The contradictions of Salboni: big-ticket investment and wide spread poverty

The residents of the villages in Salboni block of West Bengal’s West Medinipur district live in great poverty, with very little governance reaching them even as a mammoth steel plant, owned by the Jindal group, entered the state’s record books as the biggest investment till date

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Puja Bhattacharjee | October 15, 2012


Rows of huts in Khoirasol village in Salboni block of West Medinipur district of West Bengal
Rows of huts in Khoirasol village in Salboni block of West Medinipur district of West Bengal

As my train, the Aranyak Express, thunders past the plains of South Bengal, I catch fleeting glimpses of the paddy fields, small towns and numerous stations on the way to my destination — West Medinipur district. The train chugs into the station a little while after. Even as I get off the train and on to the narrow but long platform, I find myself a part of a motley crowd of travelers and fixtures — there are students, beggars, hawkers and workers.

West Medinipur reminds one of the old localities of North Kolkata with its small corner shops selling stationary and fast food. Cycle rickshaws are the main mode of transport for local travel. One may catch a bus for travelling longer distances. Midnapore’s has a rich association with the Indian freedom movement — revolutionary martyrs Khudiram Bose and Matangini Hazra hailed from the undivided Midnapore district. The Swadeshi movement also has its roots here. After partition, the district was all but forgotten in rapidly urbanising India. In the recent years, however, it shot back into limelight but for all the wrong reasons. It is now part of India’s infamous Red Corridor — the stronghold of the Maoists. In 2008, the district made it to the newspapers after an assassination attempt on the then chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and union steel minister Ram Vilas Paswan as they were returning from the stone-laying ceremony of a mega steel plant of Jindal South West (JSW) in Salboni block. Violence has come down in the region since 2011, but the fear that it may break out at the earliest chance lives large in the minds of the locals. The contradiction within Salboni is that its JSW plant, with a production capacity of 10 million tonne per year, is the largest investment made in West Bengal. Some believe that such investments could change the fortunes of the Bengal economy, which is stuck in a bygone era. 

Salboni is one of the twenty-nine blocks of the district. It has 409 villages and 10 gram panchayats.

Salboni derives its name from the sal forests which covers much of its area. It is a plain land with red alluvial soil. Twenty-three villages which are on the fringes of the Jindal South West (JSW) boundary wall come under their CSR activity which includes health camps, de-worming, immunization etc.

The villagers are mainly dependent on collecting sal leaves, wood and agriculture for livelihood. Ever since the steel plant construction has begun, there are a lot of expectations from the Jindal group — that the company will do something for the villages. Most villages don’t have proper toilets and the villagers resort to open defecation.

This correspondent has chosen three villages for reportage. They are:

Khoirasol village 

Located on a fringe of the JSW compound, Khoirasol is a village of only 11 households most of which have been classified as living below the poverty line (BPL). 

The people were not really forthcoming with replies to queries like ‘Do the children go to school?’ ‘Is there a proper toilet?’ ‘Is there an ASHA?’ The women were too shy to speak and I was met with a standard “I don’t know” to most of the questions I asked. The men were more eager to reply. Even though they answered my questions, I could sense an apprehension among them. The prolonged hostility between the government and the Maoists is one of the reasons why the villagers are wary of strangers.

However, once the ice was broken, Sanatan Tudu, one of the locals, told me that the condition of the roads in his village was pretty bad which are at their worst during the monsoons. JSW has installed a tubewell which has made access to drinking water easy for the families. Previously, they had to depend on wells which dried up very quickly. “Once they ran dry, we had to walk long stretches to fetch water,” Tudu said.

Employment opportunities are limited both in scope and number. Sometimes, some of the villagers find some labour work in the nearby areas. Premchand Hembram, another Khoirasol resident, said that the agricultural yield (paddy is the major crop in the village) is only for subsistence, too low to even attempt selling. Both Tudu and Hembram have BPL cards enabling them to buy subsidised food grains through the public distribution system. They said that they are satisfied with the ration disbursal and have no complaints. Institutional delivery, however, is conspicuous by its near absence. The villagers have little information of government programmes like the accredited social health activist (ASHA) scheme or the Janani Suraksha Yojana. Some of the villagers have the solar panels they got a decade ago from the government, all of which are in a state of disrepair. With the roads in a pitiable condition, the only mode of transport is bicycles. There is neither a dispensary nor a health sub-centre in the village.

Nandaria village

Nandaria village is comparatively better off. It comprises 130 households and is under the Bakibandh panchayat. Around 70 percent of the population is literate. Agriculture and labour work are the main occupations of the people. Barring a few, most houses have access to electricity. The relatively well off have access to toilets and drinking water. The village has a primary and higher secondary school. The mid-day meal scheme is functional in the primary school. 

The national rural employment guarantee scheme (NREGS) has been functional but not for more than few days. None of the beneficiaries have got the guaranteed 100 days of work.

