‘Maoist sympathiser’ turned MLA shows the way to locals

In a West Medinipur village, the local politician puts his MLA local area development fund to pump water, show the future to poor children

pujab

Puja Bhattacharjee | April 13, 2013


Children at the school run by local MLA Srikanto Mahato in Bhimpore, Salboni.
Children at the school run by local MLA Srikanto Mahato in Bhimpore, Salboni.

In large swathes of land across India, few men are more powerful than an elected public representative, and fewer still are as essential for development as such men and women on a mission to usher in change.

Acting on a tip off about a solar powered pump installed by local MLA Srikanto Mahato for the benefit of farmers, I went to Bhimpore village in Salboni block of West Medinipur district on a blistering March afternoon. But it was a welcome surprise to witness more than just the solar panels.

Mahato is locally known to be a benefactor of the poor and is actively involved in social activities at the grassroots level.  Rumour in the locality has it that he was a Maoist sympathiser and later joined ranks with the Trinamool Congress. In the summer of 2011, as the Trinamool wave unleashed by Mamata Banerjee unseated the 34-year of Left Front regime, Mahato won the Salboni seat on a Trinamool ticket.

The purpose of my journey was to sift through the conflicting opinions and rumours, and to find out more about the local MLA. Mahato himself was elusive due to his packed schedule but I was told by locals to go to a residential school for destitute children he runs to get all the necessary information.

The school is a one-storey building, with some classes held in the open under tarpaulin tents. The headmaster, Jagadish Mahato, who has known Mahato since childhood and was his senior in school, said both of them were out of work after finishing college. It was then that Mahato, who Jagadish said always had a knack for social service, decided to open a residential school for destitute children.

Opened in 1998, the school began with 14 students with donations collected from locals — it still runs on donations, now sourced from Mahato’s “contacts” as the local MLA.

“We enrol students who have dropped out of formal education due to financial constraints, or are being used by their families to generate income or have stopped going to school,” Jagadish said.  He said they trace such children through local contacts.

While the school teaches up to class VIII, students are sent to mainstream schools after that. Locals said Mahato also organises an eye camps each year in collaboration with an eye hospital based in Chaitanyapur for villagers to get their cataract operated free of cost.

Mixed feelings for ‘Good Samaritan’
Mahato was the panchayat pradhan of Bhimpore before winning the 2011 assembly elections, and Jagadish claimed a lot of development work was done for the village during his friend’s tenure as the pradhan.

But a local, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said while Mahato was earlier “indeed an ideal leader” he has become “indifferent” since he became a MLA.

On the fields, where the solar-powered pump has been installed by Mahato with his MLAs’ local area development fund, one of the two farmers drawing water said the pump has not been of much use since water pressure is inadequate for cultivation across vast areas. “It is suitable for a bigha or two. We had requested our MLA to install an electric submersible, which would have been more useful. He said, ‘Let me see what I can do’,” the farmer said.

For now, he said, the locals are managing with the solar pump and generator-powered pumps taken on rent. He explained that the solar pump functions moderately from 9.30 am to 3.30 pm, when the sunlight is strong. After that, it gradually peters out.

Back at the school, the atmosphere seemed strangely calm. As I peered inside the dormitory adjacent to the school building, I saw the younger children enjoying their afternoon nap, while classes were on for the older children.

As I bid farewell to the staff, I could not help being overwhelmed by a feeling of incompleteness at not having met the man himself. I had the distinct feeling that this unfinished business is going to annoy me for some time to come.

(Puja was stationed at Salboni, in West Medinipur district of West Bengal, for six months, till March 31, as part of a rural reporting project of Governance Now and ANSA-SAR. This story was done in late March.)

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