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Murshidabad Starvation Deaths

Posted Online on Sunday 1, May 2005 02:45 IST


Murshidabad: Nature's fury, hunger, death, apathy

By Zafarul-Islam Khan

Published in the print edition of The Milli Gazette (1-15 May 2005)

Jalangi, Murshidabad: All the elements of a tragedy are present here along the western bank of River Padma which divides India and Bangladesh. Every inch of this Muslim majority area, which was earmarked for East Pakistan until the British changed the partition plan at the last minute in 1947, tells a tale of poverty, illiteracy, neglect, nature's fury and official India's apathy towards the downtrodden. The river in this area is slowly eating away lands of poor farmers for about a decade. Residents of the affected villages move to the lands along the river bank on the Indian side whenever life becomes intolerable under the onslaught of the river depriving the farmers of their only means of sustenance: agricultural lands. Not just villages here and there, the river has swallowed even the old town of Jalangi. The new town bearing the same name came up after the earlier one was eroded. Villagers in resettlement locations live under constant threat as the river keeps changing course which may be checked only if the western embankment is fortified.

During early days the authorities offered meagre grants and agricultural lands to the victims but started to look the other way as numbers of victims kept rising. According to victims, there are around 25,000 oustees who now live on private or government lands and are always threatened of eviction.

To reach this remote area we travelled to Kolkata, capital of West Bengal. The distance from Delhi to Kolkata was covered in 90 minutes by air but the onward 200-kms journey from Sealdah to Murshidabad took a whole day and we could reach Murshidabad only after sunset travelling in a slow passenger train. Sealdah's dirty and unkempt railway station in Kolkata will win the authorities a top prize any day.

Kolkata's broken roads, dirty pavements and old, gloomy buildings were a surprise for us, silently telling tales of neglect and slow destruction at the hands of CPIM which rules the state since June 1977. More surprises were in store when our train left Kolkata area. On both sides of the tracks you see greenery, farms, bamboo, palm, mango and banana groves amid ponds of all sizes. It appears that there is not an inch of barren land out there but the bamboo shanties on both sides of the tracks betray unbearable poverty. Cars and other modern amenities of life are conspicuously absent. There seems to be no industry in the area as we failed to see a single chimney all the way from Kolkata to Murshidabad, a journey which consumed over six hours. As a result, there are no jobs outside the agricultural sector. Even our passenger train seemed a novelty for villagers who stood and stared at the passing train. We saw "786" written on the fronts of many houses which meant the residents were Muslims as this figure equals the numeric value of the Arabic letters used in Bismillah.

More surprises were in store at Murshidabad, a historic city which for three centuries was the capital of about one third of India. Emerging out of the modest railway station we failed to see any car or taxi or even a three-wheeler. Only manual rickshaws lined up the road outside the station. We hired a rickshaw and told the puller to take us to a hotel. He took us from one "hotel" to another but we failed to be impressed by those stinking dormitories. Finally we found a slightly better option. We left our luggage there and went out to have a glimpse of the city at night. But there was hardly any attraction in the dimly lit streets of Murshidabad. Our rickshaw puller was a Muslim called Qutbuddin Shaikh who lives in the shanties near the railway station and earns around a hundred rupees at the end of the day. All his three sons are going to school as he does not want them to lead a similar life.

Murshidabad's narrow streets were almost empty. No cars were passing by. Most people were walking or using bicycles or rickshaws. A few were seen riding motorcycles. Next day we also saw a three-wheeler contraption running on Murshidabad roads. People's dresses, footwear, cheap bags all tell a story of neglect and deprivation. Mobile phone sets were conspicuously absent despite the availability of service, though erratic, while in a place like Delhi or Mumbai everyone will seem to be armed with this tiny electronic gadget. Faces too were sad, tense. You could even come across people, especially women, who were barefoot, half-naked. We came across young graduates who passed out years ago and still had no jobs. Whatever few jobs exist go to CPIM cadres and to comparatively prosperous majority community. CPIM trademark, hammer and sickle, is displayed everywhere, on walls, home fronts, shops declaring allegiance to the muscle power CPIM enjoys and uses on the ground. Moreover, the area seems cut off from the rest of the country because of over-emphasis on Bengali language. People do not speak Hindi or even English which is the second language in schools of the state.

