Tero Ghoria, West Bengal: Sixty-year-old Phelibala Haldar of Tero Ghoria village in an Indian enclave in Bangladesh hasn’t been keeping well for the past few days. Yet, she crossed two canals and walked 7km to cast her vote at a booth in mainland India.
It’s a big day at the Tero Ghoria village, which is connected to India by a canal and is bound on three sides by Bangladesh. People are excited and almost all the 42 voters from this 17-acre enclave voted on Wednesday.
“It doesn’t matter that I am not feeling well… I must vote. It’s the only way to establish that I am an Indian,” says Haldar. Countless others nod in agreement as a country boat ferries them to “India”.
The mango orchards behind Haldar’s humble dwelling in which her grandchildren play or the grounds on which her cows graze are in Bangladesh. Even the doctor whom she called Tuesday evening is from a neighbouring village in Bangladesh.
Big day: Residents of Tero Ghoria and Dui Ghoria, Indian enclaves in Bangladesh near the Haridaspur border outpost in West Bengal, on their way to mainland India to cast their votes. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
“He isn’t a doctor really, but what to do? The state hospital in Bongaon (in North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal) is some 10km away. It’s impossible to get there at night,” says Haldar, who, to put it simply, lives in Bangladesh but prides herself on being an Indian.
Enclaves are territories that are bound on all sides by a foreign country. There are at least 100 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and some 90-odd Bangladeshi enclaves in India, which came into being at the time of Partition.
Most of them are in Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri districts of West Bengal, but there are a few in North 24 Parganas district as well around 100km from Kolkata. Since 1974, New Delhi and Dhaka have been weighing options on exchanging the enclaves but nothing has materialized yet.
Though not inaccessible, most of these enclaves have little or no civic infrastructure. Tero Ghoria, for instance, has no electricity, whereas in the neighbouring Gaitipara village in Bangladesh, every home has electricity and even streets are well lit. Tero Ghoria has no school, so children have to walk for almost an hour to reach a primary school in Phirozepur in mainland India. Because the nearest high school is farther away, almost no one from Tero Ghoria has ever gone beyond class IV.
Polling cannot take place in the enclaves such as Tero Ghoria because there are no government buildings there, explained an Election Commission official. He did not want to be named because he isn’t authorized to speak to the media.
“For almost all our daily needs we are dependent on stores in Gaitipara… Almost everything except meat products are more expensive (in Bangladesh), but the nearest store in India is more than 7km away,” says Dulal Haldar, a construction worker who sacrificed a day’s wage of Rs60 to cast his vote.
“The rice in India is a lot cheaper, so we try get as much rice as possible from Phirozepur. Almost everything else we buy locally,” says Dipankar Haldar, a local.
Bangladesh Rifles, or BDR, personnel allow the people of Tero Ghoria free access into Bangladesh. In return, they use the lone tubewell in the Indian enclave inhabited by some 13 families. But relations between the BDR and Indian families are not as friendly at other enclaves. At many enclaves, movement is restricted, and people are allowed to cross over to India only at predetermined hours.
“The international border has not been fenced here because during the monsoons, the whole area gets flooded, and then it’s impossible to determine where India ends and Bangladesh starts,” says Manoj Yadav, inspector general of Border Security Force.
Also if the international border was fenced with barbed wire, Tero Ghoria would become completely inaccessible from India, according to locals.
Bread-earners in the enclave are mostly agricultural labourers. They work mostly in India, but at times, get jobs on the other side of the border as well. Some of them also trade in Indians goods such as rice and livestock. Yet others facilitate illegal cross border trade in livestock because trespassing into Bangladesh is easy here.
Neither the ruling Left Front nor the Trinamool Congress—West Bengal’s main opposition party—has campaigned in Tero Ghoria ahead of the elections.
“They (political parties) didn’t come here this time because they don’t really care for our votes. But at the time of the panchayat (or village council) elections last year, they (political parties) had hired rickshaws to ferry us to the polling booth because in the panchayat elections, every vote counts,” says Paritosh Haldar.
People in the enclave, however, have stopped complaining about the lack of development. They have given up.
“There’s no point...nothing will ever change,” says Paritosh. “Yet, we vote in every election because it reminds us that we are Indians.”