Monday, 15 June 2015

Wandering in West Bengal

In early 2015, Video Volunteers got an opportunity to explore the feasibility of working in West Bengal. The ecstatic euphoria of finally getting a chance to explore my motherland almost drowned in the agonizing amount of research and data crunching I had to do in my attempt to understand and contextualize key issues, organizations and movements across the state we believed we ought to work with.

The data was baffling – West Bengal boasts of being the sixth largest economy in the country, and the state’s power infrastructure and roads and railways network is top notch as compared to the rest of the country. Despite having literacy rates higher than the national average, over 30% of the youth in Bengal remained unemployed in 2012-2013. 47 million unemployed young people. This was the same year the state recorded the highest rates of violence against women in the country. Savage destruction of fragile ecologies of the Sundarbans and the Northern Himalaya, rampant pollution caused by illegal stone quarrying, pathetic living conditions, arsenic poisoned ground water, droughts and floods, caste based discrimination and violence, cross border trafficking and smuggling, it seemed like everything immoral and illegal, was all happening in Bengal! Most of the government records we’d trawled twice over had little to offer. The websites were mostly defunct or full of dead links. The newspapers rarely asked these questions. They were busy with the political violence ripping apart the state.  The answers could only be found there, in Bengal, on the ground.

Stalin & I embarked on a road-trip across Bengal.  Our last jaunt together had been three long years ago We traveled across the state for two weeks, beginning in the capital, Kolkata, moving down south near the Sundarbans, then across the western border via Bankura, Birbhum and Malda to end in North Bengal. We travelled over 1500 km by road and railways meeting with several different organizations, wonderful people, powerful movements, and inspiring individuals. We heard about the deplorable state of education, appalling stories of the sheer lack of employment opportunities available, the desperate search for a means of survival, and the subsequent trafficking and the migration that is rampant across the state. All the missing data was right there, with the legal groups, the health workers, the forest villagers, the tea workers, the non-profits, the self help groups and women’s collectives.

It was mid-May, 2015, when the Video Volunteers training team found themselves dodging people, pushing through the roiling humanity of Sealdah Railway Station. We were on our way to New Jalpaiguri Station, to Siliguri, for the IndiaUnheard Selection Camp. Noting the typical tin shacks of North Bengal’s famed tea estates, we wondered how, despite the decades of ‘independence’, our people are still impoverished and deprived. Denied a basic quality of life, of choice, of the right to raise their voice, people resign themselves to substandard lifestyles, depending on government doles to sustain themselves.
At Siliguri, over 30 different organizations, movements and groups had sent their nominated applicants and more than 50 people arrived at the two-day selection camp. Group discussions with the applicants about the different regions, communities and organizations they were representing, reinforced the need for community representatives to be reporting human rights. People came from across the state, representing all the different communities residing in Bengal. From forest villagers of the Himalayan Forest Villagers’ Organization, to the forest villagers of the South Bengal Fish-workers’ Forum, they all emerged, excited at this brand new concept. There were women representing small self help groups in tiny villages from the western border and women who led health training camps in small town non-profits.

Yaksaa and Chhyolom Kyomg are two miniscule, remote villages about a kilometer apart in Sittong-1 dependent primarily on orange plantations, cardamom crops and dairy farming. A team of 24 people, trainers and participants arrived in Sittong on the 17th of May, and we began our IndiaUnheard workshop on the 18th of May. The training team comprised of Manish Kumar, Amol Ranjan and Radhika from Video Volunteers Goa, Nirmala Ekka and Bharti Kumari from Video Volunteers Jharkhand, Soma Ghosh and Debashis Aich from Video Volunteers West Bengal and Deepak Mistry from Video Volunteers Madhya Pradesh. 18 new Community Correspondents from 14 districts of West Bengal were trained.

What was it that made us pick these 18 people out of the multitudes who’d met us? I’m not sure any of us in the selection team have a single, specific answer. While we look out for people with prior work experience and associations with human rights work in their communities, there’s also always that ‘special something’ we’re seeking.  Passion, compassion, camaraderie and calm. A fire within, an open mind, a spirited, dogged questioning of what many accept as is. A strong sense of empathy for their people. Courage. Faith. Hope. And a sense of humor.

So [1] we picked Bipen Rabha. Renowned for their reclusive ways, the Rabha people are of Indo-Mongoloid ethnicity and are traditionally forest dwellers in North Bengal, dependent on cultivation and forest produce for their livelihood. Bipen played professional football player for nine years, and gave it all up to join the Forest Rights movement in Madarihat, Alipurduar in 2013. He mobilized his people to patrol their forests to stop illegal timber felling and poaching. They are currently campaigning for their right to control and protect their forests, areas they have inhabited for generations.

We had been assured by almost all the local organizations, that no Rabha, especially the women, would ever agree to stay for two weeks of training. But the concept of community media is captivating. Bipen stayed. So did Sushima Rava, a manual labourer, and the sole earning member of a family of nine. Earlier this year, Sushima joined her local forest rights movement because she is at the risk of losing the land she & her family depend on for farming and sustenance.

