Nayagram (West Bengal): After walking almost 30km along rutted roads since the morning, middle-aged Bonchu Nayek returns to his humble home, a two-room hut, as darkness descends on Nayagram—one of West Bengal’s poorest villages—with his day’s earning of Rs10.
Nayek, whose forefathers were hunters, belongs to the Lodha-Sabar tribe. With people of his tribe now clamouring for firewood, he turned a snail gatherer. He has sold half the snails he gathered—about 2kg for Rs10—and kept the rest to cook at home.
Like other people of his tribe, his wife Parul gathers firewood, which she sells at a market one hour away.
Sales were good, and Parul managed to earn enough money to buy 2kg of rice, a little bit of salt and 100ml of kerosene—the ration on which this family of eight people must survive for weeks.
One meal a day—rice and a pinch of salt—is what the Nayeks normally eat. Government-provided cut-price foodgrains don’t reach them. So, with food prices rocketing, children are being refused the extra helping at the end of meals.
Almost the entire community is below the poverty line, according to Abhirup Sarkar, a professor of economics at Kolkata’s Indian Statistical Institute (ISI).
To contain hunger, people here drink a strong brew of CTC (crush, tear, curl) tea laced with a little bit of salt, says Parul Nayek, cradling her five-year-old daughter. Her protruding tummy and that of the other children in Nayagram threaten to burn a hole into the state government’s claims on poverty alleviation.
To be sure, the state government admits in its latest unpublished reports, which were reviewed by Mint, that more than half the children here are malnourished, and that at least 80% of the people do not eat more than one meal a day.
It couldn’t be better. At least 4,300 people in Nayagram and the adjoining areas are dependent entirely on firewood gathering, according to officials at the local block development office, who do not want to be named.
Though some 7,000 people in Nayagram have so-called job cards, which entitle them to 100 days of work a year under the Centre’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, officials say they could provide jobs for only up to 10 days per person in the year till March.
A glance at the two nearby ponds reveals that the administration didn’t really bother to create jobs—one has turned into a grazing ground, and the other into a shallow pool of muck where people wash themselves before returning home. The only source of drinking water is a well at least 3km away.
Typically, under the rural employment guarantee scheme, such ponds are excavated and used for rainwater harvesting. Elsewhere in the state, it’s hard to find such rundown water bodies.
Extreme poverty and clamour for firewood have forced some people in Nayagram into extreme occupations. One such is gathering kolmipoka, an insect with medicinal value.
Upen Vokhta, 60, works for hours every day and manages to collect about 50gm of the insect a day. Contact with skin causes extreme irritation, but Vokhta doesn’t mind because 1kg of kolmipoka sells for Rs1,000.
In fiscal 2011, the state government allocated Rs60 crore for the Paschimanchal Unnayan Parishad, a body created for the uplift of backward communities in the western parts of the state.
But it drew only Rs45 crore from the state exchequer, according to an official of the finance department, who did not want to be identified.
“Some Rs47 crore is lying unclaimed from previous years,” he says. Earlier, the state would allocate smaller amounts— Rs10-12 crore a year—but even that would never be spent.
The funds released in fiscal 2011 were to be used in five districts—West Midnapore, Bankura, Purulia, Birbhum and Burdwan—to create civic infrastructure and jobs through animal husbandry, according to the finance department official.
Healthcare has for years been neglected. Nayagram’s nearest hospital is 12km away, and has only 10 beds serving at least 100,000 people. The West Midnapore district as a whole has a bed-population ratio of 1:3,651, far below the national norm of 1:1,000, according to official data.
“Nayagram hasn’t benefited from any state government initiative,” says Vokhta. “We live our lives in our way. For us, the state hardly exists.”
Yet, people in Nayagram have been voting for the Left Front year after year, largely because opposition parties hardly had any say. Until lately, panchayat, or village council elections in these areas were won by the Left Front uncontested.
“It isn’t true that the state government hasn’t done anything here,” says Dahareswar Sen, a veteran Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, leader from this area. “It’s the more influential Mahato community (or the peasants) which benefits from the state’s development activities.”
Literacy among the tribal people is low—around 50%, according to Sen. “They can’t pressure the administration to distribute the benefits more evenly,” says Sen.
Though the CPM’s candidate from this constituency, Bhutnath Soren, had won in 2006 by some 24,000 votes, he appreciates this time it’s going to be “little more difficult, but that’s largely because of the anti-incumbency wave”.
The Trinamool Congress, the state’s main opposition party, has fielded a tribal, Dulal Murmu, who is promising a power connection to each home and rapid expansion of civic infrastructure, to shore up support for himself.
“We have driven the CPM out of East Midnapore,” says Shishir Adhikari, a Trinamool Congress leader and a member of Parliament, “and this time we’ll do so from West Midnapore as well.”
The issues, though, are different. In East Midnapore, the Trinamool Congress made inroads by opposing the state government’s proposed land acquisition drive for the chemical hub project in Nandigram.
“Non-inclusion of these people is at such an extreme that I don’t think they believe in any promise at all,” said ISI’s Sarkar. “And even if the Trinamool Congress is voted to power, it may not be easy for it to improve things for these people immediately.”