Lalgarh (West Bengal): Madan Sardar gave his two sons, Sanjoy and Pradip, the best education to be had in a small village in West Bengal’s West Midnapore district, and wanted them to eventually move to a big city, preferably Kolkata, and study more.
Sardar, who has always had links with ultra-Left political outfits and is now an activist with the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA)—a radical political group backed by the Maoists that has seized administrative control of a large area in West Midnapore district— didn’t initially want his sons to get involved in politics.
But after completing school, Sanjoy and Pradip, 19 and 16, respectively, have decided that they are going to join the “guerrilla movement” of the Maoists. “Very soon, their training will begin at a camp deep inside the forest,” says Sardar, who was initially unwilling to let his sons go, but eventually gave in to their wish. “Even my sons now believe that the only way to bring about reforms is through armed struggle.”
Simple needs: Tribals Panmani Murmu, Sombari Murmu and Kalpana Hasda sort sal leaves in Chotopelia village, Lalgarh. Imposition of restrictions by the administration on exploitation of forest resources has also led to the alienation of tribals, who largely landless, unskilled and lack capital to run businesses. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
The crisis in Lalgarh, where the Sardars live, intensified in November after the Maoists tried to blow up with landmines a convoy carrying West Bengal’s chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, and then Union steel minister Ram Vilas Paswan.
The police detained and allegedly tortured several tribals on suspicion of harbouring Maoists, following which the tribals fought back by driving the police out of Lalgarh. The administration has since not been able to regain control of the area, which is now under the administration of PCPA.
Maoists are fast making inroads into tribal areas in West Bengal’s West Midnapore, Purulia and Bankura districts, where agricultural yield is low, poverty is high and the state government has done little to develop basic infrastructure. Even drinking water in these districts is scarce, say locals.
Under a directive issued by the Union government in 2005, state governments are required to put aside at least 28% of their funds for being spent in backward areas. But in West Bengal, “no department except forests” has been following the directive, according to Jogesh Barman, the state’s minister for welfare of backward classes.
“My department gets around Rs300 crore a year for being spent on backward areas, but if other departments also spent 28% of their funds on these areas, we could have done a lot of things,” adds Barman.
The two key departments of food and health, for instance, should have together spent at least Rs675 crore on helping backward people over the past four years, show budget documents of the West Bengal government, but officials admit almost nothing has been done. On paper, though, most departments comply with the Union government’s directive.
“Is it possible to separate funds for tribals? Is there any tribals-only hospital in the state? So, what could we do? We had no option but to divert funds to hospitals and medical colleges in Kolkata and other towns,” says P.K. Mohanty, joint director of the directorate of health services.
Years of neglect have resulted in people in tribal areas losing confidence in the state government, according to Abhirup Sarkar, a professor of economics at Kolkata’s Indian Statistical Institute (ISI).
“Till 2006, the Left Front had a huge support base among tribals. But since then, its support base among the tribals has vastly eroded,” says Sarkar. “One reason for this alienation is deprivation, and the other, I think, is restrictions imposed by the administration on exploitation of forest resources. These people are largely landless, have no skill or capital to run businesses, and were completely dependent on forests for livelihoods.”
An ongoing study at ISI shows there are at least 1.8 million poor people—or people below the poverty line—in Midnapore alone (the data for the study was gathered before the Midnapore district was split into two).
In Bankura and Purulia districts, which are not as populous as Midnapore, fewer people are poor, but in these two districts as well, rural poverty is as high as 28.5% and 31%, respectively, of the total population, according to Buddhadeb Ghosh, professor of economics at ISI.
In West Bengal, 16.9 million people, or about 28% of the state’s rural population, are poor.
But deprivation and poverty alone didn’t lead to the Maoists gaining a hold on these districts, says Sarkar. “Tribals in north Bengal, too, face similar problems, but they haven’t raised arms against the establishment. The Maoists managed to make inroads into West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia districts because of their proximity to the Maoist belt in Orissa, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh,” he adds.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist), which along with its allies has ruled in West Bengal for 32 years, has after its recent debacle in the general election realized that the state government hasn’t been doing enough in backward areas.
In a recent interview with Mint, West Bengal’s commerce and industries minister and the No. 2 man in the state cabinet, Nirupam Sen, said, “The state government must address certain issues more sensitively, particularly issues facing the tribals, the poor and backward people. In our state, about 50% of the people are backward. We have to understand how best the state government could intervene and help backward people.”