Sumitra Mahato, a 65-year-old woman from the village, said, “My previous house was destroyed by torrential rainfall three years ago. I was promised a new house under IAY. But nothing has come of it yet.” Her son, Uttam Mahato, works as a labourer and tills the family’s land. “The yield is too less to be sold,” he said. His wife works in the primary school as a cook for the mid day meal scheme and earns Rs 250 per month. Both Mahato and his wife have received basic education. Mahato says on days work is available he gets Rs 100 a day.

Sumitra receives a widow pension of Rs 400 per month from the government. “The pension collection is not always smooth. At times, I have to make several rounds,” she rued.

The Mahatos are dissatisfied with the PDS as well. “We are a family of five people. We are entitled to 8.5 kilos of rice. Instead, we get only 4 kilos,” said Uttam. The ration does not suffice. During the agricultural season from November to April, they make do with the cultivated paddy. “It is a struggle with inadequate rations for the rest of the year,” said Sumitra.

Drinking water is a problem as well. The village well has water only during the monsoons.  Every other season, the villagers who don’t have their own wells or tube wells, walk half a kilometre to get water from a tap. As Nandaria is located near the highway, commuting is not a problem and the roads are in decent shape. The monthly income of the Mahatos is around Rs 1,000.

Chobi Mahato (unrelated to Sumitra’s family) is an ASHA for the villages of Nandaria, Rajbandh and Brindapur. She attends to 170 households in all. Almost all deliveries in Nandaria are institutional. Despite the service she renders, Chobi says her dues (from the institutional deliveries) have not been cleared for the past six months.

Her husband Lakhipada Mahato informs that once the panchayat had told all the farmers that they will be given seeds at a subsidised rate but later backtracked saying that the seeds had rotted. According to him the panchayat administration is still CPM but all the work is overseen by Trinamool workers. “It is all about favouritism. We were CPM supporters for a long time. Right now, the Trinamool supporters are reaping the benefits,” he said. “I am waiting for the panchayat elections to change camp. We have to be with the majority in order to benefit,” he added.

Sayedpur village

The village is located on the national highway 60 and is divided into two colonies. The Muslims inhabit the larger colony which comprises 16 houses. The rest is occupied by Mudi (a scheduled tribe) households. Upon entering the Muslim colony, one sees a narrow canal by the path that leads to the village. Children can be seen sitting on the stone steps of the canal with fishing lines in hand. This canal is used by the villagers for bathing and washing purposes. “We don’t have a well. So, we use this canal for bathing and washing. Recently, the waste from the sewers of some of the affluent houses around us has started flowing into the canal,” said Asma Bibi, a resident of the villager.

A tap is the only source of drinking water that is available for two hours daily, in the morning and evening. This is a huge inconvenience as large quantities of water are needed for drinking and household purposes. In the winter, when the canal dries up, the tap is the only source of water. “There are daily squabbles for water then,” informed Rozina Khatun. The residents have to pay Rs 30 per family for the tap. A few drinking water lines are open without any taps large quantities of water being wasted.

Each family had paid Rs 300 to the panchayat which promised to build a toilet for every house within three months. “It has been six months now. Neither have they built the toilet nor have they returned our money,” rued Asma Bibi. Asma is the village mid-wife. Her husband is a daily labourer but has stopped working recently due to the development of a tumour on his neck. She had taken her husband, Sheikh Amiruddin, to the Midnapore hospital from where he was referred to Spandan, a private clinic. “We can’t afford private treatment,” said Amiruddin.

All houses have electricity but there are problems that take the sheen of the power connections. “They (the electricity distribution firm) don’t send our bills for months and then suddenly one day they would ask us to make payments for six months. How can we afford that kind of money?” Khatun asked.

The people are not happy with the ration they get. “We get only rice and wheat and sometimes sugar. The rest we have to but from the market,” informed Bibi.

The village has a primary school with midday meal. The children of conservative families are sent to madrasa (Islamic schools for religious teaching). For health check-ups, immunisation and other medical facilities the people go to Hatimari sub-centre or the JSW medical center.

Crossing the Muslim locality and entering the Mudi part of the village,the first thing one notices is a well and a tap. The part of the village is comparatively cleaner. Tuberculosis is a common disease in the village, among both the communities. 

Employment is scarce, even NREGS work is hard to come by. The villagers say that there has been no NREGS work allotted in the past one year. The villagers show their ‘job cards’ pointing out that there has been no entry in the corresponding time period.

Most families in Sayedpur don’t have land of their won and work as daily-wage agricultural labourers. Most deliveries in Sayedpur are institutional although the village doesn’t have an ASHA. Most of the population is illiterate.

Most deliveries are institutional although Sayedpur does not have an ASHA. Majority of the population are illiterate barring the older residents.

 

 

 

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