We visited Dr Raza Ali Khan, a scion of the erstwhile nawabs. His house was modest by any standard and the entrance was used as a sitting room. He informed us that Murshidabad suffered many exoduses in the wake of the British takeover in 1757 after the defeat of Sirajud Daulah at Plassey. When the East India Company transferred the capital to Calcutta in 1773, people moved to the new capital and other places. Even Murshidabad nawabs started residing in Calcutta. The second big exodus came in 1947 when it was rumoured that this area will go to Pakistan. People went to Dhaka and Karachi in search of better pastures. Again when a scion of the Murshidabad nawab family, Iskander Mirza, became the governor general of Pakistan in 1955, more people rushed to Pakistan in search of jobs and better openings. Even those who stayed behind lost their agricultural lands in Rajshahi and Dhaka districts which went to East Pakistan. Dr Ali Raza Khan also told us about the Nizamat Deposit Fund of the Murshidabad nawabs who had deposited Rs 20 million in 1835 with government of India, a princely sum at the time, with the instructions that the interest should be used to help scions of the nawabs families in distress. The deposit passed to the control of the government of India after independence, but New Delhi does not give any grant to nawabs family members. Applications are supposed to be made through the district magistrate but he does not perform his duties. The nawabs had even built Nizamat College in Murshidabad. The British, however, said that the city did not require a college and demoted it to a high school which still exists! A hundred years later the city, once the capital of one-third of India, has no college of its own. Lord Clive had written about Murhsidabad in one of his reports to his superiors in the East India Company in London saying that Murshidabad is larger than London and boasts more rich people than London. This description would seem a sick joke today but if you visit the monuments which still stand in the ill-fated city you will confirm it entirely. One single monument, Hazarduari Palace (palace with a thousand doors) is enough to corroborate this. Katra Mosque, built by Murhsid Quli Khan, is another great monument in the midst of dozens which still exist, in addition to many other palaces, mosques, graveyards, arches which are ruins today but tell a sorrowful story about a glory lost and the neglect of the current rulers. We went about in Murshidabad and Behrampore bookshops looking for any book in English on Murshidabad but we failed. There were no books in English on the subject.

Official apathy is evident from the fact that the Murshidabad district headquarter is not located in Murshidabad itself but in the nearby city of Behrampore which boasts many colleges and even a modern university. Behrampore is a prosperous, rich Indian city while in comparison Murhidabad seems to be on the deathbed.

Plassey is a small town in the district of Murshidabad where the train stops for a few minutes. The Britihsers had won a decisive battle here in 1757 due to the treachery of Sirajud Daulah's army commander, Mir Ja'afar. Ruins of his palace still exist in Murshidabad. Local people call it "Namak-haram deorhi," palace of the traitor. Plassey changed the course of Indian history. The British installed Mir Ja’afr as nawab for a few years. Victory at Plassey opened the gates of India for the British traders to become rulers. 

Within half a century they marched into Delhi (1803) turning the Mughal emperor into a figurehead receiving his salary from the traders-turned-rulers. Murshidabad nawabs started copying the British in their life-style. This is evident from whatever is left in the palaces that still exist. Later nawabs even started wearing European clothes and headgear. Buildings built after the British domination betray European influence.

Next day we proceeded to Jalangi which has been witnessing starvation deaths. If the neglect and poverty of Murshidabad had surprised us, much more was in store on the way to Jalangi. The bus taking us to Jalangi seemed to be the only vehicle on the road which had almost no vehicular traffic except a few buses moving in both directions. Even motorcycles were rare. Thus we reached Jalangi on the Indo-Banglaesh borders. The present "Jalangi" is a resettlement town as the river had gulped the old Jalangi which now lies on the eastern bank of Padma. People told us that the old town had 900 houses, none of which stand today. It is rare here to come across a modern house built with steel and cement. Most houses are small shacks built with bamboo which cost around Rs 2000 and last for ten years on average. These light shacks which have no foundations or pillars are often swept away during floods and strong winds. We saw men, and sometimes women too, sitting under large bamboo canopies built outside shack clustres where people were taking rest or playing cards or simply chatting. We were told that these people have nothing else to do so they are just passing time. What are the jobs available here?, I asked. None, came the answer, except occasional agricultural work or some digging or filling ordered by the authorities implementing programmes to create work for the poor. I was told the whole of Jalangi area has no industry except a bidi factory which employs around 100 persons. 

You can see the river eroding lands, houses and graves along the coastline. We are told that the next season some of the houses on the edge of the coast will cease to exist. Jalangi's underground water is not potable as it contains dangerous levels of arsenic. The authorities have dug a few deep hand-pipes but these do not meet the demand. 

