreach by the Sangh Parivar has also had a happy consequence. “People, especially the tribals and the SCs and OBCs, are returning to their roots. They have become religious,” said the RSS pracharak. “During the Left rule and the Maoist insurgency, we had become irreligious under their influence. That is why Devi punished us with such a lot of bloodshed and hardships. We had abandoned our faith. Some of us had converted to Christianity to get some petty material benefits. But many of them are now returning to the Hindu fold. And we hope that Devi will, at last, smile on us and take us out of our dark days,” says Shanti Hembram.
Shanti says her son, Basu, was lured into Christianity by a pastor who promised him a job and goodies. “He changed his name to a Christian one a few years ago. But the job never materialised and he was being constantly pressurised to lure other villagers into that faith. He was soon disillusioned and then re-converted to Hinduism. Now, he has a job in Jharkhand,” said Shanti. She hopes that the fate of Purulia’s long-suffering poor would also take a turn for the good since they have started worshipping their ancient deities again.
For the others, including the SCs, OBCs and the rest of the Hindu community (Hindus form over 80 per cent of the electorate), hooliganism of Trinamool cadres, the rampant extortion by the party’s functionaries, widespread corruption and the lack of any improvement in their plight has resulted in acute dislike for the Trinamool. The Trinamool, of course, denies all this.
“These are lies spread by the BJP. We have done a lot for Purulia, and the rest of the state. Look at the roads even in the remote areas. Hospitals have been set up and we shall get investments that will boost the economy of this region, and also provide employment to lots of people here. The BJP has nothing to offer, and so is playing the religious card here. But it won’t work,” said Parimal Mahato, a Trinamool leader.
The Trinamool has re-nominated Dr Mriganko Mahato, its sitting MP, from Purulia. But Mahato, an apolitical person who has little ground connect, suffers from anti-incumbency. He is not very popular and is widely accused of being an ineffective MP who has done nothing much for his constituency.
The BJP, on the other hand, has fielded Jyotirmoy Mahato. Jyotirmoy has been an RSS functionary and has worked for long in this region. He enjoys a good rapport with all sections of the people, and enjoys a clean image. A cross-section of Purulia’s electorate feel that it is time to give the BJP a chance.
Sanjukta Barui puts it succinctly: “The people of Purulia allowed themselves to be betrayed for 34 long years by the Left, and for the last eight years by the Trinamool. It is time now to give change a chance. The BJP is the only hope remaining for the people of Purulia now”.
This report is part of Swarajya's 50 Ground Stories Project - an attempt to throw light on issues and constituencies the old media largely refuses to engage. You can support this initiative by sponsoring as little as Rs 2,999. Click here for more details
Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.
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