Char Jatra Siddhi, West Bengal: Inhabitants of this almost forgotten riverine island, created by the shifting course of the Adi Ganga river, have not voted in any election since 1981. Worse still, the 1,500-odd people of Char Jatra Siddhi, most of whom had migrated from Bihar generations ago, didn’t even have an official document to prove they were Indian.
But thanks to the 2009 national elections, the fortunes of Char Jatra Siddhi, which has no road or electricity, could change.
New-found identity: Residents of the Char Jatra Siddhi island look for their names in the voters list. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
In 1985, this 24 sq. km island was carved out of Hooghly district and included in Nadia district across the Adi Ganga river, much against the wishes of its inhabitants, who feared they couldn’t cope with the change of address.
“Ration shops, offices (of the district administration), hospitals…everything was across the river. But now even the nearest ration shop is 14 miles (22.5 km) away. Is it possible to cope with this at this age?” asks 89-year old Rampati Mahato, whose grandfather was among the first few to move from Bihar and settle on this island.
The people of Char Jatra Siddhi didn’t realize what their protests would lead to. The administration of both Hooghly and Nadia districts disowned them, and they were not allowed to vote in the state assembly election in 1985. “Our names were removed from the electoral rolls in 1985, and since then no political leader has ever visited us,” says Phulmoni Mahato, who ferries people across the 50ft-wide Adi Ganga river in a country boat.
Chars are shifting land masses created by the changing course of rivers and oceanic currents. They are common in eastern India in states such as Assam and West Bengal, but are hardly found anywhere else in the country. Because they shift and get bigger with time, chars have traditionally been badly managed.
For the past 23 years or so, people of Char Jatra Siddhi were completely forgotten by the state government. It was as it is they didn’t exist though census 2001 did account for them. And because they had no so-called “proof of residence”, their woes mounted with time.
“People from outside the island wouldn’t marry our daughters,” says Ramkushi Mahato, whose daughter Seema is perhaps the only woman on the island who has graduated from a college. Though Ramkushi was ready to pay a “significant sum” in dowry, several alliances have fallen through because the men wouldn’t risk marrying women who “can’t even prove they are Indians”.
The young men on this island aren’t better off. Many of them have applied for jobs in the cities, but have not been hired because they couldn’t offer any proof of residence, according to Shiv Shankar Mahato, who was offered employment by a security agency but was later told he couldn’t be hired because he had no “official document”.
Now, at last, things are likely to look up. Thanks to the Election Commission’s initiative, the people of Char Jatra Siddhi have been included in the electoral rolls, and after 28 years they are going to vote again.
The chief electoral officer of the state, Debasish Sen, visited the island last week to personally verify the names included in the electoral rolls, and has promised to issue photo identity cards to each of the 1,452 people found eligible. Because the state government has finally been able to decide which district the island belongs to through satellite imaging, the Election Commission could include their names in the electoral rolls, Sen said.
But no political leader has yet reached the island to campaign. And the people at Char Jatra Siddhi, don’t seem to care either. Asked if they had heard about the unrest in Singur and Nandigram, where locals protested the state government’s bid to acquire farmland for industrial projects, people look lost.
“Most of us don’t even know which parties are contesting in the elections…but we will vote for any party that changes the condition of this island,” says Phulmoni Mahato.