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India: Murshidabad’s Starving Masses

Jalangi lies 50 Km east of Bahrampore, the district headquarters of Murshidabad. Predominantly inhabited by Muslims and dalits, the area was earmarked for East Pakistan, before the British colonial rulers changed the partition plan at the last minute, in 1947. Today, Jalangi is a resettlement town on the banks of River Padma. Changing of the river course and massive erosion of its embankments has resulted in the original Jalangi town now being completely submerged in water. The bulk of the surrounding cultivated lands had turned into sand beds; homes have been devastated; and livelihoods and livestock, destroyed. 

Having travelled 250 odd Km to Jalangi, which took us almost eight hours, we visited several villages: Dayarampur, Dairepara, Ghoshpara, Farazipara, Hoggledaire, Muradpur, Noadpara, Gauipur, Bhangapara and Schoolpara. The desperation of these villages was unfathomable. While the River Padma had devoured virtually everything, the rapid erosion has displaced its inhabitants leaving them with little option but to beg or toil as agricultural labourers to feed their families. If they were fortunate enough they managed one meal a day; if not, they simply starved.  Majority of village children suffered from night blindness due to a lack of vitamin A and Reports indicated several people had died of starvation.

Desperation of an aging villager

Ayub Ali of Paraspur and Mohammad Zazir of Dakshin Ghoshpara told us that they were compelled to move three times in the last decade while Ummat Ali Shah and Sanajeev Karmakar’s father had died of broken hearts—being unable to cope with the shock of losing everything. Shamsher Shiekh of Dayarampur who had been a prosperous farmer had become a pauper.

 

The CPI(M) controlled Gram Panchayat (village council) seems to have a monopoly over this desperate situation.  Incidents of death due to hunger go largely unreported because villagers are threatened and coerced into silence. Villagers also told us how CPI(M) functionaries in the Gram Panchayat were busying themselves shamelessly appropriating most of the relief materials meant for river-erosion victims. In a desperate bid to survive, villagers were forced into toiling in other peoples’ lands for a pittance, begging or joining in the rampant cross-border smuggling. In 2005, under the National food for Work Programme [NFFWP], the CPI(M) functionaries devised ingenious methods of extortion from poor villagers. For instance, they demanded as levy for party funds, two rupees for every Rs. 32 earned as a day’s wage and 300 grams of rice for every 7 kilograms received.

Actually, it seemed the CPI (M) MLA, the police, the Border Security Forces [BSF], Customs and other officials colluded with each other in the extortion and smuggling rackets as well as other crimes.

Reports also illustrate the severe shortage of food and the desperate measures taken by the people to survive. More than 600 families have been forced into abject poverty and are facing starvation. The situation is so bad that teenage girl of poverty stricken families have been forced to marry men from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan. The ‘dalaals’ (women agent/pimps) are engaged in a brisk trade of finding brides for the ‘Ghataks’ (matchmakers) to enter into fake marriages paying between Rs.20, 000 to Rs. 30,000. It is said that the male ‘dalaals’ have performed scores of fakes marriages and sell them to those who operate in the red-light districts of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and even Arab countries, where they work either as maids or sex-slaves.

Despite this untold suffering and devastation, one Gopen Sharma—also known as Gopen da—has become a cry in the wilderness. He has stood firmly against BSF and police atrocities in Jalangi, opposed smuggling and rampant corruption, mobilized victims of starvation and demonstrated before the Block Development Official (BDO), the Murshidabad District Magistrate (DM), the Governor and UNICEF offices. But this naturally earned him the wrath of the authorities who instigated the police to fabricate a case against him and his absence arrested his mother and younger brother.

The following stories depict the untold pain and suffering of the people of Jalangi who are confronted with the atrocities of the BSF and the police, the violence and exploitation of the smugglers and the functionaries of the CPI(M) who are allegedly in league with criminal gangs. These are the voices of the voiceless, the starving poor of India—the land of plenty and largest democracy in the world.

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