Then there was Jaydeb Tala, from the swamps of the Sundarbans. Jaydeb represents Dakshin Banga Matsyajibi Forum (the Fishworkers’ Forum). Jaydeb’s role in the forum is essential – he helps his people complete relevant paperwork. With the appalling state of education in West Bengal, most people, especially rural, have remained illiterate. The Forest Department in the Sundarbans often takes advantage of this fact and coerces the community into putting their thumbprints on blank sheets of paper, which are then later filled out by the Department to read as a ‘confession’ to poaching, or illegal chopping of the mangroves, or just about anything that requires an ‘offender’. The Department also insists on issuing (illegally) ‘licenses’ for the fishworkers to take their boats into the swamps. Applying for these licenses means paying a bribe. Going out into the water without one means paying a bribe. The government has several schemes meant specifically to help the fishing communities. However, the beneficiaries to these schemes usually end up being the local politicians’ relative or friend. Rarely do these schemes really reach the people they’re meant to benefit. Sanjit Mallick, from West Midnapore, is from the Primitive Tribal Lodha community. Historically marginalized and branded criminals, these tribals were uprooted from their forests decades ago by the British, and have languished ever since – without homes, access to education, land, or government benefits. Nesatun Khatun came from Murshidabad, an area bordering Bangaldesh, infamous for trafficking and gender violence. Nesatun was married off as a teenager, and defying all social norms, completed her education post marriage. She advocates higher education for women, works on health and gender rights.

Amongst camera and technical sessions, IndiaUnheard workshops also include discussions on journalism, elements of news, various kinds of rights and benefits available, and how to search for stories.

abhi sirf angrayi hai,
aage baaki ladai hai.”

(this is just the beginning,
there’s a long fight ahead).
~Susanti Indwar

Correspondents wouldn’t really need to go very far to find their stories. Pranabesh, from Sagar, in South Bengal told us how, the government was planning to build a prestigious bridge and a deep-water port at their island. The same island where monsoons mean several villages are submerged, and people are forced to defecate in buckets for several months. Despite repeated appeals to authorities, nothing more than empty promises have been made. I didn’t have the courage to ask further questions. We all agreed that such stories captured on camera would perhaps provide more convincing evidence of people’s concerns.

Hailing from an extremely impoverished Oraon tribal family from Nye Salle Tea Estate in Jalpaiguri, Susanti Indwar sang very often of the journey her people made decades ago from the Chota Nagpur Plateau. Her songs are usually about the struggles of her people, and tell of the historical abuse they have faced from the ‘babu log’ (estate managers). Herself a tealeaf plucker, Susanti has been associated with the Progressive Plantation Workers Union (PPWU), (a union of Tea Estate workers) for a few years now. Meeting Susanti’s family post training was an affirmation for the need for IndiaUnheard in West Bengal. Her aunt’s left arm was dangling limply, oddly twisted, and held up by a dupatta. She explained her arm had broken three weeks ago. To avoid losing even a single day’s wage, she went to the health center only on Sundays, three hours away in the town. The first Sunday, the doctor did an X-ray. The next Sunday, he wasn’t there. She’d try again next Sunday, to get a report from him. They don’t plaster broken limbs without a doctor’s report, so she’d made a makeshift sling. When we left Susanti’s home, I was still slightly bug-eyed and horrified. Almost as if reassuring me, Susanti lightly touched my arm, all smiles and zen calm, and said, “Didi, video banayenge.” (I’ll make a video).

The lines between trainers and trainees are blurred somewhere, as we collectively attempt to understand how to tackle the different hurdles in ensuring the right kind of development for our people. It’s not as if bridges and roads aren’t important – what is important is who they are built for. I’m sure the people of Sittong would have loved some more roads, perhaps a school or two to be built for them as well. The children of Sittong have now, for generations, walked to the nearest school, two hours down the mountain, in Mungpoo town. The aged, ill and infirm too, walk those two hours to the nearest health centre. Perhaps that’s why most of the villagers preferred the traditional Lepcha forest medicines their community is famed for.

Development cannot be reserved nor rolled back for short-term gains of the blue-blooded and bureaucrats. The 2015 budget revealed a write-off on customs duty on gems and jewellery worth over INR 75 crore. More than twice the official amount allocated for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS)[1]. And by the sounds of it, on the rare occasions when MGNREGS is implemented, money meant for reimbursements are lost somewhere amidst all the middlemen involved. It’s not as if people aren’t looking for solutions. The government officials are often hog-tied in their inability to do their duty. The Block Development Office in a certain part of Purulia hasn’t received funds in several months. “It’s all politics”, says Annapurna, nodding with wisdom beyond her years. She’s barely out of her teens, and she already knows that politics has effectively managed to shatter any individual or community aspirations in Bengal. She continues, “Every benefit is dependent entirely on which party you or your family votes for.” 

Handing out certificates at the closing ceremony, Debashis Aich, State Coordinator for Video Volunteers West Bengal couldn't help but blink incredulously at the motley crew assembled in front of him. He’d talked often to me, of his decades as chief district correspondent for various media houses, but never had he had before, colleagues like this. “My colleagues are from … tea garden tribe, religious minorities from remote villages. From the fishing community and dwellers of remote Sundarbans. And forest dwelling gorkha and rava tribe. A SABAR too from West Medinipur. They are being called Community Correspondent. What bliss, I have got an opportunity to return to grassroots.” And IndiaUnheard truly is a return to the grassroots.

Where it all began. With the people of West Bengal.


This blog was originally written for Video Volunteers, a community media & human rights organization I've been associated with for several years now. 

[1] P.Sainath: in Corporate Karza Maafi, March 13, 2015.

I’ve put in a few lines about different people – use/delete as you see fit.

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