The Bengal 2021 Assembly elections may be sharply polarised, but here, in minority-dominated Maldah and Murshidabad districts, the Ganga does not discriminate.
The “bhangon (erosion)” of the Ganga had left Sima Pramanik, 30, homeless eight months ago, forcing her to take refuge at a nearby school. Come elections, the school in Kamalpur in Samshshergunj, Murshidabad, has been taken over, and Pramanik has moved into a tent pitched in front of the building.
The Bengal 2021 Assembly elections may be sharply polarised, but here, in minority-dominated Maldah and Murshidabad districts, the Ganga does not discriminate. Over the years, the erosion by the river has left thousands homeless, across communities.
Last August, the deluge was particularly significant, in both Samshergunj, and in Baishnabnagar in Maldah. Among the structures lost was the 200-year-old Padma temple in Hiranandapur-Dhanghara, and an ancient mosque in Chinabazar.
Ajay Pramanik, 69, one of the first members of the CPM in the Kamalpur gram panchayat, says everything he owned is gone. “The school was closed at the time due to Covid, so we took shelter in a classroom. But now the school is a polling booth, and police and Central forces asked us to vacate. We don’t know where we will go.”
The districts Maldah (six constituencies) and Murshidabad (11) vote in the last phase of the Bengal elections on April 29 — with polling in Samshergunj suspended due to the death of the Congress candidate because of Covid.
In Maldah, four of the six sitting MLAs belong to either the Left or the Congress (fighting as allies this time), while one by the BJP and another by an Independent. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections however, the BJP had been ahead in four of the six Assembly segments. In Murshidabad, all the 11 seats had been won by the Congress or Left in 2016, with the TMC ahead in eight Assembly segments in 2019.
Following the death of its candidate Rezaul Haque, the Congress has announced his wife Rokeya Khatun as the new nominee. However, it’s not Covid that scares the people here, with few wearing masks, but the possibility of another lockdown. Parul Singh, 50, whose house has been lost to the erosion too, says, “We know Covid is spreading, I have heard of two-three people who are suffering from it. We are not afraid. However, if due to Covid, a lockdown is announced, we will be left penniless.”
Farida Khatun, 17, a resident of Chinabazar of Baishnabnagar, says her family of six — including her parents and three siblings — owned 1 kattah land (720 sq ft) with a three-room pucca house. After it was washed away, they were moved by the government to a nearby low-lying land. “My father sells potatoes, while my elder brother is a driver. I found work tying beedi rolls, and earn Rs 140 for every thousand beedis. It’s tiring and I have trouble breathing,” Farida says.
The 2016 Assembly elections was the first time the BJP won from anywhere in Maldah, with Swadhin Sarkar taking the Baishnabnagar constituency. His ancestral house also went under the Ganga a couple of years ago. “Within four-five hours, at least 175 houses were washed away. Last year, more than 350 families became homeless in Baishnabnagar,” Sarkar says.
The Trinamool government failed to help, he adds. “It gave pattas to some families but only in extremely low-lying land. The families did not know how to make houses on this land.” The plots are covered under sand left behind by previous deluges.
In Samshergunj, another CPM panchayat member, Dilwar Hossain Siddiqui, says, “While 700 families became landless and homeless in August, only 135 got Rs 70,000 each to make a new house… The men work as labourers and the women as beedi workers.”
Kalpana Singh (60) of Samshergunj, who also ties beedis for a living now, says, “We are worse off than beggars. We cannot even farm this land.”
Sanat Singh, 21, also of Samshergunj, says they are left with little choice but to migrate.
Across districts, people say that this time they will vote for a party that promises them the maximum compensation. Says Kalpana, “We are judging the parties to see who are with us.”
But Kalimuddin, 30, of Baishnabnagar says the choice is not easy. “The BJP MLA has not got us anything. On the other hand, the ruling party’s panchayat members are corrupt.”
Defends Sarkar, “I am an opposition MLA. The government has not given relief to my constituency. By lobbying the local BDO and SDO office, I got relief for a few people.”
He adds, “We need long-term planning to stop the erosion of both the Ganga and Fulhar rivers in Maldah and Murshidabad. I have already talked to Central government officials. We had hoped that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would announce a concrete plan on Ganga erosion when he came to Maldah for campaigning. But, due to Covid, he cancelled his rally.”
Denying Sarkar’s claims, local TMC leader Ali Hossain says, “Seven hundred families are already enlisted for compensation. Those who have lost everything will get Rs 1.2 lakh and those whose houses were partly damaged will get Rs 70,000. More than 130 families have already got the relief, but due to elections, the distribution of compensation had to be stopped.”
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