The visible sign of state authority here is the string of the border security force (BSF) outposts along the river and an office of the Indian customs department. This office auctions smuggled goods intercepted by the BSF. Though Bangladesh land is on the other side of the river, even on this side we saw border demarcation signs. From the Indian side you could see Talpatti in Bangladesh's Kushtia district across the river.

We started moving along the coast where displaced people have built shacks in a number of clusters bearing the names of their lost villages. Everywhere we went people came out to tell us identical stories of how they lost their lands and homes, how their loved ones are dying due to lack of enough food, how the able-bodied are deserting the villages and going to Delhi, Mumbai, Gujarat and other areas of West Bengal in search of jobs leaving behind their women, parents and children. We came acorss a number of villages which had no pucca roads, like Ghoshpara, Farzipara, Rajpara, Paraspur, Dayarampur, Ghauripur Bhanganpara, Schoolpara…The last two stand on government land given to the villagers when they moved here long ago but they are still to receive the Rs 5000 grant each family was promised as a help to build their houses.

People here have undergone similar experiences. The river changed course, devouring their houses and lands and they had no choice but to move to other areas. Some like Ayub Ali of Paraspur, say they changed their abodes three times during the last decade as a result of this problem. Their other problem is that the authorities are not issuing them below poverty line (BPL) ration cards which allow them to buy subsidised rice and entitle them to at least 100 days' work in a year. Even for those who are lucky enough to get BPL cards, rice is not always available in the ration shops and their wages are not paid in full. They are supposed to receive Rs 62 for ech day’s work but it is not paid to them in cash. They are supposed to receive five kgs of rice and Rs 32 in cash but this is not what they actually get days later. CPIM cadres deduct two rupees from each day’s cash wage and 300 grams from the ration as donation to party fund. People here have agitated for long against this injustice. They went to the local government offices and even refused to receive the stinking rotten rice which was kept in the silos in the same area but the authorities preferred not to distribute it in time.

Others find casual work in private farms for which they are paid Rs 20 for a full day's work. Even at such low wages they manage to get work only for 10-15 days in a month. Every household here has gone through starvation-like situation during recent months. Since last February many homes have lost men, women and children as a result of the scarcity of food. English-language newspapers seldom publish these developments but Bengali newspapers, like Anand Bazar Patrika, have regularly published these tragic developments which are a sad commentary on a communist government which claims to serve the poor and defend their rights. This government has not even made good its promises of offering land to the uprooted villagers when the tragedy started to unfold about a decade ago.

These people are so poor and illiterate that they cannot raise their voice in the face of an apathetic administration or reach the media and courts. A majority of the victims are Muslims although some are Hindus as well and live in the same villages side by side Muslims. One of them, who identified himself as Degen Parawanik of Dayarampur village which is worst-affected, told us that there are 692 persons in his village on the verge of death due to starvation. We also met a woman here whose father-in-law, called Alimuddin, had died due to starvation only two months ago. His wife too died a week later. The woman told us that her neighbours now give them food from time to time in the wake of the death of her father-in-law.

In Paraspur we came across a woman who was stitching a kind of quilt which she called 'katha-sila". She told us that she was making it for a man in another village. How much it takes to complete the quilt and what she will get in return, we asked. She told us that it takes her three months to complete the quilt and she will get Rs 200 for her pains. In the same village we find an almost blind old man who introduced himself as Sariat Mondal. He told us that he has the BPL card which entitles him to get two kilos of rice each week at the subsidised rate of Rs 3 per kg but the rice is not always available in the ration shop. People told us that their children go to school which is free and they get mid-day meal on every school day.

These villagers squatting on others' lands pay rent twice a year. The rent is calculated according to the area used. The rent in this area is Rs 2000 per bigha (one third of an acre) per year. Some people have erected their houses on both sides along the main road. 

There are a number of government schemes to help such people like BPL ration cards but most victims failed to get these cards. They told us that only around 20 percent people get these cards and they constitute the CPIM cadre, their friends and hangers-on. I asked them why they do not raise their voice against this injustice.. Who can oppose the party cadres, they replied, adding that these people are quick to take revenge by unleashing violence and stopping them from work.

In the meantime a PIL has been filed in the Supreme Court of India against the central ministry of food and the West Bengal government to force them to rehabilitate these victims and help them stand on their feet again. The PIL is expected to come up for hearing next week.

Source: The Milli Gazette, 1-15 May 2005 «

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